Tracking Is Important. And Dangerous.

A food diary to track eating can be as simple as the piece of paper my daughter is currently using, or more sophisticated like the app on my phone that I’m currently using. For both of us, tracking is absolutely essential: my daughter needs to record what she ate and how it impacts her mood, I want to find out how my diet impacts my energy levels.

The simple piece of paper doesn’t focus on metrics. We could record how much of everything she ate and look up the nutritional information and track those by hand. However, we’re looking for more qualitative data—she ate ice cream, and the next day she had several melt-downs. Or she didn’t. We’re just trying to establish simple cause and effect, and the more black-and-white terms of this way of tracking is sufficient.

The app is all about metrics. I can keep track of how much protein I’ve eaten, down to the gram. I know how much sodium I’ve consumed, and how much sugar and saturated fat and fiber. Most dangerously for me, I can also keep track of the calories.

Why do I say ‘dangerously’? After all, calories-in vs calories-out is the best way to lose weight. Isn’t it?

I have a few reasons. First, my goal isn’t weight loss, my goal is increasing my energy level. The hypothesis I’m operating under is that keeping my protein and carbohydrate consumption below a certain percentage of my entire diet will allow me to have more energy, specifically in the early afternoon when, since high school, I’ve always sort of collapsed and fallen asleep. The amount of total calories doesn’t matter, in this case; what matters is what percent of those calories comes from fat, protein, and carbohydrates. In fact, I know that consuming too few calories is extremely detrimental to me. I don’t respond well to cutting my calories, regardless of what is ‘supposed’ to happen.

Most apps place the focus on calories, with the macro-nutrient breakdown (carbohydrates, protein, and fat, also known as ‘macros’) given is interesting information but certainly not the center of attention. I’ve not found any apps that have the primary emphasis on macros (but I’d love to find one). Some apps will allow you to set a macro goal, but calorie intake is still front and center.

In essence, when the app places calories front and center, the emphasis is always going to be on weight loss. Our culture being what it is, it is very, very hard to move our eyes away from that goal. I can’t always forget about it, and I’ve been working on it for many years. And by thinking about weight loss when that isn’t my goal can derail the choices I’m making about my actual goal. I’d rather have more energy than be skinny, honestly, but keeping that in mind when an app is telling me I have to stop eating because I’ve hit an arbitrary number is very difficult.

The other reason is that the idea of tracking calories is, at best, more complicated than simply calories-in, calories-out. Our metabolism is an extremely sophisticated interplay of various factors, and our weight is reflective of a great deal more than simply how many calories we choose to consume vs how active we choose to be. (Clearly a topic for another day.)

I have a couple ways that I resolve that tension between the need to track to figure out my macro-nutrient ratios, and the need to avert my eyes from the big, flashing ‘CALORIES ARE EVERYTHING’ sign. Sometimes I simply set the calorie goal way higher than what I know I will eat, and allow my consumption to be what it is.

Sometimes I adjust the goal on the fly, to reflect what I’m actually eating. Did I eat, say, 2000 calories today? Good, then I’ll set my goal for 2000. Now am I eating 2400 calories? Okay, change the goal again.

Finally, when I’m really feeling on my game, I’ll just let the calorie goal be what it is and ignore it. But I’m always aware of what my brain is doing with that information, and if I’m finding that I’m obsessing about that number, I switch things up so that it isn’t an issue any more.

And then I get back to focusing on the aspect of tracking that really is important to me: does this food, in these proportions, make me feel full of energy? Because that’s so much more important to me than what size jeans I wear.