What You Learn by Tracking Your Food Intake

By Lisi Bratcher | May 16, 2019, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

food journalShould you track your food intake?

Yes, tracking your food and macro intake can be a useful, but often underutilized, training tool for athletes.

Making notes of your food intake is the best way to know how you are fueling your body. Studies of endurance and collegiate athletes have shown that many athletes have surprisingly inadequate knowledge of their nutritional needs and intakes. These findings match my own experience when asking the athletes I work with how much protein or carbohydrates they get daily; most don't know.

Nutritional knowledge and understanding help athletes realize the importance of dietary choices. There is a direct link between higher nutritional education and better dietary practice. The more you understand about nutrition, the better choices you can make, and the more you can improve your athletic performance and overall health.

What Do I Learn By Logging My Food?

Logging your food helps you identify trends and make adjustments so that you can maintain a healthy average to support your overall well-being and your training needs. Proper fueling is especially important to endurance athletes.

A good portion of distance athletes observed in various studies have been shown to be unaware of their specific nutritional needs. No matter if asked about pre, during, or post-workout, they did not know what their intake goals should be or what their intake percentages were. Most athletes I work with tend to overestimate their protein and carbohydrate consumption and underestimate their fat intake.

Without logging your food, it is tricky to know how much of each food group you are getting. So know your nutritional goals and log your intake to see if you are meeting your goals. Proper nutrition is an easy way to boost your performance.

How Often Should I Track My Food?

Food tracking does not have to be an everyday thing. Since writing it down and adding it into an online log can be a tedious job, do it as little as possible. Here are a couple of
suggestions for getting started.

How to Start Tracking Your Food

Establish your nutritional goals and then start with tracking one day to give you a quick idea of how you are doing. Repeat it two weeks later after trying to implement a few better fueling strategies, such as reducing added sugars and then see how you are doing.

Long Term Food Tracking

Log your food for two weekdays and one weekend day to evaluate your nutritional intake. Implement some mindful eating strategies such as eating a piece of fruit before having a sweet dessert so that you will eat more fruit and less dessert. Try controlling portion size by using smaller plates. Work some healthier food choice into your daily routing. After about two to four weeks, repeat the process to see how you are doing and try to implement more healthy habits.

How Long Should I Track My Intake?

Tracking should only be done sporadically to avoid focusing on numbers too much. If we crunch numbers too strictly, we get distracted by the numbers and forget why we eat which is — we want to fuel our daily training and physical activities — instead of just reaching a caloric number.

Every two to four weeks is a good interval. It gives you enough time to test something new such as experimenting with simple healthy recipes, learning how to prep meals and adding in extra activity.

Mindful Eating vs. Counting Calories

Tracking food is important, but not for counting calories! Instead use it to help you develop mindful eating. Use it to check your macros and micros (more on them below) and learn how to adjust your fueling. Keep the big picture in mind which is — most athletes benefit from eating healthier carbs, less saturated fat and leaner protein.

We want the nutritional information, but without getting lost in the details. As triathletes, our main goal is to increase our nutritional awareness and to find healthy foods we enjoy which help us to improve our swim-bike-run performance and our overall well being.

Macros Needed To Perform?

Yes, macros are the nutrients you need in large amounts, such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats. A diet high in healthy carbohydrates and lean protein helps improve training, recovery and race performances. Triathletes should strive for a dietary average consisting of 50-65% carbohydrates, 10-20% proteins and 20-30% fats, depending on their training phase.

Several research teams have found that most non-elite, multisport endurance athletes do not meet their sports nutrition recommendations for carbohydrates. I notice the long-distance endurance athletes I work with are prone to under-eat healthy carbs. If you are not tracking your intake, it can be hard to meet a daily goal of 400 grams of carbs or more, which is a reasonable amount for a long-distance athlete during an intense training phase. 

Why That Many Carbs?

Besides fueling your muscles, carbohydrates are more important than most people realize. An intake low in carbohydrates can raise the natural stress response in your body by increasing the hormone cortisol. This can result in a decrease of your immune function. A low carb intake is also related to Relative Eating Deficiency Symptoms (RED-S). This condition, formerly known as the Female Triad but happens in male athletes as well, and can lead to a loss in bone density.

Eating the proper amounts of healthy carbs keeps the immune system strong to ward off illnesses and keeps your bone density high to avoid injury. These two benefits are very important for all people but especially athletes in training. An athlete in training knows that every lost training day reduces the likelihood of reaching goals and improving performances.

Micros To Boost Endurance?

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals which are necessary for many metabolic processes in the body. Ideally, athletes will eat a diet filled with nutrient dense foods high in vitamins and minerals.

Some vitamins such as C, E and Niacin may help athletes to tolerate their training better. Some minerals such as calcium, iron, sodium and zink have been shown to have health and ergogenic value for athletes. Together, vitamins and minerals ensure an adequate fuel supply, control muscle contraction, promote bone health and improve immune systems.

Macros vs. Calories

Your goal should be to increase the quality of your intake, not just limit your calories. Eating healthy carbs, which are unprocessed and a good source of fiber such as quinoa, oats, sweet potatoes, etc. will insure you are eating healthy calories.

Decreasing processed carbs and added sugars should also be part of the plan. The goal here is to reduce the amount of empty calories you eat. For your protein you should experiment with lean protein sources, either plant or animal based, like soy, pea- protein, grilled chicken, flaxseeds etc. Find something you like and add it into your routine. For fats, try to choose healthy, unsaturated fats over saturated fats. Olive oil is one of the healthiest fats available and easy to work into a healthy diet. Think about using olive oil and vinegar on a salad instead of a highly processed, fatty ranch dressing. Start with a couple simple changes and try to turn them into healthy habits.

Focusing solely on the quantity by counting calories will NOT help you because the amount of calories alone tells you very little about your nutritional intake. Calories alone do not speak to nutrition at all.

Think Quality vs Quantity

Intaking 500 calories can be easily accomplished by eating two large chocolate chip cookies. The cookies have little nutritional value. A much healthier way to intake 500 calories is to eat a large salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, roasted seeds, grilled chicken and brown rice. This iso-caloric option is packed with nutritional value including desirable macro and micro nutrients.

Train on :)