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Food Tracking for Weight Loss: Mirroring vs. Managing

A client came to me for nutrition help a while back, and in response to my intake form question "Are you willing to track your food intake?" she responded:

"Yes, but I'm a more of tracker than a planner."

That stuck with me.

For years, I've encouraged clients to become more mindful of their food intakes by using language like "tracking," "logging," or "recording."

But after that comment, I realised that there is so much more to effective nutrition work than just writing down what one eats - and that weight loss success rests on being able to utilise a tracking app correctly, not just as a dear-diary.

That first term from my title, mirroring, reflects what most people do when they first start using a food tracking system like MyFitnessPal or my Coach Amanda Lim app. They simply eat per normal, or perhaps per "trying to be healthier," and do their best to guesstimate portions and remember to type all their details into the log.

This style of food tracking often produces comments like, "Wow, I had no idea salmon had that much fat!" or "Whoa, my brand of Greek yogurt is actually packed with added sugar!" And while these revelations are powerful, when it comes to most people's goal of trying to lose weight - they're a bit of a time-waster.

You see, food mirroring is very much a reactive exercise, not a proactive one. When you simply move through the day eating food, and add it all to the food app in retrospect, you can't really course correct. You are very likely back-estimating the portions you already ate, rather than accounting for the portions you should be eating. You might be forgetting certain things you ate, depending on how long you wait to log them, and you may not even be aware of some of the things that were actually in your meals if you ate them out (more on that here).

That's why, when you're really trying to achieve meaningful weight loss in the most efficient and effective way possible, I recommend you cut to the chase and start managing your calorie intake from the get-go - not just mirroring it.

Here are a few tips on what proper nutrition management looks like:

  • instead of eating something and then trying to record it or "find a similar food" on your tracking app, log your food as you are preparing it (weighing and measuring each ingredient) to make sure it fits your target macros/calories - then make adjustments if needed so there are no surprises

  • if you aren't sure which choice is best when you're out at a restaurant, check the menu beforehand, and do a quick "pre-log" of BOTH choices to see which meal best fits your macros and calories goal - then choose the better fit

  • plan at least 2 of your 3 meals for each day of the week, at least for weekdays (where routines tend to be a bit more "set") and again, "pre-log" them into your food tracker so you know exactly where you'll fall when planning that third meal of each day

  • create several "go to" meals that fit your macros and calorie target precisely (quick plug: my app DOES this for you, with over 100 meal choices in YOUR target range) and input those into your tracking app, so at the click of a button you can structure the rest of your day around meals you KNOW are working for you

When it comes to nutrition planning for weight loss, there should be no surprises. There should be no major revelations about how many portions are actually in a single bag of chips, or what 200g of chicken breast looks like on a plate, because you should be managing those choices before putting them in your body - failure to plan is planning to fail, as my clients have so often heard me say.

As a final parting thought, know this: I know, and empathise, with the fact that the nutrition management approach can feel hard, especially in the beginning. But you know what?

Being overweight for a lifetime is also hard. Staying in the dark about what you're actually consuming so you keep making the same diet mistakes over and over is super hard. So as the saying goes - choose your hard. Get literate and numerate with your health - plan and manage your meals - and finally empower yourself to get the results you deserve.

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