Diet Tracking; how to track your food and why you should be doing it
Triathletes are excellent when it comes to their love of technology and its implementation in to training. We like tracking our training, seeing those numbers, hours of training on a screen and for some the joy of analysing the power and speed data, looking at where we can be making improvements. We should all be tracking our training to some degree, whether it be for our coaches or us to analyse data for monitoring performance and making improvements, or even if it’s just written on a spread sheet or even paper so that we can ensure there is some level of consistency or progression towards our training goals.
However, when it comes to our nutrition, many of us are a little less enthusiastic to our tracking or analysis of the data it gives us. When you consider that out nutrition is perhaps one of the biggest factors affecting our health and performance, it should be something we all pay a little more attention to. Your diet choices will affect your body composition and overall bodyweight, how much energy we have to train and how well we recover from those training sessions. Get nutrition wrong our training will suffer and in time we may set ourselves up for injury if we’re unable to provide our bodies with what they need to recover from the stresses of training. In a time where people are quick to pop a pill, or take a supplement with the promise of performance it’s clear we need to look at the big picture. I’m not saying that supplements don’t work, on the contrary, many of them are brilliant athletic aids, but no number of magical berries will make up for a poor diet.
If you were to track your swim, bike or run training you could get into as much or little detail as you like, tracking anything from just distance and time, right up to HR, power and a number of other metrics. The same goes for diet tracking, whether you just keep a track of the types of food you’re eating, monitor kcal or go right into detail with macronutrient ratios and vitamin and mineral intakes. What’s important is that you make some effort to be aware of what you’re putting into your body to make it healthy, feel good and perform at its best.
Picture nutrition diary
One of the first changes you can make to your diet is to make sure the food you’re eating is of optimal quality and prepared in a way that will retain all the nutrients. Now while eating the freshest organic foods might be ideal, we know it’s not always practical or cheap. So look at getting the best in where you can. Also, if you can store and freeze foods, then bulk buying, and batch cooking are great ways to keep your costs down and make larger meals go further. The most basic way of tracking your food intake is to keep a Photo-food-diary for 5-7 days, simply taking a picture of everything you eat and drink (if significant kcal), pop them into different folders on your phone/PC and then look at them at the end of the week. What do you think? Do the plates look like they have a good variety on them, are there lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, is there a noticeable source of protein in most meals, are there sources of good fats present. Are the meals created fresh using natural ingredients, or are there many packaged meal with processed foods; breads, pastas and other refined sugars? You can also use these pictures to see how the proportions of protein, fats and carbs appear on your plate and make small changes to ensure you get a more consistent and balanced intake.
Online nutrition tracking
For those that want a little more information it’s never been easier to take accountability for your diet and track what you’re eating. Smart phone apps like MyFitnessPal allow you to track almost anything you eat, even in restaurants to give you a much clearer picture of what you’re eating. The app’s library has a host of food in it and if it doesn’t have something that you normally use, it can be easily created and saved. Once used for a period of time, your recent and favourite foods begin to appear at the top of the lists when you’re filling it in, making it even quicker to find things. Foods can be added in via scanning the barcode on the packet, then weighing what you use. It soon becomes easy and part of habit to keep a small set of digital scales next to your chopping board and chop, weigh and add foods to your meals. I usually do this raw as foods go in to what’s being cooked. With foods that you use regularly you can take an average of what you use over time then assume this, e.g. after a while I worked out an average ½ avocado minus the skin and pip was around 75g, so this is the figure now used, instead of weighing it every time. You could measure out rice etc. into a cup and weight it once, making it quicker next time.
Foods that form a staple part of your diet can be used to create recipes or based for meals so you can find and add them quickly later. One of my classics is a carrot & tomato couscous based dish that I put with fish or steak. Making it in bulk, and dividing into portions, it’s easy to then work out roughly how much energy is in each portion.
So, you’ve got the tracked information, now what do you do with it?
While there are guidelines to how much of each macronutrient (protein, fats & carbohydrates) we should be eating, there will be small differences we need to make based on tastes, preferences and how we each feel and perform on difference ratios. Once you’ve tracked for a week or two, the first thing would be to look at the patterns and look at how consistent you are. If you work out your average intake over the week for each macronutrient and overall net kcal intake and then see what the spread is away from this average, you can see how consistent you are. If your days vary by more than 5% then your first task is to try and spend the next week eating as close as you can each day to the previous week’s average. The reason for this is that if you are to make any changes to your intake, they should be small changes so as not to feel like too much disruption to your cooking or preparation, however it’s harder to feel small changes if you’re not already consistent. From here you can play around with your intakes at small 5-10% changes until you find something that works for making your feel good, perform well in training sessions and sate your appetite.
Examples for targets you should be looking to hit for healthy intake of macronutrients, and how to set up your intake would be:
– Protein – 1.6-1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight
– Fats – 0.8-1.2 g/kg/bw
– Carbs – Assign remaining kcal intake to carbs.
How do you calculate your kcal intake?
While there are some useful equations to work out your required intake, and upon setup MyFitnessPal will do this for you, this is all based on estimations. The best figure you can use is to work off your current intake and then make adjustments either way to meet your energy requirements depending on if you’re looking to drop a little weight or increase intake based on your training demand. Using your data from your two weeks of tracking look at the average net kcal intake (depending on if you’ve synced your data from a training device like Garmin or Strava. Assuming your current body weight isn’t fluctuating then if you’re looking to reduce body weight, then drop your net daily intake by 5-10% and see what happens after a couple of weeks. Small changes in your intake are advised since you will not notice the reduction in food intake as much, so won’t be as hungry, but also you stand less chance of your training suffering from a reduced energy intake.
Net. Kcal intake is useful to consider when your training days are varied, because your energy expenditure and demand on harder or longer training sessions will be far greater than a rest day. Many fitness tracking apps can be synced with your diet tracker so that when you do a training session the energy expenditure from that session is then accounted for in your food tracking and you’ll be assigned extra kcal to eat that day. This is especially useful when you’re operating in a slight kcal deficit, for example if you’ve set your net intake to be around 10% less than your normal daily intake to drop a little weight then it’s important that we keep this amount consistent as not to hamper recovery from training. For example, if someone was previously on 2000 kcal a day took their intake down to 1800 kcal, then performed 500 kcal of exercise then they’d still put back in 2300 kcal. This would ensure the deficit remained consistent.