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Whether you’re looking to get back on track after holiday buffets, zeroing in on a specific race weight, or searching for the right balance to fuel training efforts, a food log can be an effective tool in an athlete’s nutrition strategy.
“I encourage my clients to keep a food log to identify their personal eating habits, dietary ‘pitfalls’ or ‘triggers,’ and to stay accountable,” says professional triathlete and Toro Nutrition founder Jennifer Lentzke. “Food logs are also a great way to stay motivated. When you reinforce healthy, balanced eating you are more likely to stick with it.”
Food logs can also help identify eating habits that help (or hinder) your performance, says Christine Eley, founder of nutrition coaching service The Fare Maven. If you often experience low energy or GI distress, logging your food may help identify the culprit.
“Once you identify your dominant eating patterns, you can modify your habits to establish a healthy eating plan that is going to work for you,” Eley says.
If food journaling sounds complex and tedious, think again — the pen-and-paper logs of the past have been replaced by technology, making tracking as simple as a swipe of your cell phone screen. Here’s how to use food tracking to your advantage this season.
When selecting a tracking method, aim for simplicity. If you already utilize a training software program such as Training Peaks or Workout Log, check to see if there is an option for logging your food intake. “It’s always nice to be able to view your training and nutrition side-by-side,” says Lentzke.
Dozens of free and paid wellness apps have been created for smartphones, allowing triathletes to log their calorie intake and expenditure on the go. Eley recommends free apps MyFitnessPal, Lose It!, and MyPlate, all of which track calories and macronutrients.
Set It Up
Most food trackers establish your profile based on biometrics, activity level, and nutrition goals. To make your profile as accurate as possible, enter the biometrics required (age, height, gender, current weight) and be honest about your overall activity level (sedentary, light active, active, vigorous active). Read the activity question carefully, warns Eley, as some include your exercise routine while others only want your lifestyle activity (such as desk job, standing job, or physical labor).
Lentzke encourages a simple transition to food logging: “At first, don’t worry too much about numbers and grams. Just get in the habit of logging.”
Once you’ve established a routine of recording your food and beverage intake, it’s time to get specific. Familiarize yourself with portion sizes by measuring or weighing your food before eating—the serving you take may be different from the serving you report.
“Reading the label is huge, as what you think is one serving may really be two or three,” says Eley. ”That’s fine — just remember to track it as said number of servings.”
Resist the urge to “forget” logging an unhealthy item. “Seriously, you aren’t helping yourself if you don’t enter everything that passes your lips,” says Eley, “Add any condiments you use, liquids you drink (especially at happy hour) and what you partake in on the weekend.“
Holding a mirror up to your habits — the good and the bad — is precisely why food logging works so well. If you are trying to lose weight, seeing the exact number of calories in your daily Starbucks run or post-ride pizza may cause you to consider healthier choices in the future. If you’re struggling with GI distress during certain training efforts, your food logs may show a pattern of a certain food exacerbating symptoms.
As you become more familiar and comfortable with food logging, take the time to review your food log at the end of each week. Lentzke encourages athletes to compare food and beverage intake with training data to find a correlation between certain ways of eating and performance outcomes.
Also note how foods impact your day-to-day habits: fat-free yogurt and granola for breakfast may have you reaching for a nutrition bar as soon as you finish your morning swim; meanwhile, the same amount of calories from an egg-white omelet with avocado may keep you feeling full until lunch. Make note of which foods leave you feeling satisfied and energized. Use the information gleaned from your food log to plan your meals and snacks.
Changes to your weight, training regimen, or overall health may require an adjustment to your dietary goals. Weight loss (or weight gain) alters the overall nutritional needs of a person, as does increased or decreased training load. As these variables change, be sure to update your tracking software. Some trackers prompt the user for weekly or monthly updates of weight and activity, while others do not. Either way, Eley recommends updating the profile for every five pounds of weight gain or loss. Drastic changes to activity level (say, an Ironman peak, taper, and recovery) also require updates.
Ask The Experts
Feeling overwhelmed by the data? Take your log to a Registered Dietitian or sports nutrition expert who can give you some feedback. “They can help you set goals in terms of specific numbers to shoot for, ideal body weight and body fat, or even just guide you with some helpful tips to optimize your nutrition,” says Lentzke.
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