January 11, 2016

Dear Melissa: I Need a Calorie-Tracking Intervention


Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new healthy habits, and figuring out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m talking to those of you still feeling the need to weigh, measure, track, and log your Whole30 calories or macros.

Dear Melissa,

I’d appreciate your tough love perspective and professional opinion. I know you talk about not tracking food on the Whole30, and I know it’s not in the spirit of the program. However, I feel out of control if I’m not tracking, even though I consciously know I am eating well and taking care of my body.  I have a lot of weight to lose, so not tracking makes me anxious and like I’m not being accountable even when I am. (Old wounds.) So, do I push forward and ignore the anxiety, or stick to the tracking? –Liz, via Instagram

Dear Liz,

Thanks to the popularity of My Fitness Pal and other online tracking systems, the push for accountability in the health and fitness world, and people’s increasing neuroticism surrounding their diets (not saying this is you, just a general trend I have observed), I get this question often. I’m happy to have the opportunity to address this now, with so many new people joining us for the January Whole30.

First, let’s talk about why tracking and logging your food (entering quantities, food choices, and analyzing the caloric, macronutrient, and micronutrient results) is seriously discouraged on the Whole30.

Why We Say “Don’t Track or Log”

As I wrote in The Whole30: One goal of our program is to get you back in touch with your body’s natural regulatory mechanisms—in this case, trusting your feelings of hunger, and intuitively knowing when to stop eating. That means after a few weeks of eating food with brakes (the foods that provide both nutrition and satiety), you’ll be eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full. By the end of your Whole30, these signals will actually work, perhaps for the first time in years! And we’ve specifically designed the amounts and proportions recommended in our meal template so you won’t need to count calories or plug your food into a calculator—not even if you’re trying to lose weight. 

The admonition to avoid tracking calories or macronutrients isn’t a rule, just a recommendation. However, we’d caution you against it for the same reasons we caution against the scale. Your body knows how much you should be eating better than any calculator you’ll find on the internet. In addition, some of you have been so conditioned to restrict calories or macronutrients that even though you feel amazing, you may still be tempted to cut back once you see the numbers add up.

Skipping the weighing, measuring, and tracking for the next thirty days will help you foster a healthier relationship with food, and turn mealtime into a relaxing, enjoyable experience instead of an arbitrary math session.

Your Tracking Intervention

Now that you understand my rationale for cautioning against weighing, tracking, logging, and analyzing your Whole30 food intake, let’s talk about three strategies for weaning yourself off this behavior without adding stress to your Whole30, in order of most effective to least effective (in terms of your Whole30 success).

Strategy 1: Cold-Turkey
I strongly prefer an all-or-nothing approach—not surprising, since I co-created the Whole30. I know your tracking is a security blanket, and that weight loss is a goal (which is fine!), but tracking may be holding you back from the very thing you’re hoping to achieve.

Being focused on the numbers alone is making you deaf to the signals your body is trying to send you—“I’m hungry,” “I’m full,” “I’m dragging.” And until you actually get back in touch with your body’s natural regulatory mechanisms, you’ll never truly find food freedom.

So… stop tracking. Now. Just stop. Use our meal template to help you portion your meals, and pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you. If you’re consistently hungry between meals, make each meal a little bigger until it’s just right. If you feel stuffed after eating a meal, maybe take a smaller portion next time, then wait ten minutes and decide whether you want more. If you’re tired or energy is flagging, add more carbs, a little more fat, or both. Chew slowly, eat mindfully, and listen.

Use your energy levels, cravings, athletic performance, and how your clothes fit to help you judge progress. Use these 30 days to break the habit of tracking and truly reconnect with your body.

Strategy 2: Track, but only for a few days
If cold-turkey seems too scary, here’s an in-between solution: track using whatever methodology and program you’re used to using, but only for a few days, as reassurance that you’re on the right track with your Whole30 plan.

I’ll use this strategy often with those I suspect are eating too little. They think they’re eating so much food (because it’s all very satiating), but when they get it into a calculator, it’s clear they’re coming up short on calories or any (or all) macronutrients. This can be a valuable experience—but one that doesn’t have to be repeated over and over again. Track, observe, then adjust and just start eating.

This can backfire, however, if you’re used to “dieting” (restricting calories, fat, carbs, or all of the above). If your normal diet is low-calorie and all of a sudden, you’re seeing higher numbers in your tracker, it can feel scary. You may decide to adjust our recommendations based just on the numbers—which can backfire, leading to a slower metabolism, increased hormonal disruption, and further psychological damage to your relationship with food.

All I can say is trust us, and trust the process. What you’ve been doing (dieting) hasn’t worked. Try our approach for 30 days, exactly as recommended. I’ll remind you that 96% of Whole30 participants lose weight or improve their body composition on the program, without tracking, weighing, measuring, or restricting calories… and you may find incredible freedom and stress-relief in abandoning the tedious task of entering every. single. bite. into your phone or computer.

Strategy 3: Keep tracking, with caveats
If you feel like you really need to keep tracking as thoroughly as you are used to for the entirety of your Whole30 (which I’ll strongly recommend against), then I’m going to assign you additional homework. Along with your intake, I also want you to journal how you feel after each meal, and during the times between meals. This can be done on your smartphone or computer, or in a paper journal—but you need to be able to go back and compare your macros and calories with how you’re feeling.

And you need to be honest.

It’s extra work, but I’m trying to help you reconnect with your body while weaning you off your calorie-counting program. My hope is that once you see that your calories look high but you’re “feeling energetic, sleeping well, not hungry between meals, not bloated, pants are looser” you’ll be more comfortable trusting the process and letting your daily tracking fall by the wayside. (Or, conversely, that you’ll reconcile the fact that your calories look “right” but your “energy is lagging, having cravings, hungry often, little motivation to exercise” and start trusting your body over the numbers.)

Remember, it’s a Process

Finally, I’ll remind you that the Whole30 is about a heck of a lot more than just changing the food you put on your plate. There are a lot of factors that go into attaining food freedom, and your relationship with calorie tracking software is one of them.

Don’t beat yourself up if you need to continue that behavior to see you through your first Whole30.  There will be plenty of time to work on that particular relationship—the Whole30 is only the first step towards a lifetime of restored health, new habits, and a healthy relationship with food, your body, and all of the numbers in your life (like calories, fat grams, and the scale).

Work through one (or all) of these solutions as you need to, and remember to celebrate the small wins along the way. Stay in touch with our community, and ask for support whenever and wherever you need it—even if it’s asking for help staying off the My Fitness Pal website today. We’ve got you, and you’ve got this.

Best in health,