Simplifying calorie & macro tracking
Much water has passed under the bridge since I wrote about calorie counting. While calorie counting works – and works unequivocally, there’s one obstacle many of us run into: How much time accurate tracking can take.
Regardless of the simplicity of the app you use (I use myfitnesspal), it can take time to not only log, but weigh the foods too. That’s right, you need food scales as well!
I am a sucker for precision and facts/figures, so when I embarked on keeping track of my calories and macronutrients in the infancy of 2014, I went over nutritional labels and info with a tooth-comb. I wanted absolute accuracy. At the time I didn’t have a particularly busy schedule, so it was somewhat ok losing an hour or 2 per day researching nutrition figures.
Nowadays though, that just won’t fly!
Time is as precious as anything else; be it water, food, sunlight, social connection, the balance between anabolism and catabolism and sleep. As we age, time passes faster and faster in our consciousness. With that in mind, we need to really become meticulous as to how we spend it. Sure, calorie counting is contributing to a better version of you in the form of aiding whatever physical goals and ideals you may have.
But, if you really sat down and thought about it, I’m sure there’s a multitude of other activities you could be doing in order to grow either spiritually, mentally, financially or all three combined.
Remember, there’s a difference between being productive and busy.
I could change my bed linen 5 times per day and accumulate an hour doing it. It would be ‘being busy’ but what the hell would I have achieved apart from wasting washing powder?!
How I keep on track of what I’m eating now
The beautiful aspect of many of the worldwide food and fitness apps is they keep records of what you eat on a regular basis. When you eat a fairly consistent spectrum of foods over a reasonable time-frame, you no longer have to keep searching for the foods you eat; they come up as frequent items.
We can further simplify things by forming connections between food sizes and general calorie ranges. For example, when I eat an apple I don’t weigh it, I just eyeball the size and log it as whatever the last weight an apple was when I logged one. The same goes for most foods – I know what a tray of baked sweet potatoes is in terms of calories.
Now I can hear the purists arguing that each serving will be different in size, weight and calories……and you’re right. It will. But by how much? Is it enough to make a difference? Am I really going to be able to squeeze 200 calories worth of sweet potato onto a tray I always use, and fill the surface area of? Granted I might have a deviance of 50 calories one way or the other, but I really have come to the conclusion that it makes little difference in the grand scheme of things.
I ceased obsessively tracking my calories to the gram 3 months ago. My weight is 78 kg now, and it was 78 kg then. This proves that minor fluctuations in day to day calorie intakes have fairly negligible effects on body weight. You can survive just fine on ‘eyeballing’ it or landing somewhere in the ballpark.
If anything, daily accumulative activity will have a starker impact. Even just walking to a place you usually drive will add a few hundred calories to your turnover for that day.
(Side note: If I wanted to be even more controversial, I could raise a point against the calorie-cycling craze and ask: If you’ve done a reasonably intense workout which has increased your body’s uptake of nutrients for the next 24 hours, why would you deprive it of nutrients and energy while it’s recovering? Feeding it makes more sense.)
Food for thought, but we’ll abandon that tangent for now.
The big picture VS the small picture
We can use another gym and fitness analogy to cement my point. Let’s take the guy who wants to take creatine and asks whatever mentors he has what they think. Nine times out of ten, these guys are skipping workouts, training like morons, under-sleeping and only really going to the gym at all because big Tony said it will get you girls in absence of a personality.
Women can’t resist big Tony, apparently
Creatine is a fine supplement, but in our case above it’s one of the tiny corner pieces of the jigsaw puzzle – the ones you put into place right when the finishing touches are being applied. Our guy cannot even locate the major pieces let alone place them correctly.
Attempting to micro-track every gram of food is much the same. As a matter of fact there’s plenty of strong, research based arguments suggesting we can’t really be sure just how many calories are in most foods. Many labels can be out by as much as 50%!
(Note: I’ll leave links to some articles about the inaccurate calorie phenomenon)
What should you extract from all of this?
Calorie counting works. I’ve got plenty of experience with it and have had feedback from others beside myself. A great approach is to eat a consistent group of foods (ideally whole foods, and I’m not going to insist you go full paleo), track them and get a general gist of the numbers; use an app if needed. And once you start being more consistent with your diet as a whole, scale back the precision and just use your newly acquired knowledge.
Here are some even simpler extrapolations for you:
- Track calories to get an idea of general ranges of foods
- Be consistent with an exercise regime FIRST
- Realise that your weekly net turnover (energy wise) will be more important than a daily fluctuation
- Whole foods are more thermogenic than junk foods. Meaning they cost your body energy to process. This is an example of ‘metabolism boosting’
- Don’t track vegetables unless you’re trying to ensure you don’t go ape shit with your fiber intake. Vegetables are very thermogenic and are almost impossible to gain weight on – TRY IT!
- If you’re busy somedays, don’t track calories. Just stay true to your general eating pattern and portion sizes and all will be fine
- Understand your body is a highly adaptable organism; adapting to calorie ranges isn’t beyond our wonderful bodies. It happens quicker than you think. Minor fluctuations actually prevent full adaptation, which isn’t always desired as you can end up in stagnation
- Once you have some momentum, and you either want to gain, or lose weight, just adjust the portions/serving sizes up or down accordingly
Reading resources related to topics discussed
Here are some articles and posts I’ve written previously pertaining to calorie counting, weight loss and nutrition in general. Feel free to have a look and see how one’s train of thought can adapt and modify over time.
(Carbs and fat gain: What 2 years of experimentation taught me)
(Is calorie counting a good method for diet control?)
(Tackling the issue of eating well when on the road/run – (Or around a busy schedule))
(My top 10 countdown of Fruits and Veggies to start eating and why!)
Links to external resources (mainly related to calories being very hard to determine with accuracy)
Those are just the tip of the iceberg. Pay attention to total food volume but don’t fret the small details. Even bodybuilders don’t get the physiques they have by micromanaging calories; they get their physiques by micromanaging their hormones.
Thanks for reading.
JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.
I’ve been tracking my food intake and exercise with a computer program since 1995. It is easier than most realize because healthy people tend to consume similar products regularly. As a 57 year old physician, I track because I turn to FOOD for any apparent health imbalances. My (detailed) blood work reflects the success of my tracking. People don’t realize the importance of knowing what enters their bodies.
Keep sharing your VALUABLE information.
That’s some record, Jonathon. Have you ever noticed any periods when your health/bloodwork suffered somewhat thanks to an intake of particular foods/food types? Thanks very much for your comment and the kind words too.
Overall cholesterol once barely exceeded 200 when I was younger and included more fast food and desserts in my meal planning. I have exercised regularly over the last 40 years and have always had higher (protective) HDL’s contributing to a higher overall cholesterol number. At nearly 58 years of age, I allow myself one weekly meal at a restaurant and 1 bucket of popcorn at a movie. All other meals are self prepared with quality foods. This has allowed me to live the PHYSICAL and MENTAL life I enjoy while maintaining healthy blood chemistries.
Once again, that’s some record and level of strictness – and it’s inspiring to see that it’s paid off and rewarded you with good health. I agree with the ‘one cheat meal per week’ mantra, I don’t think we can go far wrong with an approach similar to yours, providing the exercise piece of the puzzle is respected equally as the diet. You must surely be set to be one of those people who are 70 but don’t look a day over 50!
I’ll let you be the judge. My mentor growing up was Jack LaLanne. I wrote an article about him some time back. I believe I was 54 years old in this post’s picture.
That’s a great post – I’ve heard loads about Jack but didn’t realise he’d done feats to that extent! I like his ‘LaLanne push ups’. Echoing what others have already said, you look good for your age – very good. I wish my 53 year old father looked after himself like you do. Alas, I don’t think he’ll ever change.
Unfortunately, people don’t realize they have to FIRST care for and RESPECT their own bodies and minds before they are willing to apply ACTION STEPS to maximize their health and quality of living. They are so focused on the external world and responsibilities, they sacrifice themselves in the process. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. As people become willing to accept this REALITY, transformation into a healthier, happier person becomes possible.