In my experience, there are two phases in using a food log. The first phase of using a food log begins when someone is just getting started or trying to establish the habit of logging meals. In the first phase, the goal is to “Just Log It” (borrowing the famous phrase from Nike). In the beginning the goal is to just log everything you eat, with no concern for what you are eating or even how many total calories you’re consuming. In the first phase, you are learning how to use your food log, setting up custom meals, and getting into the habit of logging every meal.
A pretty common reaction to the “Just Log It” phase is to be horrified by what the log shows you are eating. If you are new to food logging, and if you are honestly truthful about what you are eating, there will be days when you go over your calorie goal. Some days you’ll go waaaaay over. Once you start paying attention to that, it’s pretty simple to find places where you can reel in your total calories. Early in this awareness, there’s quite a bit of low-hanging fruit. Everyone’s diet has places where simple changes can get us back in line with our recommended daily calories.
For some people, staying with this approach is enough. You can be logging every day, staying within your goal calories, and you may begin to see some results. However, sometimes people are logging faithfully, logging every bite and telling the truth about it, staying within the recommended calories, and still not seeing any results. When this happens, you might be tempted to further reduce your calorie goal. Before you reduce your calorie goal, I’d recommend you try a next-level approach: logging for macronutrient balance.
You’re ready to log for macronutrient balance when you’ve mastered most of the food log pitfalls. Specifically, you’re ready to log for macronutrient balance two when:
(1) You are regularly logging most meals, not forgetting to log meals or snacks.
(2) You are being truthful in your log, not intentionally concealing foods from your log.
(3) You’ve had a few days when you have met your calorie goal numbers.
All of these factors need to be in place before you can effectively use your food log to track macronutrient balance. You can’t take your food log to the next level when you’re still struggling with the first level. If you are getting tripped up by any of these issues, working here will get you ready to effectively log for macronutrient balance. So let’s break down each one of these points individually.
(1) You’re ready to log for macronutrient balance when you are regularly logging most meals, and not forgetting to log meals or snacks.
If you are forgetting to log meals, maybe all you need is a reminder. Many food log mobile apps have a Reminders setting, where can program the food log push you a reminder to log your food at certain times of the day.
Many food log programs keep track of your “streak,” or how many days in a row you have completed your food log. Maybe you can set a personal goal to extend your streak 5 days longer than your previous streak. In the past year, the longest streak I had going on my food log was 145 days. One day I was crazy busy and I missed logging the whole day. I was really bummed to break my streak, but the next day I just started again. When something happens to break your streak, please cut yourself some slack. No one is perfect, and a perfectionist tendency will definitely get in the way of your health goals. Also, don’t start playing games with your food log just to extend your streak. You might be tempted to log one food item for the day just to keep your streak going. That’s not really helping you, and you’re not impressing anyone.
(2) You’re ready to log for macronutrient balance when you are being truthful in your log. You have overcome the temptation to lie to your log, and realize that “hiding” foods from your log doesn’t achieve anything.
The easiest way to lie to your food log is to misrepresent portion sizes. For example, your food log may indicate that one serving of pasta is ½ cup. But if your plate is covered with spaghetti, that’s more like 2 cups of pasta. One way you might conceal this food is to intentionally log the portion sizes as smaller than what you actually ate. If you are doing this, consider it an opportunity to re-calibrate your eye for portion sizes. One of the most important lessons a food log can teach you is how to eyeball reasonable portion sizes.
Another way to lie to your food log is to pretend you didn’t eat a food. You might be tempted to do this when you think you’ve eaten a “bad” or “forbidden” food. You might feel that you can continue to deny consciousness around this by intentionally deciding to not include that food in your log. You might also unconsciously “forget” to log that food. I’d actually like to encourage you to suspend your self-judgments for a while, and just log everything as you eat it. Healthy foods, junk foods, everything. You could learn something pretty valuable about your eating patterns by logging these “bad” or “forbidden” foods. For example, you might discover that you’re binge eating cookies at night on the days when you don’t eat breakfast. You can’t see that pattern when you don’t log the cookies.
Many food logs encourage social sharing of your log. They cite research that claims you will lose more weight when you share your log with friends. In many programs it’s possible to make your log public, which means that anyone on that platform can see everything you have entered into your log. The log can even post your results to your Facebook page. However, if you are not being truthful to your log, I think it’s best turn off all social sharing for your log. People have a tendency to present their diets more favorably when they know someone else is looking. If you’re lying to your food log, turning off all social sharing is a way to eliminate the temptation to manage others’ impression of your diet. Depending on whether you need the accountability from others, you might choose to share only that you have completed your log each day.
(3) You’re ready to log for macronutirent balance when you’ve had a few days when you have kept your calories within the daily goal. If you are staying pretty close to your daily goal most days, you’re ready.
I prefer to think about the daily calorie goal pretty loosely. I don’t think of your calorie goal as an exact number you have to hit, but more like a zone around a goal. The nutritional data provided by the food log may not be 100% accurate, and your portion size may not be accurate to a single calorie. Everyone’s body burns calories at different rates anyhow. Therefore, I don’t like to think about your calorie goal as a precise target. You’re not trying to hit a bullseye, you’re only trying to get within the target area.
When you’re thinking loosely about your calorie goal, here’s how it works. If are within 20-50 calories of the goal number, that’s close enough. If you are going over your daily goal by 100 calories or more on a regular basis, then it’s better to check in. Review your food logs for the past few weeks. Maybe there are still some easy changes you can make to get closer to your calorie goal. You might notice something you’ve been eating that’s fairly easy to change – for example, you might be getting too many calories from sweetened drinks. Cutting one sweetened drink per day could pretty easily get you 100 calories closer to your goal. However, it’s also entirely possible that there are not any more easy changes you can make. If that’s the case, you are a candidate to move on to logging for macronutrient balance.
When you use your food log to achieve macronutrient balance, you’re adding a second-level goal to your food logging. You’re continuing to log for your calorie goal, but you’re also setting some macronutrient goals. The big three macronutrient groups are Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. When you’re logging for macronutrient balance, you’re examining the percentage of your total daily calories that come from each of the macronutrient groups, and comparing your daily percentages to the recommended percentages that are appropriate for your personal dietary needs. Most food logging platforms display the percentage of your daily calories that come from each of these macronutrients. I’ll go into more detail about macronutrient balance in my next post.
Are you ready to uplevel your food logging? I’d love to discuss your experiences with your food logging. What works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone. I’m here to help you figure out what’s going to work for you. Keep on Logging!