Food tracking and calorie/macro counting get a bad reputation. But, the truth is, it's the only method that is guaranteed to work for aesthetic progress and to support your athletic goals.
From a personal trainer’s perspective, it's a fantastic tool. Every single person I've ever trained who tracked and adhered to their macro and calorie guidelines hit their goal.
Not always immediately – occasionally, we have to tweak the amounts – but it always works in the long run. You can't say that about any other diet method.
It's also a fantastic approach because there are no good or bad foods; they just have to fit your macros. Having trained hundreds of people, I’ve learned that it's essential that we can enjoy some crap food every week and perhaps a few whiskies. It’s the only way for a diet to be sustainable for life.
If you’ve hung around personal trainers (or spaces of the internet they inhabit), you may have heard the phrase ‘If if fits your macros’ or IIFYM. Macronutrients are proteins, fats and carbohydrates, measured in grams or as a percentage of your daily calories.
Flexible dieting is taking an approach to your nutrition that involves tracking your daily calorie intake in an app (usually myfitnesspal) according to pre-set ratios of protein, fat and carbs. An example might be:
2000 calories per day. 30% protein, 40% carbs, 30% fat.
As I said, it’s the only approach that consistently works in terms of aesthetic progress and also fuelling athletic goals.
There’s no wishy-washy pseudoscience, guilt or shame around any foods. Instead, it’s a black and white approach to calories in and calories out, ensuring that you have the correct protein, fat and carbohydrate ratios to support your progress.
If you want to lose weight, knowing that the calories coming in are less than the calories going out is essential. If you want to gain muscle, knowing that calories coming in are more than the calories going out is essential, and most people underestimate just how much they need to eat to gain. In both cases, knowledge is power.
If you just want to maintain your current condition or fuel your performance for athletic goals, understanding your calorie and macro needs is still extremely useful.
And just like any other form of dieting, it shouldn’t be forever (more on that in the pro tips later on). Use it as a tool to hit your goals; it doesn’t have to become your identity.
Flexible dieting can be a little overwhelming, especially if you’ve tried a lot of other diets that gave you a hard and fast rule system around food, telling you what you could eat and what you couldn’t eat.
Hard and fast rules are straightforward and take the thinking out of dieting, but the issue is that when you remove whole food groups from your diet, any progress is generally undone when you reintroduce them.
Flexible dieters tend to maintain their goal physique because they understand how they got there and didn’t cut anything out completely.
It doesn’t have to be painful at all. Even if tracking your food intake sounds like hell, it’s pretty painless when you get used to it.
Step 1: input your calories and macro ratios into myfitnesspal (the free version is great)
Step 2: start tracking your intake
Step 3: get awesome results
1. Tracking should be periodised (especially if you hate it)
If you really love it, then I don't have a problem with you tracking all year round. I never could, but fair play if you enjoy it.
Otherwise, you should only really be using it for relatively short periods of time. Somewhere between two weeks to a few months, depending on your goal.
If you can accurately eyeball your calories after 2-4 weeks of accurate tracking, then come off or reduce it, and you can always enter another period of tracking if your progress slows.
2. Estimating a meal is better than not logging it
Yesterday I bought a Thai beef curry from a stall I just stumbled across in Bermondsey.
Obviously, that won't be in myfitnesspal. So I typed in 'Thai beef red curry with rice' and chose the one that looked most accurate.
3. The database is impressive and has virtually everything on there
Scan bar codes where possible using the scanner in the app, as it makes your life so much easier.
Very occasionally, the data will be wrong (my porridge today apparently had 48g of protein per 40g of porridge). In that case, estimate from a similar item as above.
4. When home cooking, only scan/weigh/log the substantial ingredients
I know if you're cooking from scratch, it can be a bit of a headache to weigh every individual item. I recommend only logging and weighing the veg, carbs (rice/pasta), cans (tomatoes/coconut milk) and protein in the meal. Don't weigh and log things like garlic, ginger, spices and so on that have effectively zero calories.
5. Don’t input zero-calorie food and drink
If something is zero calories, don’t bother tracking it.
6. Use the ‘meals’ feature
if you eat the same meals regularly, make sure you save the meal in myfitnesspal so that you can tap to add next time.
Top tip – when you input the ingredients into myfitnespal, just put one portion’s worth in there. If the meal uses 400g of tinned tomatoes and makes four portions, use 100g in your meal entry.
7. Don't input exercise into myfitnesspal, and don't let it choose your calories either
The daily calories that you set in myfitnesspal should already account for your exercise within that number. If I set you 2500 calories per day, that is taking into account the exercise in your programme already.
Adding exercise into myfitnesspal will re-add the lost calories back onto your diet and give you extra calories to eat. Long story short, it’s much easier and more accurate just to use it just for diet, without tracking exercise.
I wouldn’t let myfitnesspal set your calories, so do some research (check out our blogs on getting lean or building muscle) or get your personal trainer to set yours. Myfitnesspal can set you way too low, or way too high, as it’s a programme and not a human who understands your goals and human behaviour.
8. If fat loss is your goal, it may help to see your calories as a weekly total rather than daily
If you’re eating 1800 calories a day and want to have a few drinks at the weekend, you might find there’s not much leeway. It’s perfectly fine to come under a little under your target in the week for a few days to give yourself more calories for fun at the weekend. In this instance, look at your weekly total as 12,600 calories.
Here are the most common objections I get from recommending the flexible dieting approach and my counter-reasoning:
‘I don’t want to develop an unhealthy relationship with food.’ (this is also the argument fad diets often use to disparage food tracking)
Food tracking will not give you an unhealthy relationship with food. Instead, it encourages you to have an open and educated relationship with food. As a result, you’ll understand what goes into your body and still be allowed ‘naughty’ foods in moderation.
An unhealthy relationship with food is being told certain foods are bad and should be removed from your diet. An unhealthy relationship with food is not knowing what goes into your body and the associated calories.
Food tracking shouldn’t become obsessive and shouldn’t be forever, see pro tip number 1 above.
‘It’s too much effort to track everything. I’ll just eat healthily.’
The problem is, you can still eat healthily or ‘clean’ and not be in a calorie deficit – if fat loss is your goal, you have to be in a calorie deficit.
If you want to gain muscle and not a load of excess fat, knowing that you’re in a slight, but not excessive, calorie surplus can only be a good thing.
‘What about micronutrients and vitamins? This approach doesn’t account for making healthy choices.’
This is a very good point. Now usually, you’ll be set a protein target that is fairly high, anywhere between 20-40% of total calories.
Most junk food (chocolate, sweets, crisps) is protein deficient, high in carbs and fat. Eat lots of junk food, and you’ll hit your carb and fat numbers way before you hit your protein target.
I suggest that you make a conscious effort to get a lot of fruit and vegetables into your diet, making for great low-calorie snacks and filling meals. You’re still in control of what you eat, so you can track and eat healthily.
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