For many, keeping a food diary and tracking calorie intake is an effective strategy for successful weight loss. Paying closer attention to both the quantity and quality of what you’re eating can increase accountability and help you to gain a better understanding of your diet and how it’s affecting your goals.
Of course, just because it’s a practical and useful tool doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Keeping tabs on every single thing you eat can become tedious and bothersome, especially because keeping a food diary is a habit that takes time to build, and like with any other worthwhile weight loss method, results won’t come right away.
There are, however, simple ways to make your calorie-counting efforts a little less mind-numbing and a lot more efficient.
Below Elle Penner MPH, RD, Registered Dietitian and Food & Nutrition Editor at MyFitnessPal and a member of the California Dietetics Association and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shares her expert tips for easy and successful calorie-counting.
1. Don’t focus on calories too much.
Penner says the number one mistake that people make when using calorie-counting for weight loss is getting stuck in the “calorie is a calorie” mindset.
“[They focus] too much on calories as a number and not enough on the composition and quality of those calories,” she said. “1,500 calories of empty calories, like refined carbohydrates and added sugar, will leave someone feeling vastly different—and likely much worse—than 1,500 calories of fiber-filled carbohydrates, high quality protein, heart-healthy fats, and vitamin and mineral-rich fruits and veggies.”
How can you make sure to avoid this common mistake? Penner suggests paying close attention to the foods you eat by always thinking about what types of nutrients they’re made up of.
“[Make] every calorie count by getting the majority of your calories from nutrient-rich foods,” she said.
2. Start small.
“Commit to tracking only what you know you can achieve,” Penner says. “In the beginning, this may be as little as one meal every day for a week, or three complete days out of seven. This will begin to develop the habit without making it feel overly burdensome at the start.”
3. Find a friend.
Penner says that enlisting a friend who will count their calories along with you will provide a support network to help keep you accountable to your goals. “MyFitnessPal users with friends within the app lose twice as much weight as those who join solo,” she says.
4. Use a digital tracking tool.
“The biggest challenge associated with calorie-counting is that it can be tedious and requires a fair amount of attention to detail, self-discipline, accountability, and consistency,” says Penner
She explained that using an app like MyFitnessPal will help take away the tediousness of calorie-counting by making the nutritional information of virtually any food available at your fingertips.
5. Track what you eat, when you eat.
“Taking a minute or two to log your breakfast just before or after you eat it will makes it feel less burdensome and seriously cuts down on the chance you'll miscalculate what or how much you ate,” Penner says.
6. Stick with it.
“When it comes to diet, we tend to be creatures of habit—that is, we typically eat the same foods over and over again,” says Penner. She continued on to explain that digital calorie-counting apps like MyFitnessPal use this to your advantage because it will save lists of your most recent and frequent foods.
7. Pay attention to the bigger picture.
“I definitely think looking at nutrition intake as a whole, rather than just calories consumed, is the key to learning what makes something a healthier choice,” says Penner. “A food diary can shed lots of insight on what you are and aren't getting from the foods you eat. By learning from this it’s possible to make small adjustments along the way that, over time, can make a big impact.”
8. Keep up the good work.
Make sure not to fall back on old, unhealthy eating habits once you’ve reached your goal.
“It's important to realize that weight maintenance takes work, too,” says Penner. “It's all about sustaining those healthy eating habits and looking at food primarily as fuel and nourishment for the body.”
She suggests continuing to track your food and exercise even after you’ve reached your goal weight.
“[It] can be a simple and beneficial habit to stick with simply because it continues to bring mindfulness and accountability to eating. For those who do continue to track, they should be sure to adjust their nutrition goals–and enjoy the bump in calories,” she says.