Today’s athletes commonly count calories and track their food. Some use MyFitnessPal, others create an Excel spreadsheet, ant there are those who still keep food records the old fashioned way with pen and notebook. The question arises: Is recording /tracking your food intake a good idea?
The answer depends on why you do this tedious task:
1) Are you curious about the calories, carbs, protein, and fat you consume? If so, tracking your food intake for just a few days can be a learning experience. Many protein-focused athletes who train hard for 1.5 to 2 hours a day have been shocked to discover how little carb they actually consume. To optimize performance, they should consume 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight/day. For an avid athlete who weighs 150 pounds, that’s 450 to 750 grams of carbohydrate (1,800 to 3,000 calories from grains, fruits and veggies). They soon learn their “healthy” dinner salad with grilled chicken is far from being adequate muscle fuel and is hindering their performance. Knowing how your typical diet compares to recommended intakes of carbs, protein, fat and calories can be enlightening and performance enhancing.
2) Do you track food to keep yourself on the “straight and narrow” and to “hold yourself accountable”? If so, tracking food will certainly keep you in a diet mentality and can easily disconnect you from your authentic hunger. One client reported she was starving but wouldn’t eat more because she had already spent her calorie budget for the day. (Abusive.) Another exclaimed after looking at his FitBit “Wow, I have another 500 calories coming to me. I’m going to go eat something!” (Was he even hungry? No.) Food records should not make you feel ashamed and guilty about, let’s say, having to a slice of birthday cake. The best use of food records it to help you learn from each day.
3) Are you obsessive-compulsive and feel as though you have to track your food out of fear of eating too much of the “wrong” foods? If so, stop logging what you eat! You’d be better off logging your hunger level (low? medium? high?) and the times you eat (ideally, at least every 3 to 4 hours). Pay attention to your food thoughts and eating behaviors. For example, did you eat too many cookies because it was your last chance to eat something “fun” before your diet starts again on Monday? Denial and deprivation are the bigger trigger than the cookies… Compassion is the better way to improve your food intake than food records and self-criticism.
My recommendation: If you want to learn how to best fuel your body, stop tracking your food and instead meet with a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in sports nutrition and can help you create a sustainable diet/food plan that fits your unique needs and lifestyle. To find your local sports RD, use the referral network at www.SCANdpg.org. Click on Find a SCAN RD.