It’s been a whole 365 days since I started keeping a food diary and tracking my calories on MyFitnessPal.
To most of my friends, logging every meal I have eaten over the past year sounds like absolute lunacy. Maybe it is, but it really works!
Multiple studies have shown that dieters who keep a food diary lose more weight compared to ones who don’t.
Tracking food is an integral part of a fat loss body transformation, and to me, it has become second nature and something that has helped me stay in shape all year round with very little effort.
I began tracking my calories around the time I started my 10-week body transformation with Ultimate Performance in March 2017.
Small steps add up to big changes when you are consistent with your diet.
I’m not going to lie – it was not something I was over-enamoured with doing at first. It sounded like an enormous hassle.
Who in their right mind wants to write down every splash of cooking oil and every bite of food they eat, every single day?
But seeing the almost-instantaneous results from this fastidious practice had me sold.
After 20 days of seriously logging my food on my transformation, I could finally see my abs for the first time in 10 years. ‘This is witchcraft’, I thought.
Then by the end of the 10 weeks of my transformation, I was in the best shape I have ever been in. Ever.
I was 9.5% body fat, lean as a whippet and strong as an ox, and tracking my calories played a huge part in getting there so quickly.
There is something incredibly powerful about being in control of your diet, your weight and the way you look…and if something is working, why change things?
A whole year of food tracking later (yes, even Christmas Day) and I am still in pretty good shape, I still have abs, and I can enjoy all the little treats, cheats and nights out I want (within reason).
Here are the key lessons I’ve learned from tracking my food for 365 days.
1. Calories matter
I spent years wondering why I could never quite get in the shape I wanted.
I’d tried every diet under the sun – Ketogenic, Paleo, Atkins, Zone – anything imaginable that meant I could avoid having to count calories.
Was I just genetically predisposed to never be able to get in shape? Was there something wrong with me?
No, I’d just never come to terms with the immutable fact that calories matter.
Ten weeks at Ultimate Performance of learning to actually manage and monitor my diet with empirical rigour showed me that calories are the bottom line if you want to get in shape.
Starting tracking what I was eating, how much I was eating, and how many calories my food contained, showed me I had been way, way off the mark before. Now body fat literally melted off me.
Ten weeks of being organised with my food got me better results than 10 years of trying to cheat the system and find a magical diet where calories didn’t matter.
2. You need to be in a calorie deficit for fat loss
I’m sure all the diets I’d done previously would have worked…if I’d have bit the bullet, stopped thinking I could cheat the system, and actually tracked my calories.
The one thing that you need for consistent fat loss is a calorie deficit. That is to say, you’re consuming fewer calories than the amount of energy you’re expending.
There is no escaping this fact to lose weight, you need to control your calories for a period of time so you can burn through all those layers of stored fat accumulated over the years.
No amount of Bulletproof coffees on your keto diet will change the fact that if you’re eating too many calories, you won’t lose weight. Maintain a calorie deficit for long enough and you will get lean (for me, it took 10 weeks).
It quickly became apparent that the only reliable way of ensuring I was consistently in the calorie deficit I needed to shed my fatty outer layer was by tracking my food.
Surprise surprise, it worked!
When I got my six pack back for the first time in 10 years.
3. It gives you clear goals to stick to
I’d never really had a clear goal before with my diet. Yes, I’d always eaten ‘healthily’ and yes ‘I’d followed the rules of certain diets before.
But portion control and calories had never come into the equation – I’d always be the one having second and third helpings at Sunday dinner, or invariably be the last man standing at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
But finally having a calorie target to hit every day really added some structure and accountability to my eating where before it had literally just been an unfettered prandial free-for-all.
Having a set amount of calories to ‘play with’ during a day seems onerous at first. But it’s actually quite liberating – there’s freedom in the discipline (I paraphrase the great Jocko Willink) and it certainly brings into sharp focus the food choices that you make.
You would never run a successful business without a budget – so why would you manage your diet any differently? Spending to excess will eventually bankrupt your business, just as eating to excess will ultimately bankrupt your health.
Goal setting is key if you want washboard abs or you just want to lose weight or get healthier.
4. It keeps you honest and accountable
There’s always a massive gulf between thinking you eat healthily and actually eating healthy.
If you’re noting down everything you eat in your food diary or app, it quickly eradicates that gulf.
You have everything that you shovel into your mouth right there in black and white.
Try it one day, and what you actually consume will probably shock you.
If, like me, you’d always wondered why you could never lose weight, tracking your food for a day or a week will likely make the reasons abundantly clear.
It’s amazing the amount of food and calories we mindlessly eat, when we’re stressed at work or when we’re bored at home.
If I had a pound for the number of times I’ve munched through a whole jumbo bag of crisps or chocolates watching a film, before I’ve even realised, I’d be a very rich man.
What I learned tracking my food intake for a year was that it keeps you honest, it keeps you accountable to your goals, and it makes you question the food choices you make during the day.
I found it helped me better police my food intake and kept my goals front-of-mind if ever I felt tempted when the biscuits were being handed around the office.
5. It makes you aware of hidden calories
Hidden calories are everywhere!
They’re hidden in all sorts of places you’d never expect, from your extravagant luxury coffee to your ‘healthy’ snack bars.
When I started tracking what I ate every day, I was (and still am) shocked at the calorie count in some of the most unassuming foods.
You know, the foods companies brand up with words like ‘organic’, ‘gluten-free’ ‘low fat’ and ‘natural’ which make you think you’re making healthy food choices when actually you’re probably not.
When it comes to weight loss and weight gain, it can be a fine line.
Just a couple of hundred extra calories can take you from calorie deficit into calorie surplus where you can start to gain weight.
So eating healthily all day and then treating yourself to a 50g dollop of ‘healthy’ peanut butter (as I often used to do) would add an extra 300 calories or more.
Having a tracker like MyFitnessPal brought into sharp focus just how many calories I was actually eating, helping me make smarter choices and modify my eating habits where needed.
6. Junk food consumes your calories quickly
When you keep a food diary and you have a daily calorie target to hit, you become acutely aware of how quickly that calorie allowance can disappear.
This is never more apparent than when you sneak the odd treat, takeaway or sugar and fat-laden box of junk food.
You quickly learn how easy it is to rack up the calorie count with foods that are hyper-palatable and energy dense.
You also quickly learn that these foods tend to give you a quick hit of pleasure, but then leave you feeling hungry and craving more barely an hour later.
It’s a recipe for dietary disaster, and it certainly isn’t a sustainable way to eat.
7. You learn which foods fill you up
While junk food and sweet treats leave you hungry, tired and craving after another quick hit, there are foods that help keep you full and satiated.
Tracking my meals, I quickly became aware of the types of food that were high in physical volume while containing a low calorie count; things that would fill me up and keep my energy levels stable and my appetite at bay.
These foods are a godsend and will make any diet perfectly manageable and sustainable long term.
Lean proteins, like chicken and fish, were incredibly satiating. Then filling up on mountains of green vegetables alongside them would fill me up for hours at the expense of considerably fewer calories (so you can effectively eat ‘more’).
I’d eat mountains of mushrooms, onions, spinach, and asparagus with my morning eggs. Then piles of seasoned broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower and kale along with my lunch and dinner.
If you never want to go hungry again, pile the veg high. Low calories mean you can chow down a greater volume!
Abs really are made in the kitchen.
8. I have a better understanding of how different foods make me feel
One of the things I’ve noticed this past year is that I am far more intuitive about food and the way that different foods make me feel.
I know which foods give me energy and focus, and which foods make me tired, sluggish or bloated.
It has helped me really improve and upgrade my diet to foods that make me feel energised and alert all day, helping me be more productive at work, focused in the gym and energised when my two young children are giving me the run-around at home.
One of the best changes I’ve made, thanks to this, is swapping carb-heavy breakfasts for a morning meal that’s high in protein and healthy fats (my favourite is salmon and eggs).
No more mid-morning slumps!
9. It makes you more organised
One benefit of tracking my food that never really occurred to me until recently was that it has made me immeasurably more organised.
When you have to plan your meals and hit a calorie or macronutrient target for the day, you have to be organised. It meant I was planning meals for days in advance – and sometimes even the week.
It also trimmed the fat on my shopping bill, as I’d buy only what I needed for the week. It’s surprising just how reasonably you can eat on a healthy diet. I actually saved a lot of money from the random assortment of convenience foods I’d often buy when I’d wander into the supermarket tired and hungry at lunch, previously.
It really helps bring structure to your week and gets your food prep game on point.
Now the prep is quick and easy, and a little pre-planning and batch cooking saves me loads of cooking time over the week.
It’s become so second nature now that I even took a box of chicken casserole and broccoli on a stag party to Leeds, much to the chagrin of the other guys.
10. It educates you on the right serving sizes
Portion sizes? A while back this wouldn’t have even entered my consciousness.
My portions sizes were measured in piles, dollops and mountains.
My plates would always be stacked high with food and there would invariably be second and third helpings (my partner and her family are ‘feeders’ and relish a chap with a generous appetite).
I had never before considered the concept of portion control or that the mountains of food I’d heap on my plate might contain considerably more calories than I needed.
Being on a calorie-controlled eating plan during my initial 10-week transformation at UP showed me what my body actually needed to be lean and healthy, versus what I’d actually been eating. (No wonder I could never get abs before that).
It brings into sharp focus what you need versus what you want. What tracking your meals does is make you incredibly adept at eyeballing portion sizes too.
This is a very useful skill if you’re out at a restaurant or a party where pulling out your scales and weighing your food is probably a massive faux pas. I can eyeball a plate of meat and veg now almost to the gram.
Not only that, but it helps you be more aware of what a healthy plate of food should look like – two palm-sized helpings of meat, two fist-sized servings of veg, two thumb-sized portions of fats, and two cupped handfuls of carbs, if you’re asking.
Getting your diet right makes every rep count.
11. It gives you flexibility with your diet
One of the best things about tracking my food and understanding calories is learning how you can bend the rules a bit when needed.
While I’d never advocate an all-out ‘if it fits your macros’ approach of trying to shoehorn as much junk food as possible into your daily calorie target, you can have some flexibility.
The world will not end if you eat a little more fat and a little less carbs than your macronutrient targets ordain.
Equally, if you’re going out for a meal with friends and you have spied something in the menu that has caught your eye, it doesn’t have to hamper your progress as you can make simple adjustments to your diet on your other meals.
Not only does it help dispel this misguided notion that there are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, but it actually proves that exercising balance and moderation are often the healthiest and more sustainable way forward.
Need proof? Here’s me one year on…
A year on from my transformation.
12. It makes good habits sustainable
While I was on my 10-week transformation at UP, I followed my diet plan to the letter.
I hit my protein targets, I ate my carbs to the gram, and I didn’t cheat once in two and a half months (not even on a booze-free stag party to Barcelona). I tracked every single bite and mouthful of food I ate.
Realising that I had actual discipline and could stick to a plan was amazing… but seeing the results of this discipline was even more amazing.
But the important thing to remember is this isn’t a year-round lifestyle where you have to live the Spartan existence of a monk to stay ‘shredded’.
What a transformation, following a diet plan, and tracking your meals, gives you is healthy habits around food which become engrained in your lifestyle and keep you in very good shape.
Habits like having protein and veg at every meal, including healthy fats in your meals, limiting carb intake to post-workout or before bed and getting a breakfast rich in protein and fat for all-energy.
Once you have these good habits in place, it gives you a structure around which you don’t have to be as strict and rigid. You don’t have to weigh every splash of milk or stick of celery you eat.
I still track the significant stuff in my diet because I know it is measured and taken care of, and it will keep me in decent shape.
I can follow my diet 80-90%, I can enjoy a beer and a cake, and I know that if I need to tighten things up to get particularly lean for a holiday, then it will be a couple of small tweaks and a few short weeks of being stricter.
It’s been a whole year since I started and a real lesson in how my body works and how to get the best out of it. I don’t intend to stop any time soon!
If you want to take your training to the next level like Ben, find out about our Personal Training Plans.