Journaling Calorie Intake is More Than Just Numbers

I see a lot of value in food journaling for estimating your calorie intake, but also for seeing patterns and attitudes towards food. If you realize that your food log will never be 100 percent accurate (unless you’re in a lab) and use it as a tool for awareness, it can be very eye-opening to see the calories in foods and drinks.

No matter what your opinion of tracking calorie intake or what your methods for losing weight, “intake has to equal expenditure,” says Dr. James O. Hill, Executive Director of The Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. “Lots of things affect expenditure, but it’s an absolute truth, not something that’s up for debate.”

Metabolism flexibility, insulin resistance, and lactate metabolism all play a role in your fat-burning efficiency too, of course. In fact, metabolism’s role was a concept discussed at length at the FitSocial Conference last weekend. But overeating is the primary reason for weight gain.

How Are You and Food Doing?


My dad and me when I was about ten? Love the bell bottoms.

People’s relationship with food fascinates me. Everyone has a “relationship” with food, even if they’re like my clients and are mostly interested in leaning up and building muscle. We learn a lot of our associations with food in childhood (I believe).

My sister maintains that I “always ate just enough to keep myself alive,” which is probably true given my skin-and-bones appearance as a kid. We only had sweets on special occasions and food wasn’t a “thing.” I still eat primarily to fuel myself and dislike spending time thinking about or preparing food.

I also have a fast metabolism which may be partially genetic, but also is largely due to my own behavior: Consistent strength training (which increases metabolically active muscle) and eating nutritiously dense foods in appropriate portions. If I didn’t do these things, I would probably be carrying some fat right now due to aging alone.

I track my calorie intake every four or five months as a reality check or if my goals are changing. I know that every day I consume a different number of calories (anywhere from 1,900 to 2,500) and it all balances out by the end of the week. Since I never gain weight, I know I’m consuming about the same amount of energy as I burn.

My strategies may not work exactly the same for you; we’re all built differently and have unique histories. But I share with you this day of clean eating. You’ll notice that I eat a lot of carbs; since I have a healthy metabolism and strength train, my body metabolizes carbs and fat well instead of storing more fat. I also eat a lot of the same things and sometimes have to consciously try to get more of this vitamin or that nutrient. (My macronutrients range around 45-50 percent carbs, 30 percent fat, and 25 percent protein.)

A Random Day’s Calorie Intake (and More)

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

6:45 a.m.

I’m up. I have coffee, feed the cats, open the blinds, and go straight to my computer. The life of an online coach!

7:30 a.m. Breakfast

I put off breakfast as long as I can stand it so I can get some work done before my daughter gets up. I know I can’t go without breakfast altogether though, so I quickly prepare instant whole-grain oatmeal and add ground flax, chopped walnuts, thawed frozen blueberries, and 1/2 cup non-fat, plain Greek yogurt for protein.

The only other breakfast I ever eat is Nature’s Path Low-Fat Vanilla cereal. I know I don’t need to eat “low fat” foods to maintain the targeted calorie intake, but it’s a habit and I do this with everything I eat. (It’s a good habit, unless I’m trying especially hard to build muscle. Then it’s a pain getting enough calories.)

9:10 a.m. Snack

It’s my daily handful of dry-roasted, unsalted almonds. I eat almonds every day and it’s helped keep my HDL high, according to my doctor (I have genetically high LDL). Incidentally, I know my handful is a quarter cup because I once measured it. I won’t eat them out of the bag – almonds are high in calories and I’d rather not overdo it.

It’s also around this time that I use my Theracane to ease out a few knots in my rear deltoid. Taking care of those knots early on prevents worse pain later.

10:30 a.m.

I’m hungry but I’ll wait for lunch (yeah right). I’ve been drinking lots of filtered water (right from the fridge) that’s keeping my hunger from distracting me too much.

11:00 a.m.

I’ve drank 30 ounces of water so far. My water bottle is just sitting on my desk and I keep filling it up. I’m naturally thirsty… I think it’s all the workouts.

11:10 a.m.

I break down and have a cup of baby carrots. I reason that I’m not quite ready for lunch, but my hunger is distracting me. Crunchy and sweet.

11:45 p.m. Lunch

I’ve tried to wait as long as possible for lunch because I know that if I have lunch too early, I won’t eat enough. Then I’ll be cranky and hungry all afternoon. And this is a workout day – I need to be fueled.

I should note that I’m always FAMISHED by lunch. I work from home so I don’t go out for lunch – otherwise I would probably eat too many calories. But since I’m eating homemade food we have frozen at home (nothing processed), my calories are always in check. Plus I just know what will fill me up.

Lunch is a sandwich and an orange – 4 ounces chunk light tuna in water mixed with three olives, and one tablespoon low-fat mayo on two pieces of whole wheat bread. My lunches revolve around only four or five choices (I could probably use more variety). Sometimes it’s an egg or chicken sandwich, other times a homemade (thawed) turkey burger or turkey meatballs with fruit. I always have meat or eggs with lunch.

After lunch I’m still hungry. MyFitnessPal says the sandwich and orange were less than 400 kcals, but I can tell just by my hunger (I try to hit 500 kcals). So I have a cup of nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt and add two tablespoons of low-fat granola (eyeball that). Now I’m almost overfull, which is pretty rare.

I look at MyFitnessPal and notice that I have only 524 kcals remaining for the day and it’s only 12:30 p.m. This doesn’t stress me out. I clearly need more than my 2,000 calories per day goal; I just use 2,000 as a rough number to stay near. Tomorrow I’ll probably be less hungry (or the next day).

3:00 p.m. Post-Workout

I’m famished after my strength-training workout, which lasted one hour. I have a banana and a protein shake (Gold Standard Natural Whey) and that satisfies me.

5:00 p.m. Snack

We usually eat at 6:00 but I”m starving, probably due to my workout. So I eat a bowl of Grape Nuts (sometimes I’ll eat this at about 9:00 p.m. instead.)

6:00 p.m. Dinner

We have spaghetti with meat sauce and I can barely eat it because I’m so full from the Grape Nuts. This doesn’t usually happen; I may have a smaller snack before dinner (like Chobani) and have a healthy portion of dinner. But today was a super hungry day. And since it was also a high-calorie day, I’m not hungry again the rest of the night.

Have you tracked your behaviors and attitudes about food along with calorie intake? I’d be interested in hearing from you.