Knowing what you’re eating is one thing, but understanding what you’re eating is another thing entirely.
When we place what we’re eating and drinking under a microscope, we’re able to see how that consumption affects our mood, sleep, weight, work, well-being, and appearance.
To uncover this treasure trove of information requires you to track the food and drink you consume.
Thankfully, this doesn’t need to be arduous. It can be. But it doesn’t need to be.
When Food-Tracking is Taken to The Extreme
The idea of food-tracking often conjures up the image of a neurotic quantified-self nerd weighing their food, and calculating micro-nutrients on an unfathomable spreadsheet.
If you want life to get to this state of neurosis, check out these great biohacking podcasts. These podcasts are full of cases studies and research showing what we can achieve as we learn more about how food is affecting our bodies, including:
- Using “real food” to fight cancer
- Improving fertility through food
- Consuming resistant starch to curb hunger
Using food-tracking for these purposes is on the extreme end of the spectrum, requiring specialist equipment, expensive blood tests, and all the rest.
You Don’t Need to be a Neurotic
As a non-neurotic, you’ll probably be looking for patterns that are a little less ambitious. You’ll want to gain insights into the effects of the food you’re consuming by using little more than a smartphone app or a simple Excel spreadsheet. You’re in the right place.
In its very basic form, tracking your food whether via an app or a paper food diary has some very real benefits.
Losing weight becomes easier as you keep a close eye on the types of food you’re consuming. This includes the amounts of sugars, carbs, proteins, and fats that constitute those foods.
When you can see the proportion of healthy to unhealthy food you’re eating, choosing to eat more balanced meals with better nutrients becomes easier.
A World of Self-Knowledge
When you advance your very basic food-tracking habit just a little further, a whole world opens up. By running some very simple experiments, you can begin to discover things like:
- How drinking water effects your skin
- Which foods you’re intolerant or sensitive to
- Whether caffeine is making you more or less productive
- How carbs in the evening effect your sleep
- How high protein breakfasts effect your energy levels through the day
- Why you keep eating even when you’re not hungry
- Which kind of meals most affect your mood
The list goes on. Provided you have a little patience and are able to track the right data, these insights are open to everyone.
Get Started with Food-Tracking
Over the past few years a range of quality food-tracking apps have been released. As you input information about your meals, these apps draw on their library of nutritional data to calculate the overall macro and micro-nutrient content of those meals.
On its own, this information is great for helping you to lose weight, or increase your nutrient intake. If you want to run some basic experiments, like those above, you’ll also need to track other data to analyze alongside your food data.
This is by no means a perfect solution. You need to be online to use the app. Changing the quantities of some of the foods in the food library can sometimes be confusing. And the heavy focus on “calorie counting” is not a reliable measure of healthy eating.
But considering the app comes with a library of over 3 million food and drink items, you can track virtually any meal imaginable. You can save meals that you commonly eat for easier input in the future. And there are also built-in meals from a ton of restaurant chains. When reviewing your meals, you can see the micro and macro-nutrient breakdown.
On top of this, there are two added benefits of using MyFitnessPal. You can easily track even the most complex of workouts within the app. And you can connect your account to other apps for greater insight including Jawbone, Fitbit, Apple Health, MapMyRun, WalkMeter etc. There are plenty of ways to export your MyFitnessPal food diary, too.
If MyFitnessPal isn’t for you, there are other options. For weight loss LoseIt! (Free on Android, iOS) is a popular choice, including the ability to connect to other apps and devices. For something simpler, CHRON-o-Meter (Web, Android, iOS) is also worth checking out.
If you’d rather avoid apps altogether, download this Excel Calorie Counter with Recipe Calculator which can be found on this page (direct download). We’ve given detailed instructions on creating the perfect meals with this spreadsheet.
Tracking Everything Else
Being able to compare your food data to other data you collect is where the real benefit of food-tracking lies.
What you choose to track depends on what you want to learn, with the following suggestions all being free or affordable choices for tracking a wide range of metrics.
TracknShare LITE (Free, iOS) is a powerful app that allows you to track pretty much whatever you like. Whether that’s stress levels, back pain, the time you woke up, time in front of a screen, your mood, productivity etc.
It’s through combining this kind of information with your food data that you can start to see how things like caffeine affect your productivity. This kind of tracking is also easily available by building a simple Excel spreadsheet. If you know of a similar app to this for Android, please let us know in the comments!
If you want to find out how certain food items are affecting your sleep, download SleepBetter (Free, iOS, Android). This is an app that you place on your bed. As you sleep, it measures how restless you are throughout the night, allowing you to see a detailed overview of your night’s sleep the next day.
Used alongside your food diary, you’ll be able to see how alcohol, late-night snacks, etc. affect your quality of sleep.
If you’re working to improve your heart rate and cardiovascular health, being able to reliably track your heart rate is important. There are a number of smart heart rate trackers available including the Jarv Premium Heart Rate Monitor ($30) or the Polar H7 Heart Rate Sensor (from $50).
If you’re altering your diet to try to reduce body fat, Skulpt Aim ($149) is a smart device that uses a range of sensors to instantly calculate the body fat around various muscles.
Perhaps you’re experimenting with a high fat diet. Tracking each of your meals, along with body fat measurements will enable you to figure out the precise ratio of macro-nutrients you should be aiming for to achieve your body fat goals.
The List Goes On
As you can imagine, the list of things you can track goes on. The number of health tracking devices on the market is growing quickly, including blood glucose monitors, drink-tracking flasks, and pulse oximeters.
Understanding Your Data
I’ve written before about how simply collecting data is useless. Unless that data spurs on behavioral change, it’s pointless.
For this to happen, you need to be able to compare the data you collect to see how one measurement is affecting another. Some patterns will just jump out at you. For subtler patterns, you’ll need to look a little closer.
Most of the apps and devices mentioned above allow you to export your data to CSV. You can then view this data in Excel (or an Excel alternative).
Once that data is all in one place, you can start playing around with it, creating charts, and looking for trends. If you’re a complete Excel beginner, there are a number of experts who can teach you for free. For simple experiments like the ones mentioned in this article, you’ll only need to create some basic charts. That being said, the more proficient you are with data analysis, the more insights you’ll be able to tease out of your data.
Becoming a Food-Tracking Addict
Once you start noticing a few trends in the data you collect, it’s easy to become a food-tracking addict.
First, you may stop eating food after 7pm as it makes it difficult to sleep. Then you may limit yourself to two cups of coffee per day, as anything over that makes you cranky. Then you might notice that filling your plate with 50% veggies massively increases your energy levels. Who knows?
The point is to start collecting enough data so that you can learn important lessons. Lessons that you can act on to improve certain aspects of your life.
The apps and devices mentioned above will help you a long way along this road.
What would be your first experiment to learn the effects food has on your body?
Image Credits: Fish with vegetables by Romaset via Shutterstock, Spaxiax via Shutterstock.com, Y51aFguqRcGTgsYRYBXV_20140104_085932 by Scott Schwartz (Flickr), Closeup of businesswoman holding graphs in hand via Shutterstock.com Businessperson standing against the blackboard (edited)