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How to Get Started Logging your Food and Tracking Macros

This post may include affiliate links, which means I may make a commission on purchases made through these links at no additional cost to you. 

Yesterday I wrote about why I started logging my food and how it can help you whether you’re trying to loose weight, maintain your weight, or even gain weight. Usually I share recipes on Tuesdays, but this is related to food, so I decided it was close enough. I actually have quite a few recipes I want to share from homemade Paleo chocolate bars to a delicious Asian-flavored carrot salad, but I wanted to address tracking your food and macros first.

How to Start Logging your Food and Tracking Macros

If you’re going to see benefits from tracking your food, you have use this information to modify what you eat to make sure you’re not eating too much or too little. This goes for calories as well as your macros (carbs, fat, and protein). Many diet tracker apps have built in calculators you can use, but you can also do the math yourself to figure out what you need. I think it’s a great idea to let the app do the math, but to also do the math yourself and compare the results. I use the “flexible eating” plan, which seems to be pretty close to the My Fitness Pal algorithm. To figure out your goals according to the flexible eating math, you can visit this great flexible eating calculator on Healthy Eating.

What you need to log your food

If you’re super low-tech, you can always use a pen and paper. The problem with this is that you’ll have to find a way to look up nutritional values for anything that doesn’t come with packaging. This means all your whole fruits and veggies, for example (which hopefully will play a major role in your diet!)

If you have a smartphone, download an app. There are many choices (and several are free!), including My Fitness Pal, My Macros+, Fitocracy Macros,  and Nutritionist. Just so you know, those are all (non-affiliate) links to the apps in the Apple store. Many are also available for other devices.

If you don’t have a smartphone, don’t panic! Look for an online food logging program. My Fitness Pal (MFP) has a web version. In some ways, I think the web version is actually easier to use than the mobile! Because you create an account to login, you MFP data will sync, so you can use your phone or computer, depending on what is more convenient at the time.

I’m sure there are other options out there, too, but those are the best that I’m aware of!

How to log your food accurately

Especially if you’re just starting out, you absolutely need to measure your food. MFP has a great searchable database with almost everything in it, but do you know how many times “1 boneless, skinless chicken thigh serving” has been exactly the same size as the actual chicken thigh I was about to eat? Once. I also had a “medium banana” that was on the money one time, too. Logging your food and just adding a generic “serving” of something doesn’t do you a lot of good. And, no, sorry, it isn’t one serving simply because you’re eating it at one time. Some things are easy. If you’re eating a commercially-produced granola bar, just go ahead and input one bar and don’t stress. With MFP, and possibly other apps, you can simply scan the barcode and go.

screen capture of myfitnesspal scan

If you’re not, here’s how to make your food logging accurate:

Weigh items like fruits, vegetables, meats, chips, pretzels, etc. I also sometimes weigh irregularly shaped nuts and other items that don’t fit well into measuring cups. I really recommend using a kitchen scale that weighs in grams. One ounce = 28 grams, but grams are a much finer scale, which allows you to be more accurate. As you can see in the photo below, these two sweet potatoes are dramatically different in size. And, incidentally, even the smaller one is slightly more than the “medium sweet potato” in the MFP database. This is why it’s so important to weigh items and input exactly what you actually ate.

weigh fruits, meats, and vegetables

Measure liquids and things that are, well, easy to measure in measuring cups. Uniformly shaped items like raisins and pistachios fall into this category, as do yogurt, cottage cheese, etc. Measuring also works well for rice and small pasta.

measure liquids

Technically speaking, hard plastic measuring cups are the most accurate because they can’t bend like silicone ones and won’t dent with time like metal ones. I really don’t think you need to be that picky, but the need for solid plastic measuring cups was impressed on us in my college restaurant entrepreneurship/management classes.

Count things that don’t really make sense to weigh or measure. Are you really going to cut a prune into sections if four prunes isn’t exactly one serving? Probably not, so go ahead and count them. You can also use counting if you’re in a situation where you really need a snack and can’t weigh or measure, like if you pick up a bag of almonds at a convenience store on a road trip.

count food items

I’ve only cooked pasta once since I began logging my food! I was so surprised and depressed by how small and (to me) unsatisfying an actual serving was, compared to rice, that now I just stick to rice whenever I need more carbs with a meal on a specific day and have run out of sweet potatoes. I think you’ll be very surprised by the ‘real’ serving size of many foods you eat once you start quantifying them.

What about recipes? Well, MFP has a cool feature that lets you input a recipe’s ingredients and the number of servings. You can even import a recipe from the web! Let’s be honest – most of us eat the same things pretty frequently. Just type your favorite recipes in once to access them quickly in the future. I input the protein pancakes I eat for breakfast every day, so now I just click on the recipe and hit the check mark each morning. I’m sure other programs have similar features, I’m just not personally familiar with them.

So, what if you’re eating out at a restaurant and can’t whip out your kitchen scale? Here are my tips for tracking your food while dining out:

  • Do your very best to estimate and count, when applicable.
  • Go with what the menu says for weights on burgers, steaks, etc. It may not be 100% accurate, but it’s better than nothing.
  • Work up some courage, politely explain to your waiter/waitress what you’re doing, and ask if they could see how many ounces of meat your dish has, how many cups of polenta, etc. Even though the kitchen probably did not weigh your exact piece of chicken, restaurants have recipes and portion standards as part of their quality and cost control procedures. Especially if you’re in a nicer restaurant, the cooks should know exactly how much rice/pasta/etc they plated. They may not tell you, but if you ask nicely they probably will.

My last big food logging tip is consider logging your food before you even put it in your mouth. You can input what you’re planning to eat and see how it fits into your goals for the day. Maybe you’ll see that you need to forego this particular item or only eat part of a serving, but you might also discover that having a bit extra fits into your plan for the day (yay!). It is way better to find out that a specific item will blow your fat budget for the day, for example, before eating than after.

measure your food

So now what?

I’ll give you the advice my coaches gave me: track your food for about a week just to see where you are before you really try making any changes. This will help you develop a picture of where you are and what you need to work on. Then work on one goal at a time. If you’re not getting enough calories, try to work your way up to your goal. If you aren’t getting enough protein (I wasn’t!), try to reach that goal, then move to balancing you carbs and fat, as well. Working one goal at a time can keep you from becoming overwhelmed! Logging your food only helps you if you actually use this information to balance your diet and eat well. =)

I know from yesterday’s comments that a few of you already understand the important of logging what you eat (yay!). If you do currently track your food, what is your favorite program or device? Do you have any additional tips for keeping track of what you eat and using this information?

 

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • bianca December 28, 2015, 12:42

    This is a great post. I was led to your website through pinterest after searching for DIY wriststraps. You give easy straight forward instructions and I cant wait to make mine! I have used MFP for tracking before and liked the ease if use. I was tracking while following a particular program. I felt it was too restrictive because I like a lot of variety. I quit that program and found a place to do crossfit. I feel like I eat well, and although I am getting stronger and seeing definition, I am not losing fat as quickly as I think I should be. Obviously there are some changes I need to make to my diet. I had a “duh” moment when I read your suggestion to track my food for a week FIRST. Then make adjustments from there. That makes so much more sense than starting a “diet” and tracking that. This way I won’t feel like I’m restricting myself which usually leads to rebellion lol. Now I can just learn how to do provide myself with better nutrition by tweaking what I already do. I think I have developed some food sensitivities too, so this may help with that also. Thanks for the sharing

    • Natashalh December 28, 2015, 12:44

      So happy to have been helpful! Best of luck with your fitness journey and I hope you find the results you’re looking for.

      I love the ‘if it fits my macros’ plan I use precisely because it isn’t highly restrictive. The other day we had gingerbread muffins, for example. We had to plan the rest of our food accordingly for the day, but we enjoyed some Christmas muffins and everything was fine.

  • Paige June 3, 2015, 04:35

    You’ve convinced me to buy my husband a food scale. He just uses the generic items in MFP, but after seeing your examples, dude needs to weigh his produce. (And I guess I’ll start too!)

    • Natashalh June 4, 2015, 06:01

      I don’t bother to weigh salad greens really because they have like 5 calories so who cares, but for other things it can make a huge difference! It’s actually kind of fun once you get to the point where you can kind of guess how many grams something is. The other day I pulled a perfect 28 gram serving of Terra chips out of the bag. I felt pretty cool!

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