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The Pros and Cons of Tracking Food & Exercise

Here's what I've learned so far about the usefulness of tracking as a nutrition coach and personal trainer.

Because of my former tech career, I am always on the lookout for ways to harness the power of technology to support healthy eating and fitness. I use software programs on a daily basis to connect with my clients for accountability and support, and I've written a post reviewing tech options that ease the burden of meal planning. One of the most common ways people use tech for health and fitness is tracking apps and devices. I've had firsthand experience as a user and coach over the last 6-7 years, and I wanted to share what I've learned so far.


Pros

  • Raises your awareness about what you're eating and your activity level

  • Allows for a bit more objectivity

  • Gives you the big picture when it comes to consistency

  • Can help you identify trends of eating and exercise that are working/not working for you

  • *There are many free apps which are easy to set up and use, and they can be less time consuming than writing everything down

  • Can encourage a "planning ahead" mindset once patterns begin to emerge

  • Can encourage accountability to yourself

* if you've already invested in technology


Cons

  • Can become obsessive; contraindicated if you've had a history of or inclination toward disordered eating

  • Can encourage unhealthy thinking that you must "negate what you ate"

  • Can take all the enjoyment out of meals and/or exercise

  • Easy to forget to record things beyond food or meals, like snacks and alcohol

  • People are not accurate at eyeballing portion sizes when entering meals

  • Keeps the focus on quantity, rather than quality when it comes to food

  • Puts power in the hands of the app/tracker, rather than in the person's choices

  • Ignores other important aspects of eating & exercising, like paying attention to fullness or finding movement you enjoy and will maintain

  • Keeps the focus on external motivation, rather than finding your internal motivation, which doesn't promote long term change

  • Many of the calorie estimations for foods are imprecise, and don't account for the fact we don't absorb all of the calories we consume, nor for the way food is prepared which changes the amount of calorie load**

  • Many of the calorie estimations for exercise are imprecise, don't account for individual variations in calorie burn or effects of weight history on metabolism**

  • Most importantly, most people don't want to track calories in and out for the rest of their life, making it unsustainable

**For more details, see Precision Nutrition's Article, "The Surprising Problem with Calorie Counting" and Scientific American's article, "Hidden Truths about Calories"




Judging by the length of the lists above, you're probably thinking that the cons outweigh the pros. Actually, I encourage all of my clients to consider tracking their activity and eating (and drinking) for 2-4 weeks. If you're diligent about recording everything, it can give you a lot of awareness about where you can focus your efforts at change. If you're able to add context to what you track, even better. And, if it helps you increase your objectivity by looking at things scientifically, and decrease your self-judgement when it comes to your nutrition and exercise, that's a plus. But I don't recommend using tracking as a long term solution because of the many downsides, particularly because it sets you up for external motivation, which has been shown to be ineffective for long term change. Add that to the hassle of tracking, especially when you're traveling, or go to a friend's for dinner, or forget your device, and it's clear that it has limitations. But perhaps the most important advice I share with my clients on any behavior change tool or strategy is to ask yourself, "Would I be happy doing this for the rest of my life?" Be curious, and give it a go. If you'd like to share what you get out of your experience, send me an email.



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