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  • Cam Li tracking food intake on competition day

    The Ultimate Guide to Tracking Food Intake

    The first time I started tracking food intake, I lied.

    It was the first year of my undergraduate program, and we were instructed to conduct a written 3-day food record. I wanted to impress my professor and, more importantly, “fit in” with my classmates. So I fudged 95% of it. It was pretty ironic. One of the disadvantages of food records is the misrepresentation of the individual’s diet from their need to satisfy the expectations of whoever’s assessing it.

    Then I witnessed my brother-in-law logging his overloaded open-faced peanut butter sandwich into MyFitnessPal (MFP). I was curious but confused. At that point, I had only been introduced to clinical methods of tracking food intake, and MFP was not one of them.

    Over the years, I learned about tracking calories and macronutrients through experience. Believe it or not, I didn’t weigh my food in the first years I used MFP. Fast forward to being deported and becoming a nutrition coach when I practiced different methods of tracking food intake.

    More importantly, I realized the negative connotation “tracking food intake” has in the health and fitness community.

    And so, I want to change that.

    This blog post answers the following questions:

    Tracking food intake via food photos

    What are some common misconceptions about tracking food intake?

    Before I started talking about tracking food intake on my Instagram, I talked to seasoned powerlifters who felt discouraged with tracking their food intake.

    To fill my curiosity, I found that it was mainly due to three main factors: lack of knowledge of tracking food intake, lack of understanding of nutrition, and lack of skills and tools to practice learning.

    And so, misconceptions were born.

    Tracking food intake doesn't need to be overwhelming.
    You DON'T NEED to have a calorie AND every macro target. Click the image to read more.

    Most powerlifters believe that tracking food intake automatically means weighing and counting food. But realistically, it doesn’t sound like a feasible or sustainable task to begin with — so it becomes a barrier. There are many ways to track food intake without using a weighing scale and/or counting food. Working with a nutrition professional can often help you find your way. For those tracking food intake to lose weight, it’s easy to believe the concept “eat less to weigh less”. And although it does make sense. It’s not the complete picture.

    As we know, a calorie deficit must be achieved to attain weight loss. However, a prolonged calorie deficit can pose some adverse effects on overall health and performance (i.e. low energy availability (LEA) and relative energy deficit in sports (RED-S)). And this can make weight loss difficult and intolerable that it’s almost easy to “fall off track” and/or “start over again”.

    Then we have those open to tracking food intake and understanding the importance of eating enough. But they view some foods as having negative calories and/or too negligible to be recorded. Remember the massive commotion with celery having negative calories or counting net carbs? And I’m sure you’ve come across this at one point, too — not tracking drinks, sauces, dips, and/or vegetables. Food is energy, calories are energy, and therefore food will always have calories. Calories add up throughout the day, and because it’s effortless to under/overestimate portions, it’s also effortless to eat too little or too much without tracking ALL foods.

    What are common methods of tracking food intake?

    There are many ways to track food intake based on current knowledge, lifestyle, preferences and goals. A powerlifter who has no desire to weigh foods will most likely not be able to adhere to tracking food intake via the traditional route (MFP). At the same time, a powerlifter with no experience weighing foods but is curious about learning food portions may benefit from using the Hand Food Portion (HFP) method. Finding the best method for yourself will be a process, so it might be helpful to work with a nutrition professional for guidance.

    In TEM, we use three main methods to track food intake: calorie/macronutrients, HFP, and food photos.

    Method Description Requirements Best For
    Calorie/Macronutrients
    This method involves weighing and counting foods, logging into a calorie-counter app or writing into a food record.
    Food weighing scale and a food record (app or journal).
    Powerlifters who are cutting/maintaining weight for a competition, starting a reverse diet, gaining weight to move up a weight class, determining maintenance calories or using nutrition to improve performance.
    HFP
    This method involves using hands to measure portions and is often combined with food photos to keep a record.
    Food record (app or journal).
    Powerlifters who need a break from weighing foods in the off-season, focusing on food quality while keeping portions in check, or with a busy schedule that refrains them from weighing/counting food.
    Food Photos
    This method involves taking photos of food logged into an app and adjusting food amount/choices based on subjective measures tracked alongside the photos.
    Camera and food record (app).
    Powerlifters who need a break from weighing foods in the off-season, focusing on food quality and/or other subjective measures with food, or with a busy schedule that refrains them from using different methods.

    What are the benefits of tracking food intake?

    All my clients, including myself, track food intake, and it’s one of the lowest-hanging fruits to prioritize nutrition.

    • You’ll be able to build awareness and understanding of your nutrition and body.
    • It allows you to reach specific health goals (i.e. weight loss, decreased disease risk, etc.).
    • It allows you to improve performance by adopting nutrition focused on performance.
    • It can prevent undereating and overeating.
    • It allows you to build nutrition-related skills such as portioning appropriately.

    What are the common challenges to tracking food intake? And how can these challenges be resolved/managed?

    Most powerlifters’ first challenge in tracking food intake is forgetting to log food. There are three ways to navigate this challenge: creating a routine, setting a reminder and habit-stacking.

    You can create a routine by setting a specific time in your day to log all your foods. For example, logging all of my food is usually a part of my nighttime routine. If you need a prompt, setting a reminder would be helpful. This would entail using an app or sticky notes in a place you naturally look at. Habit-stacking combines a routine and a reminder because you’re incorporating it into an existing routine and using that routine as your reminder. This might look like logging your food when you finish a meal or hitting the couch at the end of the day.

    The purpose here is to make it easy to REMEMBER to log your food.

    The second challenge I see powerlifters encounter is using incorrect food entries. This can happen intentionally and unintentionally. Now you may not want to admit it, but when you log foods, you want the outcome to “look good” and “fit”. However, our food choices may not align, so we make them align. We do this by choosing entries that resemble the food we ate, but it has more favourable nutrient levels.

    We know it doesn’t make sense for a fried chicken to have less than one g. of fat, but we don’t want our fat intake to “look” high or “go over”. If you’ve done this in the past, I understand. And honestly, maybe you didn’t know.

    My recommendation:
    So if you’re the powerlifter who intentionally encounters this challenge, I suggest focusing on the process of tracking food intake as opposed to perfection. It’s similar to how we are more likely to enjoy our training when we focus on the weight on the barbell instead of the weight on the scale. And if you’re the powerlifter who unintentionally encounters this challenge, I suggest taking the time to understand macronutrient distribution and food sources of these macronutrients. The third challenge to tracking food intake is navigating food choices outside self-prepared meals — takeout. Sometimes powerlifters choose not to track because they find it difficult or don’t want to “mess up”. And I must say, complicated does not mean impossible and messing up is part of the process. Again, perfection is not the goal of tracking food intake, so why not seize the opportunity to practice and improve yourself? Do you give up on the lift when you fail a lift completely?

    How can powerlifters start and continue to track their food intake successfully?

    Take my process.

    • 1: Choose a method
    • 2: Track food intake for at least one week (to set a foundational set of data to start from).
    • 3: Set a goal.
    • 4: Choose which skills in tracking food intake that supports that goal.
    • 5: Set up action items to do daily/weekly to build those skills.
    • 6: Give it time.

    Let's get started

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