Tracking what you eat is an important component of a successful diet and exercise plan, but calorie tracking alone can’t really help you see the habits you need to change. Look at the image below. What is the difference between Day 1 and Day 2?
The simple answer of course is you ate 488 extra calories on Day 2. Great, well why did you eat more calories on Day 2, and most importantly how can you use this information to help yourself on Day 3?
In order to see success, you need to change the habits that got you here in the first place. How can a calorie total tell you if you’re grazing too much during the day, or eating too late at night, or overeating to compensate for your workout?
Track your habits
We designed our GO - Meal and Fitness Tracker to help you quickly visualize your actual habits over the course of a day, week, or month. Look at the image below. We use simple circles to visualize your meals and workouts. The larger the circle the larger the meal or workout and the color code is green for a healthy meal, yellow for a mostly healthy meal, red for an unhealthy meal, and orange for an unhealthy meal with at least one redeeming quality. The blue circles are for workouts.
This is an example of something I see all the time when my clients tell me they’re never hungry in the morning so they skip breakfast. When I look into why they aren’t hungry, I typically see the same pattern above. They don’t eat breakfast, tend to eat smaller lunches, then eat big, unhealthy dinners and continue to snack late into the night. Of course they’re not hungry in the morning, their bodies haven’t finished turning all of those fatty foods into body fat.
Once I point out that it’s not a lack of breakfast impacting their weight loss but the excessive nighttime eating, they are able to tone down the late night meals which makes them hungrier in the morning. Front loading your calories into the beginning of your day means you will burn off a lot of it during your most active time. Backloading your calories during your least active time means a larger portion of what you eat will simply be stored as body fat.
Below is a slight variation of the same trend that I also see quite frequently.
It’s the same general idea as the first habit, no breakfast followed by a light lunch, a giant dinner, and late night snacking, but in this case, the person also snacked quite a bit in the afternoon. This person not only has an issue with late night eating, but he also suffers from a perception problem concerning a light lunch. Sometimes just labeling a meal as a light lunch causes the person to find it less filling and makes him more likely to snack later. Whether it was actually high in calories or not doesn’t matter, the perception changes the appetite throughout the day. A quick glance gives this person two habits that he can work on.
Workouts do not give free calories
This is probably one of the things I hate most about standard calorie trackers. They add up all the calories you ate, subtract the calories you burned during a workout, and tell you how many calories you have left. This invariably causes people to seek out “free calories” to reward themselves for all that hard work. As I’ve mentioned in many articles, the calorie values you find in the fitness world are not objective facts, but rather estimates of what likely happened. If you think you burned 700 calories so you get to gorge on pizza and ice cream that day, you are never going to break the habits causing your problems. Look at the graph below.
I see this all the time, but it is especially common with new exercisers. Starting a workout is much easier than giving up your favorite high-calorie foods. If you see your workout as a punishment, then you’re going to reward yourself with comfort food afterwards. You can see in this image that every time this person finishes a big workout (the blue circles in the image above), he makes up for it with some big unhealthy meals afterwards. Discovery of this habit provides some options:
- Try to change up the quality of your meals after a workout. You don’t need to starve, and filling up on some healthier options may curb your desire to seek food rewards.
- Maybe your workout is too long. Longer workouts have been shown to lead to compensation. Maybe if you shorten the time and up the intensity, you won’t feel the need to seek rewards.
- Switch up your workouts. Perhaps you’ve just flat out picked a workout program you hate. Exercise (like healthy eating) can actually be enjoyable if you find the right activity for you. Don’t keep plodding down the same wrong path. If your workouts make you overeat, then they’re not helping anyway.
Snacks count too
As I’ve mentioned before, grazing is one of the habits that seems to trip up so many people. Look at the image below.
This is a perfect example of what’s typically happening when someone comes to me and says, “I eat right, I workout everyday, and I still can’t lose weight.” For the most part they’re right, but the problem is they don’t count those tiny 30 to 50 calorie grazing snacks. On an individual basis, they really don’t mean much, which is why we all mentally discount them, but if you add up each one of those little 50 calorie circles, it becomes a problem. Not only can GO help you see your grazing problem but it’s an excellent tool to force you to reflect on your choice before you pop that “meaningless” snack into your mouth.
Don’t summarize, visualize
People are visual. Numbers have their place, but they can be too abstract. Seeing a bunch of calorie totals is not going to give you insight into why you ate those calories, or how to make real, long-term changes to your habits. To really analyze your habits, you need to easily lay them out in front of you in a way your mind can understand. Give GO a try to see what you’re really doing each day, week, or month. Look for your personal patterns so you can figure out how you can change them.
These were just a few examples of typical problems dieters face. If you can’t figure out where the problems are, feel free to hit us up here in the comments or send a screenshot of your graph to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ve seen it all before, and we would be more than happy to provide you a bit of our insight.