Hello there, long time no post. The hubs made a good point recently about when we first started our low carb lifestyle: we needed to track what we were eating to really KNOW what we were eating. You definitely don’t have to track to be successful, but it can be helpful in ways beyond the obvious.
The first weekend we decided to take on this big change, we decided to finish off some of the higher carb perishables and pantry items in our house – eating as we normally would and tracking the food using an app for comparison the next week.
We were floored. We had no idea how many unnecessary carbs we were loading up on and how little protein and micronutrients we were really getting every day.
Using an app to help us track, not only the amount of carbs we consumed, but also calories, protein, fat, and other basic nutrients, was an education all on its own.
Regardless of what kind of diet you eat, whether it’s high carb, low carb, flexible, intuitive, etc., tracking (in the beginning, at least) can help teach you how to get healthier nutrition into your diet and ensure you’re eating enough (or not too much) in order to feel your best.
Do you NEED to track to be successful?
Of course not! Some people eating low carb choose to follow a simple set of guidelines on the type of food to eat rather than tracking at all, others just count the carbs they’re eating and nothing else – usually making a tally inside their head each day.
And some people swing in the entirely opposite direction. They can become really obsessive about tracking to the point it becomes damaging, perhaps even promote a preexisting eating disorder rather than providing a helpful, educational tool. That’s really not cool.
No matter what you’re eating, you’ll be hard pressed to know exactly how much of which nutrients your body is absorbing in absolutely precise amounts. But you can get kinda close. Because of that margin of error or the potential to become obsessive, I didn’t want to track when we started out; it’s not how my brain works. Tracking was the hub’s idea and I’m glad he pushed us to do so despite my hesitation.
Full disclosure: I very rarely track these days unless I’m trying a new recipe, new brand of food/restaurant, or if I’m really unsure what’s in a serving of something I don’t usually consume. Eating low carb has become my natural, default way of eating. But when we started, low carb did NOT come naturally immediately and tracking became a crucial tool in figuring out what works best for me. The knowledge we gained has been invaluable.
We learned pretty quickly that eating a low carb, *high fat* diet like keto meant that you’re very satisfied and RARELY actually hungry – especially when you carry quite a bit of extra weight. So eating until you’re full is nice in theory, but doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting all the nutrients/calories you need to support a baseline of health each day, week, or month.
My pitfall was a lack of protein. Keto diets usually promote eating a moderate amount of protein and push the fat to no end, but a person of my size requires a LOT more than the moderate protein recommendations, particularly when already eating at a slight caloric deficit to promote weight loss. I started to lose a lot of my very thick head of hair. My nails split and became brittle, my skin suffered a bit, my tension headaches were constant, leg cramps were bullets striking in the dead of night. When you’re eating at a deficit during ANY type of diet, you can expect a bit more hair to fall out and perhaps some other symptoms of electrolyte imbalance. But these should be MILD and easily managed/corrected, and mine were not.
If we hadn’t been tracking the first few months, it would’ve been a lot harder to figure out what my diet was lacking: calories and protein. The fix was simple, increase my calories and make those calories protein, predominantly from meat. Done. My hair and other symptoms improved dramatically the following months. Turns out, meat naturally contains many of the electrolytes my body was lacking.
The more you know, the less you’ll second guess everything.
Below are the apps we use to track, when we track. Without these, we might still be stumbling through this process, wondering exactly what we need to do to achieve a better baseline of health.
We recommend using these trackers on your phone/device so it’s more convenient but most can also be used on a desktop computer if needed:
- Carb Manager | View Site
This is what I’ve primarily used from the start, mainly because it has a huge library of real world food and it was easy to add my own recipes. The feature my husband liked best was the ability to scan the barcodes on most of the food at our local grocery store and automatically get all the information right in our tracker. You can customize the settings toward whatever diet you’re following (keto, carnivore, high carb, etc.) as well as your weight and goals. The free version offers A LOT and that’s what we use, but the premium version is better for those who want to fully utilize their built-in community feature and especially for people who need to track specific electrolytes/minerals or log insulin readings to analyze over time.
- Cronometer | View Site
Similar to Carb Manager, but also tracks those essential micronutrients for free. The user interface isn’t our favorite and the food library can be a bit lacking, but for a free app, it goes above and beyond helping you stay on track.
- Zero | View Site
Are you fasting? I follow what’s called a 16:8 intermittent fasting method (8 hour eating window), without really meaning to. Breakfast is not a friend of mine and easy to skip. Fasting can happen naturally when you’re following a low carb/high fat diet, especially when you’re not hungry in between meals. Whether you’re 16:8, OMAD, 5:2, or any other kinda fasting, Zero is a really zen way to keep track of your fasting schedule. That’s right, I used the word zen. Check it out and you’ll understand why…
More apps to browse! We don’t use these so we can’t comment on how well they do or don’t work, but many people in the community use them successfully:
Apps might be the most essential tool in tracking these days, but certainly not the only tools. When you’re not sure what a serving size really looks like, measuring cups and food scales become the most important guides.
Measuring Cups and Spoons
This is the most visual way to get a good idea of how much you’re plating each meal or snack. Most kitchens are already stocked with an arsenal of mismatched cups and spoons, but if not – try to grab some that are easy to clean and easy to store.
The most accurate way to know exactly how much you’re plating is to weigh your food. This is also the best way to replicate recipes more precisely. That’s not ideal for me personally, I like eyeballing it and I never get bored with how different the same recipe comes out each time. But some people prefer a bit more consistency and that’s cool too. Enter: Food scales. The best part? Food scales are cheap. Like, really cheap. You don’t have to buy a cheap one, you can get a super fancy one that talks to you or lists the food’s general nutrition data. But that’s absolutely NOT necessary.
If you take a look at my very detailed post about different low carb bread recipes, you’ll quickly learn that many bakers encourage weighing your ingredients. Baking truly is a science. A food scale becomes a really important kitchen tool if you wanna try these homemade breads and the recipe calls for weighing food rather than using cups so keep that in mind!
Let’s face it, realistically, not everything you buy and eat during this journey is going to be 100% whole, natural, unprocessed food. Some of it is going to come from a manufacturer overseas and you’re going to eat all of it or it’s going to be some weird low carb flour you’ve never heard of before, and that’s okay. It’s better to be prepared and know how to convert those odd measurements that might pop up on some nutrition labels. That’s where conversion charts come in handy. I received one with a set of small cake pans last year and it’s currently taped inside my cabinet door. A quick search online for free kitchen conversion charts yields tons of results so browse around and see what you can find.
The most important thing you can track, if nothing else, is your physical progress. Measure yourself, weigh yourself, take pictures of yourself, and if you have issues that might be more serious than needing weight loss, get a general blood panel done to see what’s going on inside.
Then put all that information away for a little while as you begin this change in eating, change in thinking. Toss the scale in the closet and let your appearance be the least of your worries.
Give yourself a chance to grow and learn.
Maybe a month (or three) down the line, take some new measurements and pictures and blood work. See how things compare from where you started.
The one regret I see people mention over and over is that they didn’t take those measurements, they didn’t take those photos. Sometimes it feels like you’ve made no progress at all or you hit a plateau and it takes just a moment to look back at the beginning and SEE just how far you’ve come in such a short time.
So, do yourself a favor and track something.
PS – Wish I’d taken more pictures!