When you first start working out consistently, it’s not unusual to go through a period of noticeable changes followed by a sudden plateau where progress seems to slam to a halt. It’s very common, but if you want to get over that frustrating phase, taking note of your calorie and nutritional intake can help.
When I hit my plateau, I spent a week monitoring what I ate and discovered that, regardless of how healthy my diet was, I was eating enough to sustain two men. Tracking provided the data I needed to make better decisions, which allowed me to enjoy steady progress.
Whether your fitness goal is fat loss or muscle gain, nutrition tracking is easy, and you can count on several tools to make the best of your journey.
How the body burns fat and gains muscle
You require a specific number of calories to function and if you hit it every day, your body will remain exactly the same in terms of muscle and fat. This number is known as your maintenance caloric intake, and it depends on parameters like your height, weight, genetics, and daily activity levels. Adult men will typically fall somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 calories, says the US Department of Agriculture, while women commonly require between 1,600 and 2,400.
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If you’re exercising consistently and vigorously, your body will only be able to build muscle if you give it enough extra energy to do so. This means eating more calories than your maintenance level, which will result in a caloric surplus. (If you want to dig deeper into how to get buff, we have a complete beginner’s guide on how to get those muscle gains.) To reduce fat, you need to go in the opposite direction and aim for a caloric deficit, which entails eating fewer calories than your maintenance rate. To enjoy steady and safe progress, experts recommend that your surplus or deficit be around 500 calories.
Knowing your goals and understanding how to get there will make it easier to use nutritional tracking to your advantage.
How to track calories (more or less) accurately
People used to count calories with pen and paper, but luckily these days we have nifty apps that make the process considerably more convenient. Online platforms like Calculator.net’s Calorie calculator use factors like your age, height, weight, and daily activity levels to provide your maintenance rate as well as some general parameters for muscle gain and weight loss. Once you have those numbers, you simply tally up the caloric content of the food you eat on a daily basis and adjust your diet according to your fitness goals. If you want to have something on your phone, apps like MyPlate (available for Android and iOS) and MyFitnessPal (available for Android and iOS) can be helpful. These tools will determine your approximate maintenance rate and set a caloric budget for you.
Keep in mind that no matter the app or method you use, the numbers you see in these tools are only approximations. The formulas these platforms use to calculate numbers like your maintenance rate, for example, are based on general statistics that leave little room for individuality, and may not consider factors that make your body different from the norm. This also applies to the apps’ massive database of food data, as the caloric value you see on labels and packaging can be up to 20 percent inaccurate, says the US Food and Drug Administration, so be careful not to get too attached to the exact number.
And then there’s the body’s ability to absorb only a fraction of the available calories, which may be anything between 20 and 90 percent, says Michael S. Parker, a certified fitness nutrition specialist and founder of Forge Fitness. This is because our bodies just don’t digest the calories of some foods as well as others.
Instead of trying to make these numbers fit perfectly, Parker recommends using calorie tracking as a rough set of guidelines to help you learn about the energy value in various foods and how much you’re actually eating. From there you can stop tracking and make wise eating decisions when you’re hungry.
Going beyond calories
The average fitness noob doesn’t need to know much beyond the concepts of surplus, maintenance, and deficit. But as you get more serious about exercising, you might benefit from tracking macronutrients, also known simply as macros. These account for the three largest nutrient categories and Parker explains that each of them has a role: Protein is essential for building muscle, while carbohydrates aid in performance, and dietary fat helps with hormone regulation and other essential bodily functions.
How much of each macro you should eat depends on factors like your basal metabolic rate, sex, age, and weight. But for muscle building, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. They also recommend 4 to 7 grams per kilo per day of carbs for weight training athletes to optimize strength performance and muscle building. You should devote the rest of your daily calorie budget to dietary fat. Nutrition tracking apps can monitor your macros and do all the math for you, so you can tackle multiple goals at the same time. For example, you’ll be able to prioritize protein to maintain muscle mass while leaving enough of a deficit in your calorie budget to enable fat burning.
Health and safety are more important than any fitness goal
You should never use overuse caloric deficit in an attempt to lose weight faster. Losing fat—and keeping it off—is safest and most effective when you do it gradually. A deficit of around 500 calories a day will burn fat at a rate of up to one pound per week, which research shows is a safe and sustainable pace.
But counting calories is a slippery slope and people who hyper-fixate on recording everything they eat run the risk of developing eating disorders.
“Tracking nutrition can easily turn into something that is unhealthy,” says Katherine Metzelaar, a registered dietitian and founder of Bravespace Nutrition, an organization that helps patients recover from eating disorders and challenges relating to body image. “I would not recommend someone track [their food] if they have a history of dieting, disordered eating, or an eating disorder.”
She explains that having food tracking take up a lot of headspace is a clear warning sign, especially if that prevents you from going to restaurants or eating at your friends or family’s house. Other red flags include feelings of anxiety when you can’t track your food, guilt around what you’ve eaten, restricting food because you’ve met your calorie budget, and not being able to be spontaneous with meals.
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But when done safely, food tracking can provide valuable insight into your body’s nutrition which will be helpful to continue making fitness progress. So Metzelaar is adamant about recommending approaching this method cautiously and tracking your food for no more than three days at a time.
“That is plenty of information to use in order to see what foods might be missing and where there are areas to improve upon,” she says.
Once you’ve got the information you need, reflect on how your eating habits mesh with your fitness goals. If you’re experiencing unhealthy behaviors, prioritize taking care of yourself and seek help if you need it.
Keep in mind that in your fitness journey, you’re not going to see changes overnight. Building muscle and losing fat is the result of introducing healthy eating and exercise habits into your lifestyle on a sustainable basis. Tracking your nutrition is definitely not a silver bullet solution, but it can help set you on the path to that sustainability.