Tracking Without Obsession
Last week, a newer client asked me about how to phase out calorie tracking.
This is an inevitable moment with all of my clients – either they bring it up, or I do. At some point, it’s time to phase out calorie tracking as a major tool for weight loss/management.
I don’t have a set number of weeks that I require clients to use MyFitnessPal to track their food. For some clients, I don’t have them track at all. Each person is different – they have different goals, different histories, and different relationships with food. But the goal for all of my clients who use MyFitnessPal at the beginning is the same – calorie (and macro) tracking is a method of informing yourself, illuminating blindspots, building new routines/systems, and then letting it go as new habits take over.
Letting go of tracking, after it’s been used as a helpful tool, is a natural part of the process and is to be celebrated.
But how do we balance this with the fact that, for many people, calorie/macro tracking on their own can end up being stressful, or even obsessive? How is that my clients can have such a positive relationship with it?
It all stems from the attitude and mission that we bring to the process. In today’s blog post, I want to explore exactly why I use it with my clients, what expectations I have for calorie/macro tracking, and how we use tracking without obsession.
Why I Use Calorie/Macro Tracking
Calorie and macro tracking can be easy, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. In some ways, it’s easier to “diet” by cutting out specific food groups or by fasting. These kind of “broad strokes” diets occupy less mental bandwidth (at first), so they are automatically easier in some ways – hence the popularity of diets like keto and intermittent fasting.
However, you may notice that I put the word “diet” in quotes. That’s because when I work with clients, we don’t use calorie and macro tracking to “diet,” per se. Instead, we use it as an investigative tool. I’ll get to that more in a moment, but here are the reasons that I do use calorie/macro tracking to help clients make progress, rather than relying on something like a broader diet or intuitive eating.
Calorie Tracking Discourages Black-and-White Thinking
One of the many positives of getting specific about numbers is that it helps people see that foods are not naturally good or bad – they just represent energy for the body.
I encourage clients to enjoy a wide variety of foods, with most of their daily systems (i.e., the food that they’ve meal-prepped) supporting a healthful, nutritious, whole-foods-based diet.
Calorie and macro tracking neutralizes moralistic thinking about food, allowing people to make individual choices that reflect their eating style but still keep them on a plan that moves them toward weight loss.
Calorie and Macro Tracking is Educational
Regulating portion sizes is one of the most important behavioral skills that I want to impart to clients. It’s a “soft skill” that reaps huge benefits long after someone has stopped tracking calories. Calorie and macro tracking helps to instill automatic recognition of which foods (or types of foods) are calorie-heavy in surprisingly small amounts, and which foods have more volume and more nutrients but fewer calories.
“What Gets Measured Gets Managed”
Often when someone is starting out with new healthy eating habits (and a weight loss goal), they may not be aware of some of their habits. They may over-focus on some areas that aren’t necessarily making a big impact (i.e., trying to quit eating after dinner), while overlooking behaviors that are destined to stall them out (i.e., eating out four times a week or not measuring portions when cooking).
Once people start paying attention to everything, patterns often start to emerge. They can see where the real pitfalls are, and they can start “managing” the areas that really matter. On the flip side, when everything is measured for a certain period of time, people realize that some things don’t need to be measured at all. They learn what to focus on.
Tracking is Specific Enough to Get Results
Finally, and this is very important for weight loss for some people, tracking is specific. To echo my first point, it takes food out of the realm of “good” and “bad,” and actually applies science and numbers. For some people, eating “healthy” or “being good” isn’t enough to instigate weight loss. For some women especially, eating very “clean” can still result in a stuck scale.
By applying calorie and macro goals, people can easily create systems that support weight loss and make it reasonably effortless. In the process, they may actually be able to be less “strict” or less “good” with food, because they are able to hit their targets without being too hard on themselves or unrealistic in their expectations for perfection.
My Expectations for Tracking
My expectations for tracking, which makes it a livable habit, are as follows:
It Is Temporary
After a few weeks or a few months, once someone has established solid routines, tracking is no longer necessary. We phase it out, paying attention to which routines are the most rock-solid and deliver the best results.
It Is Precise
For the short amount of time that we use it, I like for clients to measure things, and to track as much as possible – yes, even when dining out and when traveling. Because it’s not a “forever habit,” I like for it to be applied pretty precisely for the period of time that we actually use it.
It Is Educational
The goal of tracking is to build routines. Additionally, the mission is to build both specific nutrition knowledge (about protein, carbs, fat, etc.) and behavioral knowledge – how the nutrition specifics affect energy, mood, cravings, and behavior.
I also want tracking to build what I call “soft skills” – mental habits through which clients learn to recognize the approximate appropriate serving sizes of foods, so that they can easily make decisions on the fly when dining out, traveling, etc.
Perfection is Not Expected
Finally, this is very important, but I emphasize to my clients that we are looking for precision with behaviors but not perfection with numbers. If someone’s calorie goal is 1500, it is absolutely fine if they hit 1400 one day and 1600 the next.
All I’m looking for is consistency and improvement, and never perfection.
How to Keep Tracking from Becoming Obsessive
Maybe you’ve used something like MyFitnesPal before, and you found that you hated logging every single thing that you put in your mouth. You felt like you were tied to your phone, and that you were preoccupied with how many calories you had left for the day.
I have some secrets that I use with MyFitnessPal with clients, which makes it an empowering and educational experience, instead of an obsessive one. Here are some ideas:
Instead of tracking reactively, track proactively. In other words, don’t track after you eat – track before you eat. In fact, track at the beginning of the day. This should be easy if you are planning – and that is one of the most important soft skills that I want clients to build.
If you have your meals prepped for the week and you have a plan for eating out when it’s going to come up… it should be fairly easy to pre-track.
This goes along with the “planning” theme from above, but another tip is to build recipes in MyFitnessPal. You can group ingredients together so that you can put in foods that you eat often with one swipe, instead of having to put in ingredients individually every single time. This not only makes life easier, but you are on your phone less, which is always a good thing!
Plan In Your Treats (And Be Realistic)
I’ll be honest – on a daily basis, I eat about 400 calories after dinner. For some reason, my circadian rhythm likes to tank up on food at night before sleep. I sleep better, I feel satisfied, and that is the time of day when I am often most hungry (after 7 PM).
So when I pre-track at time when I’m tracking my food, I plan in all the foods I know I will eat after dinner. This starts me off with a more realistic goal for the day. What most people do, by default, is they plan a “perfect” day that leaves out any after-dinner eating or other realistic behaviors. Then, once nighttime rolls around, they are “out of calories” but they eventually snack anyway, because they’re hungry or because other people are eating.
Plan your treats, be realistic, and let the calories shave off of other meals in a healthy way. Unless you plan to make a huge change in your end-of-day behavior, it’s not realistic to plan otherwise. This is my version of “have your cake, and eat it, too.”
Let Go of Imperfect Days
Bounce back quickly. When you have a “bad day” where your calories went way over or you didn’t track at all, don’t wait three more days to get back in the game. Course-correct quickly, knowing that it’s not about being perfect, but about being consistent.
Focus on the Behaviors
Understand that tracking is temporary, but the habits/behaviors you’re building are forever. Whatever you do with tracking that “gets you results,” these are probably the habits and foods and routines that need to stick around even when you let go of MyFitnessPal.
Instead of getting lost in the numbers, focus on what is happening in reality. Are you measuring food more? Are you creating recipes with overall calories in mind? Are you focusing more on protein and vegetables? Which behaviors are really working for you?
When you are consistent with tracking, keep a balanced mindset, focus on the habits it generates, and gracefully let it go when it’s time, you are the driver of the experience, instead of tracking driving you.