Expert: Dr. Anna Turusheva, Dietitian, Associate Professor, PhD, MD, Vice President of Meal Planning Department at Abe Health
Why you should measure your food intake
If “we are what we eat,” then it is worth knowing precisely what we eat. Old-fashioned food journals and modern apps can help build a better understanding of our eating habits and how we balance macronutrients throughout the day. Research shows that food tracking, regardless of the method or meal size, leads to improvements in eating habits. Of course, most people track their food intake when they need to maintain or correct their diet, improve their overall health, lose or gain weight, or eat properly while training.
The three most common approaches to food tracking are counting calories, weighing grams, and measuring portions. Although counting calories may seem the most accurate and effective method, this may not be the case.
Why counting calories doesn’t work
Counting calories is based on a well-known formula: losing weight requires eating fewer calories. Since losing or gaining weight is the most common reason people track their food, it’s no surprise that counting calories is so popular. But while this approach seems simple and easy, a narrow focus on calories is hard to maintain and may even encourage unhealthy eating patterns. Drawbacks to counting calories include:
- It’s complicated. For a successful count, you need to weigh every ingredient and calculate the calories for each of them. Even if your measurements are correct, the end result can vary widely depending on how you cook your food. For meals outside your home, it’s almost impossible to make correct calculations. This is true whether it’s a dish with a complex sauce at a nice restaurant or street food.
- It’s not as healthy as you think. A concentration on calories alone may lead you to overlook the nutritional value of what you eat. You can receive your recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories from processed or packaged food as easily as from whole foods. While they may have the same amount of energy, these two diets will not contain the same nutrients and will affect your health in wildly different ways.
- It doesn’t always produce the expected results. Because our bodies don’t process calories the same, the famous formula of "eat less to lose weight" may simply not work. Energy processing is affected not only by the type of food you eat but also by your level of activity, individual metabolism, and even by the compound of your gut microbiome. Researchers have found that naturally thin people have different microorganisms living in their intestines than those who are overweight.
Of course, a drastic decrease in daily calories may lead to visible results in the short term, but it is almost impossible, as well as unhealthy, to keep the pounds off for a long time. That explains why 80% dieters gain their weight back.
What’s the best way to track your food intake?
Instead of counting calories, most modern dietary guidelines, including those of the USDA, the NHS, and Health Canada, use portions as a measure. Even the World Health Organisation, which still provides dietary recommendations in grams, also indicates an approximate number of servings as well. For example, “a healthy diet includes at least 400 g (i.e., five portions) of fruit and vegetables per day.” The WHO guidelines are based on a recognition that people do not eat in grams. When we estimate the amount of food we plan to eat, we’re more likely to consider volume over weight. While our measurements may not always be precise, it’s easier for us to learn how to determine portions more accurately than to acquire an absolutely new system of measurements.
The tricky question becomes how to evaluate “a portion.” Portion sizes suggested in dietary guidelines are based on grams, and those grams are actually based on the number of calories contained in different foods. To simplify these measurements, dietitians round up these numbers.
For the NHS, one portion of fruits and vegetables is either 80 grams or:
- a medium-sized fruit like banana or apple
- a handful of grapes
- a medium bowl of salad
- an average tomato
- 3 tablespoons of cooked beans.
So if you want to eat the 5 portions of fruits and vegetables per day the NHS recommends, you don't need to calculate how to get those 400 grams, but simply count the foods you use in your meals.
How to maintain a balanced diet
Healthy eating requires more than paying attention to the size and number of portions. You also need to balance the proportions of macronutrients in your diet as well. This is why dietitians consider The Healthy Eating Pyramid diagram (or The Healthy Plate) the gold standard for a healthy diet.
Vegetables, which should make up almost half a ration, form the base of the pyramid. The next level contains whole grains and starchy vegetables and proteins, each of which is about a quarter of a ration. A small amount of healthy fats such as vegetable oils and nuts sits at the top.
There is no place for sugary desserts or highly processed foods in this pyramid because all the guidelines recommend you limit them as much as possible. But these treats can be included in a healthy diet if you track your food. By paying attention to what you eat, the portions you consume, and the proportions of the macronutrients you can naturally develop, you will develop healthy eating behaviours.
You can keep tabs on your portions by yourself or through food tracking apps. For example, Abe App uses the portion method to create an individualised healthy meal plan. After you input your personal data — weight, height, age, physical activity, allergies, etc. — the app calculates how many macronutrients your body needs on a daily basis. The app uses these results to suggest a diet. For example:
X portions of grains
X portions of vegetables
X portions of protein
X portions of desserts and snacks
The amount of portions of different categories might vary based on each day's activity and other factors. For example, you will need more protein in your meals during a period of intense physical training.
Abe suggests not only the number of portions to eat, but also specific products based on individual preferences and restrictions. Using this model, a sample breakfast could be 6 tablespoons of porridge (which equals 2 portions of grains) with one chopped banana on top (1 portion of fruit) and some nuts.
It’s important to remember that more complex meals make tracking harder. Most dietary guidelines recommend cooking at home from scratch as much as possible over restaurants and prepackaged foods. Even when you do eat out, an app like Abe can help you plan something healthy to eat at home the next day. Because to healthy eating tracking requires tracking both the foods you eat and your eating behaviour as a whole.