I have a love-hate, on-again, off-again relationship with tracking. Counting calories, following macronutrients, weekly weigh-ins, measuring thigh circumference, medieval body fat pinchers…these are a few of our favorite things. I’ve calorie counted “successfully” a few times in my life and “unsuccessfully” hundreds more. I’ve filled page after page with my scrawled little number columns with circled grand totals; 1340, 1760, 1056. More recently, MyFitnessPal hangs on to my food and exercise history, just in case I need to revisit my carb count for the second Tuesday in March.
What I like about tracking is it serves as an educational tool and a bit of a wake up call. It’s a great way to see if you are eating a nutritionally imbalanced diet. It reminds you how many empty crap calories really are in junk food and look, you haven’t had a lick of vegetables all damn day. It helps you see that those vegetables CAN be eaten all damn day without racking up your totals, if you can tolerate the gas. You become more aware of serving sizes and portion control.
What I hate about it is it sucks for me. It feels tedious, unrealistic to maintain for the REST OF MY LIFE and above all, it becomes another measure on which to judge myself for not staying “on track”. I have seen some people remain objective as calculating scientists while tracking. I am not one of those people. I am more like the majority of the women, and some men, who come into my office telling me they were “bad” or “good”, confessing their “misbehavior” over the weekend. And despite their increased energy, improved nutritional intake and hammering a new notch in their belt, they hang their head in defeat because my stupid scale didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. All their efforts down the drain because apparently the scale is the only true Great Measure of Success. Of greater concern are the folks who weigh themselves multiple times a day or burst into my office excitedly shaking their little fists in celebration, “I’m down to 900 calories a day!!”
The biggest problem I see with tracking is a lot of us cannot be objective scientists about our weight and our bodies. For social, cultural and personal reasons, we attach a certain level of judgement or shame to our data. As a result, we restrict ourselves rather than use it to learn healthy eating patterns. If binging is what you want, restriction is the best trigger for that. Punishing yourself by withholding forbidden foods will lead to rewarding yourself with that food later. When we tightly control what and how to eat, we skip over the important why. We eat “points” and not because our stomachs are growling or simply because food can be absolute, delicious joy.
No one method works for everyone. Some people actually find tracking fun. If you can do it without self-judgment, then you’ve found an appropriate tool. I encourage most of my clients to track even for a few days for educational purposes and mostly to point out they’re not getting enough vegetables. No one gets enough vegetables.
But if you are someone who can’t track without beating yourself up, you might want to take a different approach. Intuitive or mindful eating is learning to trust your body’s hunger signals and paying attention to the why you eat. It pulls you out of the language of “behaving and misbehaving”. You notice how food affects your body and leads you to realize, “Hmmm…that doesn’t work for me” vs. “I’m a bad, bad monkey.”
Despite my optimism about the premise of intuitive eating I have my doubts that people would honestly embrace it, including myself, due to its promotion of well-being over weight loss. Call me cynical, but are we even capable of eating mindfully without that nagging “But…but…will this help me lose weight?!” itching away in the back of our brains? Can we focus on well-being over weight loss as a society? Right now, I would emphatically say “no”. We’re not even close.
What do you think? Has tracking worked for you, in the long run? Do you have to track forever and ever to stay the course? Would you trust intuitive eating?
Are you eating all your vegetables?