- Brian Bender, PhD
Logging Food: The Tools and Strategies to Do It Right
Logging food is a proven method for losing weight, eating healthier, and reaching peak athletic goals.
But there are different approaches depending on your end goals.
For example, maxing out athletic performance usually requires more quantitative and more accurate food logging techniques.
And when it comes to eating healthier, several different approaches can help for different reasons:
Logging food groups can help you get an idea of which kinds of foods you typically eat, and in what amount
Logging specific nutrients can help you identify specific sources of poor nutrition. For example, perhaps you find out you don’t eat enough calcium, or you find out you are eating too much
Here’s an overview to get you started off right!
Logging Food Items
Logging food items is one of the more common forms of food logging. Typically, you record the quantity of food you consume along with the type of food.
This is useful for a few situations:
A Baseline for Nutritionists: Many times, nutritionists will have their new clients record the foods the eat and the quantity they eat. This will help the nutritionist get an understanding of the client’s diet and provide a baseline for guidance.
A Baseline for Yourself: Many individuals do a surprisingly poor job of remembering what, and how much, they eat. Logging food can help many people become aware of all those snacks they forgot they ate or whether they really are eating as many vegetables as they think they are.
There are several old and emerging techniques available for logging food items.
This is the simplest technique. Here, web or mobile apps provide lists and drop-down menus to find food items you’ve eaten.
They usually do the same with quantities such as ½ cup or 2.5 servings.
This is usually a good, quick way to log foods to provide a rough estimate of the foods you eat and the quantities you consume.
Although it won’t be too accurate (food databases can have wide variation and quantities are often grossly mis-judged), it can still provide a useful idea of general dietary trends.
It can also provide the benefits of bringing food choices to mind, whether the nutrient information is correct or not.
For packaged foods with barcodes, several apps exist that allow you to scan the barcode to identify the foods (and nutrients) within.
This technique can be faster than database lookups, but suffers the obvious disadvantage of not being able to identify cooked meals made from scratch.
This technique will improve the accuracy of food item identification, as well as the accuracy of the quantity if, say, you eat a single package and can more easily identify the servings consumed.
This emerging option allows users to snap a smartphone image of their meals for food logging.
Like barcode scanning, this technique can be quicker than database lookup techniques, but this overcomes the barcode scanning problem of not being able to ID home-cooked meals.
The downside is that they don’t yet do a great job of estimating quantity, and foods can still be difficult to identify when they are mixed together or hidden from sight.
Logging Nutrition Intake
While logging food items has many advantages, some find much greater success when logging detailed nutrition data too.
This refers to the logging of either macronutrients (calories, fats, carbs, protein), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals), or other nutrient categories like saturated fat, fiber, and sugar, to name a few.
This exercise can be eye-opening, particularly with nutrients we tend to consume too much of.
For example, it’s one thing to log the number of Starbuck’s lattes you drink or the amount of ketchup you pour over your fries.
It’s quite another to see just how much sugar all these items actually contain.
The same can be said for sodium, a micronutrient tied to hypertension and one many of us could stand to eat less of.
On the flip side, we also tend to eat too few of certain micronutrients like vitamin D or calcium.
And the big one of all – calories.
We often underestimate the number of calories we eat, daily.
Tracking this specific aspect of your diet can be a fruitful exercise both in self-awareness and for goal-setting.
Many of the food logging databases now track most macro- and micronutrients, too.
Some even take it a step further and compare your daily intake amounts to recommended requirements to compare your diet to the recommendations.
This is the most accurate form of nutrition logging.
This process does not require you to remember what you ate or correctly identify the food item in a list.
Your body chemistry never forgets!
Blood testing is one method for several key nutrients like iron and vitamin D. These tests can help identify whether your body has too little or too much of these nutrients and whether you might be suffering from any micronutrient deficiencies.
Sweat can help identify hydration and electrolyte balances.
And urine provides one of the greatest windows into your diet.
Urine is an end-product of digestion. So naturally, urine chemistry is shaped by your diet.
Urine testing can provide an assessment of your nutritional intake for several macro and micronutrients if performed regularly.
Food logging derives its greatest benefits when users continue to perform this data collection process over time.
That’s because long-term trends matter the most for dietary and nutritional health.
We’ve all had days where we’ve eaten one too many pieces of dessert. Trends smooth out odd eating days to provide a much more realistic picture of your average, overall dietary patterns.
This long-term trend can help you intelligently adjust the foods or quantities of foods you eat regularly to meet your dietary goals.