Some say you should count calories and meticulously measure every bite that goes into your mouth. Others encourage you to just estimate portions, or monitor macro nutrients. And then there are the various “listen to your body” approaches. All of these are forms of what’s known as “food monitoring.”
With so much conflicting information out there, how do you know what really works?
[Note: Much of this article is excerpted from “Macros vs. Calories vs. Portions vs. Intuitive Eating” by Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD.]
Here’s something you need to know: every method works (if implemented well.)
That’s right. Calorie counting works. Measuring macros also works. Tracking hand portions, mindful eating, and intuitive eating work too.
Determining the most appropriate method comes down to picking the right tool for the right job, says Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, head of nutrition at Precision Nutrition.
To start, first think about what problem(s) does food monitoring help you solve. This could be anything that’s important to you. Some ideas:
- Lose weight and get healthier
- Better understand your eating habits
- Gauge how your diet affects your athletic performance
- Look different in your pants
- Achieve a specific body fat percentage
- Improve your relationship with food
- Work on your eating behavior and food awareness
The effectiveness of the food monitoring method you choose today will likely fade with time. In the long run, most people end up mixing and matching approaches as their needs and goals change.
Most importantly, consider whether the food monitoring method you choose:
- Makes the most sense for your current goals
- Feels doable
- Fits your day-to-day routine
The Benefits of Food Tracking
Most people don’t realize just how much they’re eating.
Research has shown that we often under-estimate our food intake, sometimes by as much as 30 to 50 percent. The two most likely reasons for this are:
1. We don’t realize how calorie-dense many foods can be. Consider that two slices of meat lover’s pizza is about 1,000 calories, and a half-cup of walnuts comes in around 275 calories.
2. We misjudge portions. Without a good reference point, it’s easy to accidentally eat a lot more calories than intended.
This is where food tracking comes in. By measuring and logging foods, you’ll get a better sense of the caloric density of what you commonly eat, as well as a visual guide to portion sizes.
There are three main types of food tracking: calorie counting, macro counting, and hand-size portion tracking.
These methods act as “external guides” that can help you eat the right amounts of food for your body at the right intervals. Do this sufficiently and consistently, and you’ll begin to retrain your body to better regulate the hormones that tell you when you’re hungry and full.
Method: Calorie counting and macro tracking
With calorie counting, you have a set number of calories to eat each day based on your height, weight, age, activity level, and goals.
With macro counting, calories are divided between three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Rather than counting calories specifically, you keep track of how many grams of each macronutrient you’re eating.
Technically, this is indirectly tracking calories, as all food and drink contain macronutrients, and each gram of each type of macronutrient contains a specific number of calories.
Both calorie and macro tracking are rather labor-intensive. Ideally, you’ll use a food scale and/or measuring tools to weigh and measure your food at virtually every meal. Apps like My Fitness Pal or Cronometer have made the logging process much easier, as they contain vast food databases of nutritional values.
The Calorie/Macro Connection:
Each of the three macro groups contains a certain number of calories:
Proteins: 4 kcal
Carbohydrates: 4 kcal
Fats: 9 kcal
Pro’s and Con’s of Calorie/Macro Tracking
~ Provides maximum precision: while not 100% accurate, it’s the best available outside a lab
~ Helps you learn the calorie counts of the food and drinks you commonly consume, and better understand your eating habits
~ If you’re numbers-oriented, can be interesting and empowering
~ If you don’t weigh/measure food and only “estimate” portions, it becomes way less accurate
~ Labor-intensive: if you don’t log immediately after each meal and wait until the end of the day, you’re prone to “forgetting” everything you ate
~ Can take the joy out of eating – when you’re worried about hitting macros or overdoing your calories, it can take away from the social aspects of eating.
~ Associated with several types of disordered eating [2,3,4]
Calorie and macro counting work best for short-term use. Doing it for a few weeks can help you learn more about your current eating habits and give you a better understanding of appropriate portions. Once you have the hang of it, you can transition to hand portions (coming up next) and, eventually, self-regulation.
Method: Hand-size portion tracking
In this system, you use your hand as a personalized, portable portioning tool. You’re not actually measuring food, but instead using your hand to gauge portion size. Because each hand portion correlates to a certain amount of protein, carbs, or fat, this method counts calories and macros for you:
– Your palm determines your protein portion size
– Your fist determines your vegetable portion size
– Your cupped hand determines your starch (carb) portion size
– Your thumb determines your fat portion size.
The number of portions of each that you should eat every day is based on your sex, body weight, goals, activity level, and eating preferences.
Pro’s and Con’s of Hand-Size Portion Tracking
~ Convenient and easy to understand
~ No need for a food scale or measuring tools
~ Works with any eating style (Mediterranean, paleo, keto, plant-based, etc)
~ Precise enough for most people
~ Great for people with messy, complex lives (isn’t that most of us?)
~ Harder to do when eating foods that aren’t “simple” or have multiple ingredients
~ Often requires manual tracking – very few apps available for this method
~ Not as effective for those with aggressive goals (ex. physique competitors, weight-class athletes)
Hand portions are 95% as accurate as weighing, measuring, and tracking portions—and a lot easier to do. Since calorie databases—the tool most commonly used to track calories and macros—can be off by as much as 20%, the 5% difference here is negligible for most.
Want to learn your personal hand-sized portions should be? Click here to request a Personalized Calorie, Macro and Hand Portion Guide prepared just for you.
Nutritional Training Wheels
Ultimately, we want to think of food tracking methods as nutritional training wheels. They give you the guidance and calibration you need to achieve balance on your own.
You might need these training wheels for longer or shorter periods of time, or maybe a combination of tracking strategies to find the right balance. But ultimately, the goal is to drop your training wheels and move towards knowing what, how much, and when to eat without militant tracking or monitoring. This is because counting calories, or grams, or portions takes work – and most people really don’t want to do this long-term.
This is where mindful eating and intuitive eating come in – internal guides that help you tune into your body’s appetite signals. They help you better sense when you’re truly hungry and to stop eating once you’re satisfied. This is a skill known as self-regulation.
Babies self-regulate naturally, stopping when they’re full, no matter how much milk or formula is left in a bottle. Most adults, however, have forgotten how to tap into this ability. Mindful and intuitive eating can help you regain this skill.
This is where most of us want to be. But no one accomplishes this overnight – it’s a skill that takes practice.
Method: Mindful and Intuitive Eating
Mindful eating means paying attention to the experience, feelings, and sensations you have around eating. Practices like eating slowly and eating until 80% full are a part of mindful eating.
Instead of focusing on eating certain types or amounts of food, mindful eating teaches you how to regulate your food intake by noticing how your body and mind feel when you eat.
Intuitive eating is similar, but it rejects “diet” messaging and culture. Intuitive eating wasn’t originally intended to achieve a specific body composition goal, but rather to improve your overall relationship with food.
Both approaches involve learning how to tell whether you’re hungry or not, know when you’ve had enough, and be at ease with food.
Benefits of mindful and intuitive eating
These approaches foster a healthy relationship with food. By practicing mindful and intuitive eating, you can improve your ability to self-regulate. Over time, you’ll remove the training wheels of external guides—calorie counting, macro counting, and tracking hand portions—and enjoy more flexibility and freedom, while staying on track.
Mastering these self-regulatory skills has also been shown to strengthen self-efficacy—the belief you can reach your goals. This can boost your confidence, motivation, and self-assuredness in pursuing your health goals.
You can apply the principles of mindful and intuitive eating anytime and anywhere. No matter what food options are available, you can always eat slowly and mindfully. Understanding what it feels like to be hungry, satiated, full, and/or overstuffed is a lifelong skill, and these methods give you practice.
Importantly, you train your mind to understand that hunger isn’t an emergency. When you feel hungry, it’s common to panic and want to eat whatever you see. But when you really start paying attention to your hunger cues, you’ll learn that you’re absolutely going to feel hungry sometimes, and that it’s okay. You might even find the feeling passes, or that you really aren’t all that hungry. It could be you were craving food to help you cope with pain, shame, guilt, or stress.
You might also realize you are, in fact, really hungry. But when you understand that hunger isn’t an emergency, you’ll have the time and space to make more thoughtful food choices.
When you combine mindful/intuitive eating with tracking hand portions, calories, or macros, it’s the best of both worlds: external guidelines to help you become more aware and make better choices, and learning to better self-regulate your intake by paying attention to how food makes you feel.
What to do next…
Step 1: Start where you are
Determine the approach that best matches your lifestyle, goals, and preferences. For most people, this means a combination of methods.
Also, use the nutritional training wheel approach—calorie counting, macro counting, hand portion tracking—to learn how to better gauge portion sizes, build quality meals, and optimize your progress To track your food intake, you’ll need to determine your starting point. Click here to request your Personalized Calorie, Macro and Hand Portion Guide from me.
This will give you the calories, macros, and hand portions to eat to achieve your desired goal – losing weight, eating to improve performance or simply overall better health.
Then use the targets that correspond to your chosen tracking method. This is your baseline. Follow this approach as consistently as possible for two weeks.
Ideally, you should try to combine your food tracking efforts with intuitive/mindful strategies: paying attention to your internal cues, eating slowly, and stopping when you’re about 80 percent full.
Step 2: Monitor and adjust
When it comes to tracking your food, accuracy is an illusion. All tracking options—even the most careful calorie counting—are inaccurate to some degree. Fortunately, when it comes to food tracking, pinpoint accuracy isn’t what really drives results. Consistency is what’s most important.
When you track what you eat, regardless of which method you choose, you’re getting a consistent measurement of your food intake. So even though the calorie counts aren’t 100 percent accurate, you’ve still established a solid and repeatable baseline. Then you monitor your progress: are you losing weight, gaining weight, or maintaining?
From here, you simply use your preferred tracking method to adjust your food intake, if needed, to achieve your desired outcome. This process happens no matter how accurate your food tracking method. This is because there’s no way to precisely predict how many calories your body needs each day. Even the best calculators only provide an estimate to start from.
Think of it as an experiment. If you don’t get the results you want, make small tweaks until you see progress. Let’s say you want to lose weight and your Personalized Nutrition Guide advises you eat:
- If you’re counting calories: 2,500 calories per day
- If you’re counting macros: 200 grams of protein, 200 grams of carbs, and 100 grams of fat per day
- If you’re tracking hand portions: 7 palms of protein, 6 fists of vegetables, 6 handfuls of carbs, and 7 thumbs of fats per day
But after two weeks, the scale hasn’t budged. Your next move? You could reduce your intake by:
- 250 calories per day (if you’re counting calories)
- 30 grams of carbs and 15 grams of fat (if you’re counting macros)
- 1 handful of carbs and 2 thumbs of fat (if you’re tracking hand portions)
Monitor for another two to four weeks, and if needed, adjust again using the same process.
Now you’re making modifications using feedback from your progress, not on your initial calculations. This is how you optimize your food intake for your individual needs.
Step 3: Find your sweet spot
As you reach your goal, you can fully transition to self-regulation. This doesn’t mean you have to forget about calories or macros or hand portions. In fact, you’ll continue to use the skills you’ve built to get to this point.
For example, you now have a better sense of how many calories and macros you’re eating. You also understand appropriate portion sizes, and have an increased awareness of food quality.
You might still reference your palm when determining how much protein to put on your plate, but you won’t need to track it. In essence, you’ve now internalized these external guides.
You’re now using what you know to mindfully build out meals (without moralizing food). But you’re only doing so when you’re physically hungry (unless you’re making a conscious choice to eat something when not hungry). Then you’re eating these meals slowly, until satisfied.
But also know this: Whenever you want to make significant body changes, you may find it helpful—and perhaps even necessary—to use external guides again. The methods are there for you, if the need arises.
And remember: Think beyond the food
Food is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters. That’s true even if weight loss is your goal. A well-rounded program will focus on not just nutrition, but also on these important factors:
- Getting more quality sleep
- Moving regularly
- Stress management
- Improving your outlook and mindset
That way, you’re thriving in all the domains of health – and that’s what we should all be working toward.
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3. Linardon, J., Messer, M. (2019). My fitness pal usage in men: Associations with eating disorder symptoms and psychosocial impairment. Eating Behavior, 33: 13-17.
4. Simpson, C.C., Mazzeo, S.E. (2017). Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology. Eating Behavior, 25: 89-92.
5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Current as of 9/20/2018). Guidance for Industry: Guide for Developing and Using Data Bases for Nutrition Labeling.
6. Sairanen, E., Tolvanen, A., Karhunen, L., Kolehmainen, M., Jarvela-Reijonen, E., Lindroos, S., Peuhkuri, K., Korpela, R., Ermes, M., Mattila, E., Lappalainen, R. (2017). Psychological flexibility mediates change in intuitive eating regulation in acceptance and commitment therapy interventions. Public Health Nutrition, 20(9): 1681-1691.