• 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%![1]

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.[2] 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

  • Build muscle

  • 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.[3]

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.