- Brian Bender, PhD
Nutrition Tracking: The Ultimate Guide and Resource Page
Ntrition tracking is the process of collecting and analyzing qualitative or quantitative data on your dietary intake patterns, typically for the purpose of achieving health-related or fitness-related goals.
Why does nutrition tracking exist?
Nutrition tracking can take many forms.
Some people estimate their nutritional intake by using the size of their hands as a proxy for portion control.
Others meticulously record the quantity and nutritional breakdown of all the food they eat.
No matter which technique people use to track their nutrition, the intention is similar.
Ultimately, the goal of nutrition tracking is to gain a better understanding of the nutrient content of the food we consume.
These techniques are useful because we do a horrible job of naturally estimating our nutritional intake.
For example, a pooled analysis showed, on average, we underreport how many calories we eat by 28%!
For instance, the World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10% of your calories should come from sugar, and ideally no more than 5%.
But if you were to reflect on your day yesterday, could you accurately estimate how many of your calories came from sugar?
What about protein? Or sodium?
It’s difficult for us to properly estimate the number of calories we eat on a regular basis, let alone the nutritional breakdown of those calories.
And to make matters worse, some items are known to be hidden in foods because they make them taste better or help with preservation. For example, sugar and sodium are two prime suspects. And the average Western diet is too high in both.
See how much sugar the average American consumes.
Nutrition tracking is a technique for identifying the quantities of these nutritional constituents we eat.
Nutrition tracking is used by health organizations, researchers, clinicians, dietitians, nutritionists, athletes, and everyday folks looking to improve their health or improve their fitness.
Nutrition tracking for research and clinical assessment
On a national or region-wide basis, epidemiologists use large scale surveys like the NHANES in America to get an idea of what diets looks like based on location, age, gender, socioeconomic status, and other demographic parameters.
This information is used to assess how populations eat and if patterns emerge. These patterns can be used to identify widespread micronutrient deficiencies, imbalances in macronutrient consumption, and to identify potential sources of large-scale malnutrition for allocating money effort towards correcting widespread gaps in nutrition.
And researchers look to nutrition tracking when studying the roles of various nutrients on health. For example, if a researcher is interested in understanding the role that sodium plays on hypertension, they must meticulously track as many details about the research cohort’s nutritional intake to assess which dietary compounds drive the outcome they’re researching.
These reasons for nutrition tracking are population or cohort-based. Dietitians, clinicians, nutritionists, athletes, and everyday citizens use nutrition tracking for one-on-one reasons.
Learn about the latest nutritional assessment tools.
For very specific health reasons, doctors and dietitians may track their patient’s nutrition in order to assess health during illness. Some of these may be directly related to nutrition, like malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, or possibly eating disorders.
Others are interested in nutrition as an indirect assessment during treatment. For example, advanced cancer patients can exhibit malnourishment 40-80% of the time following chemotherapy. And the elderly, due to a variety of reasons like difficulty chewing or other comorbidities, are also routinely malnourished in some form.
Nutrition tracking for weight loss and peak performance
Individuals typically engage in nutrition tracking in order to gain a better understanding of what’s going into their bodies.
This can help some who are looking to lose weight.
We often don’t estimate our caloric intake well, and therefore gaining a grasp on how many calories you actually consume can be an eye opening and constructive exercise.
Others may find they don’t eat the recommended amounts of certain vitamins and minerals.
In fact, most of us routinely fall short of the USDA recommendations for at least one vitamin or mineral.
See the average micronutrient intake in America.
Athletes and those looking to optimize their health for peak performance track their nutrition in order to meet high goals and stay with narrow windows for specific nutrients, like protein, determined beforehand.
See a list of important micronutrients for ultra-endurance athletes
How to track nutrition
1. Identify your goal
Nutrition tracking should begin first by stating your goal.
Are you trying to measure your client’s dietary routine and investigate the possibility of imbalance or deficiency?
Are you looking to lose weight yourself? Or obtain peak athletic performance?
Having a clear goal allows you to first decide if nutrition tracking is the right course of action. There are other nutritional assessment tools that exist for other metrics that may be more appropriate.
See the latest in nutritional assessment tools
Identifying the reason nutritional tracking is sought will help align your practice for the best results. For example, your goal will help you identify which nutrients to track, which tools to use, and how long you’ll need to engage in nutrition tracking to reach your goal.
Some common goals for nutrition tracking are to:
Lose weight or body fat
Enhance athletic performance
Avoid allergic reactions
Reduce risk of chronic diseases
Manage a chronic disease
2. Key in on which nutrients to track
If nutrition tracking is deemed appropriate to reach your stated goal, the next step is to decide which nutrients you are interested in tracking.
Those looking to lose weight may stop at calories.
Gaining a grasp on how many calories you are taking in can bring to light a major aspect of your dietary behaviors.
On average, we do a terrible job of estimating our caloric intake. Enough so, that your mental estimations could lead to chronic, low-level overconsumption that leads to weight gain over time.
You can attempt to measure calories out, too. By understanding your metabolism and making estimates for how many calories you expend, on average, you can gain a rough idea of how your energy balance.
Learn what is metabolism
However, it should be noted that estimates of calories in and calories out are both difficult to obtain. The accuracy should be taken with a grain of salt. These estimates are better for gaining high-level insight of your eating patterns and physical activity.
Some benefits of nutrition tracking come from identifying the specific nutrients you consume.
Quantifying the amount, and ratio, of macronutrients can help you learn if you are eating an overall, well-balanced diet within stated recommendations.
Learn about your macronutrient intake
And it may be useful to target nutrient-categories within macronutrients, too. For example, tracking how much sugar you are eating may help you realize just how much you consume and whether it is higher than the recommended amounts.
Others still may dive into micronutrient tracking. Most Americans do not obtain enough of at least once micronutrient on a regular basis.
Learn about the consumption of micronutrients in America
Although we likely won’t reach a status of clinical deficiency with respect to the underconsumption of these micronutrients, some individuals are looking to avoid chronic, low-level, subclinical intake of these micronutrients. For example, someone may eat enough vitamin D to avoid rickets, but still not get enough to promote optimal health.
Health organizations routinely perform nutrition tracking on a large scale in order to assess broad populations and region-wide consumption patterns.
This can help these organizations better allocate resources and address large-scale nutrition-related health problems.
Learn about 3 global micronutrient deficiencies
3. Identify which tools are best suited for you
Having chosen your stated goal and the key nutrients to track, the next step is choosing the right tool with which to do it.
Major organizations use large survey-based methods largely because they are currently the easiest and most cost-effective tools for population-wide screening.
For individuals and one-on-one nutrition counseling, food journals are a typical go-to option.
Some people like the old-fashioned, pen-and-paper method.
By physically writing each food item you eat throughout the day, the amount of each food item, and totaling the breakdown of nutrients for each one using online resources like the USDA Food Database, you can develop a very detailed picture of your nutritional intake.
Learn how to track your macronutrients
Admittedly, this method is a lot of work.
But for some, that is exactly the point. The effort required forces you to meticulously take stock of your eating patterns.
It may be a process you perform only for a brief period of time; long enough to enlighten you on your dietary health and set you straight, but not intended to go on forever.
Others may find that continuous nutrition tracking is a useful habit they incorporate into their lives. Much like documenting your financial expenditures on a regular basis can help some get a hold of their spending, nutrition tracking can keep bringing some people back to reality on their eating habits.
Fortunately, several tools have been developed to make this process easier. Food journal apps first come to mind.
MyFitnessPal is one of the most popular options, and Cronometer is another good tool with a free online option for micronutrient tracking.
These tools work largely the same way as pen and paper tracking, but they take much of the work out of nutrition tracking my allowing you to locate foods within their own databases that automatically sort out the nutrient content of your foods.
For those who are really ambitious, blood testing services exist for accurate, physiological testing of dietary and nutritional intake.
Wellness clinics, in particular, may provide these services or enable samples to be collected and sent away to companies like SpectraCell for analysis and reporting.
Obviously, these services may be difficult or undesirable to perform on a regular basis, but the snapshot in time may help you know whether you are starting from a solid baseline or whether you have made it to the finish line.
Urine, on the other hand, provides a non-invasive option that also enables the accurate testing of physiological nutrient intake.
Urine is an end-product of digestion. So naturally, metabolites exist in urine in quantities that correlate to what you’ve recently been eating and metabolizing.
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4. Decide how long to engage in nutrition tracking
Contention can arise in health circles regarding the pros and cons of nutrition tracking (more on this later). In some respects, it’s due to how long one should track their nutrition.
This will depend on your goals as well as your personality.
For example, some individuals may only engage in nutrition tracking for a short period of time. Perhaps, only a week or two.
This is long enough for a nutritionist to get an idea of normal eating patterns, and it is long enough to for some to better identify their own eating patterns.
For some, they may find their diet is perfectly acceptable and within the ranges for macronutrients and micronutrients they require for good health or their own personal goals.
Others may find an imbalance, but they may be able to correct within a short period of time and gain a better approach to their diet that is sustainable, quickly.
Others need longer.
Many continue to fall out of balance and need a mechanism for self-correcting. And others find the habit itself a useful exercise in bringing their attention back to nutrition on a regular, ongoing basis.
Others still may find the process too consuming, and even push them towards negative health behaviors and even eating disorders.
This step requires some self-exploration.
If you feel like you’ve got a hold of your diet, you can always try quitting. If you find yourself lost or results don’t persist, you can always start nutrition tracking again, self-correct, and pick up where you left off.
Who should (and shouldn’t) track their nutrition
Your diet is the greatest modifiable risk factor for health and chronic disease prevention in your life. But just as there isn’t a single best diet for everyone, nor is there a single best strategy for everyone when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy diet.
Some people do great with scales. Even the simple act of stepping on a scale without making a conscious effort to change their diet will see weight loss over time by bringing a number into your subconscious.
Others, spiral into mental grief, overly fretting over the same number leading, at times, to bouts of orthorexia and even weight gain.
Diet or nutrition-tracking is another strategy with similar variability in success.
Some individuals find the process easy, quickly develop a habit, and see great results that persist.
Others find the process tedious, quickly give up, and see no process at all. Or worse, others may find the process of diet-tracking actually exacerbates eating disorders.
The bad news first.
The Cons of Diet-Tracking
Food provides us with the fuel to live, and its healthy balance keeps our bodies finely tuned and ready to live the rest of our lives as we’d like.
However, with this responsibility, food can also become a significant source of anxiety.
When this happens, food’s true role in maintaining a healthy life is replaced as the source of pain.
Stable mental health is just as important as stable physical health when it comes to living a happy, fulfilled life.
Diet-tracking, like many other methods and strategies for obtaining and maintaining a healthy diet, can distract individuals from the true goal (a healthy diet) and cause some to become fixated on numbers and metrics to a point to where the mental anguish caused by the technique itself supersedes any positive effects it may provide.
Orthorexia is one such condition that can be exacerbated by nutrition tracking. This condition is associated with an obsession on eating healthy foods to a point where your well-being is damaged.
And tracking your nutrition can become an enabler.
In addition, tracking your nutrition may also simply lead some to focus on aspects of their diet that are less important for meeting their health goals. Thus, some may even gain weight because they are focus on specific nutrients more than generally accepted guidelines for broad, whole food nutrition composed of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and water.
Nevertheless, for some, this technique can lead not only to a healthy weight, but also a healthier diet for life.
The Pros of Nutrition Tracking
Decades of research studies consistently show that self-monitoring your diet results, on average, in weight loss.
One reason this method works is because on average we tend to do a rather poor job of estimating our nutrition intake accurately.
For example, a pooled analysis showed, on average, we underreport how many calories we eat by 28%!
Not recognizing over 500 calories a day in consumption is certainly one plausible explanation for unintended weight gain.
This also is exemplified for specific nutrients. We also routinely underreport sugar intake.6 This isn’t particularly surprising, as sugar has found its way into many processed foods undetected.
Thus, nutrition tracking can work, in part, by helping you become aware of the quantities of foods and nutrients you are regularly consuming.
In addition to poorly judging quantities, we also often partake in what has been termed “Mindless Eating.”
We eat and snack frequently without thinking about it.
This habit can easily lead to overconsumption, too. Here again, nutrition tracking can play a role in helping to bring your eating habits into light.
To Track or Not to Track
Ultimately, nutrition tracking is simply a strategy, or tool, for helping to identify your current dietary behaviors and helping to align them with the behaviors you’d like in order to meet your desired goals. And like any tool, it can be used properly or improperly.
Nutritionists routinely begin their work with clients by having them log their dietary behaviors for a short period of time simply to better assess their client’s baseline eating practices to personalize their guidance.
Others may become attached to the numbers more than they do the actual goal of healthy eating habits. Fueling a paradoxically unhealthy habit, their mental health may plunge despite a satisfactory dietary regime and thus continue to defeat their own wellness goals.
Good nutritionists, dietitians, and many mental health practitioners are trained in dealing with eating disorders. If you know you have had an eating disorder in your past, it would be prudent to approach nutrition tracking with caution, if at all. If nothing else, consult your nutritionist.
If not, nutrition tracking’s ability to reveal hidden truths about your eating behaviors may be just what you need to realign your diet. Good health depends on a healthy, balanced diet.
Finding a strategy that works well both for your physical and mental health is what counts the most.
Freedman, L. S. et al. Pooled Results From 5 Validation Studies of Dietary Self-Report Instruments Using Recovery Biomarkers for Energy and Protein Intake. Am. J. Epidemiol. 180, 172–188 (2014).
von Haehling, S. & Anker, S. D. Cachexia as a major underestimated and unmet medical need: facts and numbers. J. Cachexia. Sarcopenia Muscle 1, 1–5 (2010).
Cianferotti, L. & Marcocci, C. Subclinical vitamin D deficiency. Best Pract. Res. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 26, 523–537 (2012).
Katz, D. L. & Meller, S. Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health? Annu. Rev. Public Health 35, 83–103 (2014).
Burke, L. E., Wang, J. & Sevick, M. A. Self-Monitoring in Weight Loss: A Systematic Review of the Literature. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 111, 92–102 (2011).
Kuhnle, G. G. C. et al. Association between sucrose intake and risk of overweight and obesity in a prospective sub-cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer in Norfolk (EPIC-Norfolk). Public Health Nutr. 18, 2815–2824 (2015).