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Meal Tracking for Beginners

Technology today can be helpful in weight loss efforts.
Technology today can be helpful in weight loss efforts.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Meal-tracking has become a popular tool for weight loss, weight gain, and increased performance for athletes for years. Is it necessary? No. Is it beneficial? Absolutely. While recording each and every bite may seem tedious and time-consuming, even one day of writing down meals can be helpful to anyone. If not used long-term, meal-tracking is a phenomenal tool for simply becoming aware of one’s eating habits. There is so much to be learned from in doing so, such as daily macronutrient intake, calorie counting, timing of meals, deficiencies and excesses, strange habits, and much more. For those looking to lose weight, tracking the diet is useful because it’s easier to pinpoint problem areas that are related to diet and to stay accountable. In looking to gain weight or for optimal performance in an athletic event, macronutrient needs may be increased or decreased in particular situations for the greatest results, and having a food diary or record is a great way to physically see how the diet affects that person. For some, however, tracking meals can do more harm than good. It’s important that anyone interested in using their diet to their advantage understand how eating affects their everyday life and mental state.

An easy place to begin is with a journal and pen. For the first day of meal-tracking, record how much of a particular food or drink is consumed, along with the time and any other details about how it makes you feel afterwards. This can be done throughout the day or at nighttime, because it will take time to fill in, depending on how detailed the report is. This is a great time to start understanding portion sizes and how to read labels on packages if you haven’t done so already. In tracking meals, this is the most important part to conquer, as making one mistake can throw off your daily calculations and may mislead your efforts. When recording meals, do not change your eating habits immediately simply because it looks better on paper. Stay true to yourself and be as accurate as possible in writing down exactly what you eat and the correct portion sizes, even if it makes you cringe. Keep in mind, this is a starting point. At the end of the day, reflect back on the entries and determine how they can be improved in the future. Use any “bad” habits you find to encourage better eating from that point on. Perhaps you were unaware that you would sneak in an extra 1000 calories each day by snacking too much or through sugary drinks alone. It’s amazing what you learn about yourself when you keep an eye on your diet!

The next step in recording meals is to use an app or online source. Several programs are available for use without charging a penny. Be cautious in using these programs, because while they may seem legitimate, they are not always perfect and are not constantly regulated or monitored for accuracy. MyFitnessPal, Weight Watchers, Spark People, and LoseIt are among the many popular sources out there in cyberspace that can be used in tracking not only meals, but also exercise. The benefit to using online or app-based programs for meal tracking is the ease of calculating daily intake and spending a minimal amount of time to do so. In addition to selecting meals and products from the grocery store, these apps usually have restaurant food listings, so even going out to eat is easily recorded! Unfortunately, choosing a specific type of food or beverage from the lists on these sites may not be accurate because they are entered in the system by various other users, who may not be reliable sources. For example, if the user chooses “one blueberry muffin” for breakfast, there may be a huge stream of results and different nutrient compositions of each, so the one the user picks must be extremely similar in composition, if not the exact same as the one they actually ate. Remembering the exact size and brand is recommended, to ensure the correct option is selected. To rest assured that the selections you make are relative to what you actually ate, do a little extra research to avoid miscalculations. Overall, these programs are designed to help the user track meals with ease and monitor their progress, but each selection must be scrutinized carefully to avoid small mistakes that add up quickly.

While recording meals and snacks has proven to be helpful in individuals’ efforts to watch weight and get to know their body better, it should only be done in a way that doesn't bring additional stress or harm due to anxiety. If suffering from a mental illness, anxiety, or depression, constantly fretting over the diet and counting calories can become a hazard and may actually induce an eating disorder. Having an approximate count of each day’s average nutrient intake is the ultimate goal of tracking meals, and it should only be used as a guide, rather than a strict rule to follow. As suggested earlier, logging foods is a great tool to keep one accountable for their actions or current diet, but by no means should it be bothersome enough to deprive or restrict someone from eating more if they have already “met their limit” for the day and are still hungry. It's easy to set unreasonable limitations to calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrate needs, so the user must have a general knowledge of how much their daily values should be (healthy ones). Constant worrying about logging each meal and not wanting to eat anything else for the remainder of the day is just as dangerous as weighing oneself on the scale daily and choosing to starve just to lose a few pounds.

The listed programs and apps can be used in conjunction with a heart rate monitor, Fit Bit tracker, or Nike+ fuelband among many other tools for assistance in tracking exercise to determine energy burned through working out. Again, the diet can be manipulated to form a more lean, healthy, and happy version of yourself, but only once you know where your strengths and weaknesses are. Use food to your advantage and spoil yourself with a nutritious diet as often as possible.