Want to make sure you’re fuelling your workouts with proper nutrition? Want to tweak your diet to gain muscle or lose fat? If your nutrition is something you’d like to work on, the best way to improve it is to log your food. This will give you baseline information to see where you’re currently at, and then you’ll be able to measure whether you’re making your intended improvements.
When we log our food, we can get useful information about our total calorie intake and whether it suits our fitness, health, and physique goals. We can also get information about the relative proportion of macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) we’re consuming, and whether we’re taking in enough vitamins and minerals.
I get all my clients to use the MyFitnessPal app because it’s robust and easy to use. Keep in mind that I don’t think food logging should be a long-term strategy (unless you really, really enjoy it) – I usually use it with new clients to get a sense of their current nutrition, and then we use it intermittently throughout our coaching to work toward specific goals.
In this article series on everything you ever wanted to know about (plant-based) food logging, we’ll cover a lot of ground:
Part 1: Why you should log your food, especially if you’re vegan Part 2: How to determine your calorie and macronutrient goals on a vegan diet Part 3: The pro’s and con’s of MyFitnessPal Part 4: My 3000+ calorie per day diet and what, exactly, I eat
In this first installment, you’ll learn why it’s a good idea to log your food (especially if you’re vegan), what sorts of things you can learn about your diet by doing so, and when it might not be a good idea to log your food.
Vegan or not, why should I log my food?
One reason I get all my clients to log their food, at least for a few days before we do any nutrition coaching, is because we humans are very good at rationalizing and not very good at remembering details. It can be an eye-opening experience to track your food for a few days. Sometimes, you’ll see trends you didn’t know existed!
I have one client who logged her food for the first time and was surprised by the amount of mixed nuts she ended up eating, one small handful at a time, over a 5-day period. There’s nothing inherently wrong with nuts, but they’re little calorie powerhouses, and if that doesn’t fit with your particular goal and you’re eating tons and tons of them every day, you could be stalling your progress.
Tracking our food intake can be a great way to increase overall awareness of what we’re putting into our mouths each day. That alone often leads to making better food choices. Clinical research supports this; studies have found that people who use apps like MyFitnessPal to track their food lose significantly more weight than those who don’t (source #1; source #2). Food logging can also be an excellent educational tool to use while you implement specific changes (e.g. increasing protein intake, lowering overall calories). Once you feel like you have the hang of your new habit without relying on the app, you can wean yourself off food logging and go with intuition instead.
Sometimes I get my clients to log their food to make sure they’re eating enough, especially if their goal is to gain muscle. It might sound counterintuitive, but people often don’t see the results they want because they’re not eating enough (especially women, who are constantly bombarded by bullshit messages to diet, eat less, restrict, and be physically smaller).
Food logging also tells us where you’re at with your macros – the proportion of your food that is comprised of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. I work with my clients to make sure their nutrition is supporting their particular fitness and physique goals. A long-distance cyclist who wants to maintain her weight, for instance, will have a different macro ratio compared to a strength athlete currently in a bulking phase.
One of my clients recently wondered why she was having trouble adding muscle and losing fat (she was very fit already). She tracked her food for the first time and we found she was getting only 10% of her total calories from protein. That’s not gonna kill her by any means, but it’s not anywhere near enough to sustain 4 days per week of strength training, let alone muscle gain.
As a long-term fitness and health nut (and vegan) since 2003, I’m pretty much on autopilot when it comes to nutrition. I know what and when to eat, I know what works for me and what doesn’t, and I know approximately how many calories I eat in a day and where my macros are at, without really thinking about it. However, I still log my food for a few days every few months to make sure that I’m getting everything I need – enough total calories, enough protein, enough iron, etc.
I’m vegan. Should I log my food?
I suggest you do. We all know that “vegan” does not automatically mean “healthy”. Hey, French fries, Oreos, potato chips, and Skittles are all vegan! (Thank goodness.)
We vegans need to pay special attention to our nutrition, especially if we’re active. A well-planned vegan diet is exceptionally healthy and has many benefits over omnivorous diets – some professional athletes are even adopting plant-based diets to increase their athletic performance – but the key term here is well-planned. We need to make sure we’re eating an adequate variety of foods, and consuming enough of the nutrients that tend to require a bit more conscious effort to get on a 100% plant-based diet: vitamin B12, calcium, and iron.
If you’re just starting out as a newbie vegan, you definitely want to make sure you’re doing things right. If 80% of your calories are coming from carbs, that ain’t balanced. (You’ll learn more about macros and how to determine yours in Part 2 of this article.)
If you're already a long-term vegan with a clean bill of health and a diet that contains all the nutrients you need, food logging can take you to the next level of results in your fitness. Whether your goal is muscle gain, fat loss, or maintenance, tailoring your nutrition to your lifestyle and chosen physical activities means you'll be functioning at your best.
Other vegans are in situations where their diets can be challenging to maintain due to culture, geographic location, lack of access to vegan foods, frequent travel, or living situation and family dynamics. If this describes you, logging your food for a while can help to expose potential gaps in your overall nutrition; whether it’s macronutrient ratios, total calories per day, or vitamin and mineral content.
In addition to logging food regularly, I recommend all vegans get a blood test every year or two to make sure their nutrient levels are on target.
When should I perhaps not log my food?
For some people prone to unhealthy psychological relationships with food, or those who deal with eating disorders, food logging – and thus by default calorie counting – is sometimes detrimental to psychological health. It can add unnecessary self-imposed restriction and can put negative, instead of positive, mental focus on food. On the other hand, I’ve read several accounts of people with eating disorders who have been helped, in part, by food logging. Only you can know whether it’s best to include food logging in your recovery plan (making sure that you’re working with a qualified professional, of course).
Food logging can be an extremely useful tool, but if used excessively, it can become a crutch that takes us away from what our bodies are telling us. I use food logging perhaps 2 days out of every 100. The other 98% of the time I rely on intuition, habit and routine, and listening to my body.
My clients use food logging for very specific purposes, like muscle gain, fat loss, or finding out what their macros are. It’s also very useful for clients currently trying to make a particular change to their diet so we can track whether or not it’s working (e.g. adding more protein: we can see daily totals and make sure they’re increasing). Once you have a good idea of where you’re at with your overall calories and macros, you don’t need to keep logging your food indefinitely.
In Part 2 of this series you’ll learn how to determine your calorie and macronutrient goals on a vegan diet.
Download my free 32-page ebook that shows you how to track your food, calculate calories, and set macro goals on a vegan diet. You’ll even get step-by-step instructions – complete with a printable grocery list – for how to prep a week’s worth of super healthy vegan dinners in 60 minutes or less.