Food Tracking and the Allure of Mathiness

The folks at Stronger By Science, with support from lots of other evidence-based folks I admire and trust (Danny Lennon and Jeff Nippard amongst them), released their food tracking app Macrofactor last week. With a free 2 week trial, I have given it a whirl, not because I’m likely to start tracking my food regularly, but because it seems to have permeated my podcast feeds and Youtube channels, and I want to know what folks are talking about. I’m not going to review Macrofactor at this time, and probably never will, but rather I’d like to talk about the subtle and potentially problematic changes I notice in my own behaviors when I track, even for a short period of time. And maybe some of these observations will ring true for you, too.

I’ve written previously that tracking seems to make it harder for me to focus on my internal hunger and satiety cues. I have consistently worked in the last year or so on honing my ability to wait to eat until I’m hungry and stop when I’m satisfied. To be honest, this is still a skill I’m working on because sometimes it’s not obvious in the moment that I’m not doing it. Sometimes, it’s only after I’ve begun eating or when I’ve stopped that I realize, “Whoops, I just ate that out of habit.” And of course, I don’t need to be perfect at this skill in order to benefit from it, and the goal isn’t 100% compliance. However, I know that the more consistently I can follow this skill, the closer I can get to my goals.

Habitual eating disconnected to my internal signals (which for me is connected to a long history of emotional eating) includes eating at certain times of day because it’s “time to eat” (especially powerful for my afternoon snack), finishing the food on my plate even when I’m satisfied (most likely to pop up when I’m distracted), and increased eating due to social circumstances like joining friends for brunch.

When I’m tracking foods, it seems to add to these impulses. For example, if I “planned” my snack for 3pm and pre-enter it into an app, it makes it an even stronger impulse to eat even if I’m not yet hungry. I also am more likely to finish my plate if the food is already accounted for on the tracker. It’s like I don’t want the tracker to be inaccurate. I know food tracking is deeply imprecise, but still, if I accounted for one serving of stew and I eat less than that, somehow, that bugs me. I’m not saying this is an overt, strong impulse, “I MUST EAT ALL THE FOODS!” It’s a whisper, not a yell, and if I notice what I’m doing, I can stop. I can of course also estimate and change the entries. But it does require me to notice it and make a choice to stop or change the entries, which means it isn’t habitual. It requires effort. I more effortlessly stop when I’m full when I’m not tracking.

For me, tracking also increases the false notion that I can externally control more of my eating decisions . There, in black and white on a screen, I have targets and it’s so easy to push buttons to get them to tell me I’m doing the “right” things. But the tracker doesn’t know if those choices are going to leave me physically and psychologically satisfied. It doesn’t know if my goals are reasonable and achievable for my body or my life. And yet, I love numbers and math. I like the illusion of control and precision they give me, and when I track, I see these numerical targets that feel real, even though I know better. Calorie counting will always be an estimate. To use it in an evidence-based way requires some constant awareness that it is only a best guess and a moving target. I KNOW this in my head, but regular tracking makes it difficult to KNOW this in my emotions. And the reality is even with a lovely spreadsheet telling me what I “should” eat, it doesn’t take into account the very real circumstances of my daily eating needs–which aren’t only dictated by math but by the endless reasons why I and everyone else eats, including meeting a multitude of physical, socio-cultural and emotional/psychological needs.

I’m happy to acknowledge that the challenges I face with tracking aren’t universal. Plenty of people seem to be able to use it as a tool to help them with their goals. However, I’m concerned that this is the dominant conversation, and that for many of us for whom tracking is not a great fit, we too rarely hear about the alternatives. Our choices are far more broad than “track” or “never have nutritional goals and targets.” There are many other options, and some of them show more evidence for long term success than tracking. This is why I’ve chosen to post on evidence-based alternatives like developing a sense of flexible restraint and explored the various ways our food choices and eating environments can be changed to increase satiety. It is my understanding that the current evidence favors these options as less likely to result in some of the downsides I experience with tracking, and it is my hope that they are helpful for other people too.

Even with these potential downsides, I still sometimes will track for a few days or a meal here or there to check in with my choices and to make sure I’m in roughly the right ballpark to meet my goals. I think this middle ground can work for lots of people–just a low-risk check in. Am I getting enough protein? How’s my fat intake these days? Without the occasional check, it’s easy for the protein to slowly decrease and the fat to slowly increase past where I prefer. These checks may carry some of the downsides I mentioned above, but it’s only for a moment, and then I can step away from tracking again and it’s no big deal.

Tracking is a tool. And like any tool, it can be used to help us or to harm us. I think it’s worth paying attention to the subtle shifts in our behaviors and thoughts when we take on a tool and to be attentive to the possibility that it may not be a good choice for us long term. That is my experience with tracking, and I’d be interested to hear if you notice any changes for yourself.

Please let me know in a comment below, or you can find Progressive Strength on Facebook and share your thoughts there!

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