Over the past few years we have seen the rise of IIFYM (if it fits your macros) and the genesis of macro tracking. In more recent times, this method of dieting has received significant pushback from past IIFYMers who felt trapped by the numbers and are now enlightened by a more ‘intuitive’ approach to eating. Thus the anti-tracking aka the intuitive eating crowd have formed a coalition and are going to war with any form of dietary restraint – especially macro tracking.
The anti-trackers pose that intuitive eating is the answer and tracking is harmful.
They postulate that it is either “intuitive eating” or “tracking” – an ‘either or’ situation.
This black and white perspective of diet is a logical fallacy, otherwise known as a false dichotomy.
There are many situations in life where the choices we make are indeed between one thing or the other thing. But sometimes there is a whole range of options, three, four, five, or a hundred and sixty-nine. Selecting a method of diet is the same and macro tracking (including it’s innumerable variations) is merely one-option amongst infinite others.
Where the anti-trackers go wrong is they commit a false dichotomy by oversimplifying the range of options.
Whilst I agree that tracking is not without it’s limitations and it has for sure been the cause of problems for many, I am not convinced that tracking is in and of itself bad. Nutrition is complex and many of us don’t have answers, but I am confident that demonising and denigrating the approach is not useful for anyone and know for certain that dichotomous thinking is bad.
What is tracking?
It has become evident to me that when people are discussing the concept, application and utility of tracking food intake (calories and macros), there is a lot of disparity between what folks mean by ‘tracking’. Definitions are important, and diet methods are no exception.
The hard version:
Many people are of the view that when one is ‘tracking’ they are doing so for every meal or at least daily. This generally encompasses weighing and measuring all foods consumed and then logging aka tracking their intake (via myfitnesspal or some other tracking app) to meet daily nutritional targets. I deem this the hard version of tracking.
The hard version of tracking is generally very rigid and arguably the most arduous. It requires a lot of time, effort and cognitive energy – especially when compared to other forms of tracking or dietary restraint.
For those of you unfamiliar with dietary restraint, it is important to note that restraint and restriction are not the same thing. Dietary restriction refers to limiting the overall amount of food eaten, what foods are eaten, or both, while dietary restraint is the intention to restrict food intake, whether or not it is successful (Williamson et al., 2007).
Obviously, tracking is employed with the intent to restrict food intake and the method of tracking to meet nutrition targets therefore leads to restriction in food choices, quantities etc. It is merely a tool to control diet.
Whilst the hard version of tracking is what most mean when they refer to tracking, tracking macros or calorie intake does not need to necessitate the micromanagement of diet.
The soft version:
In many cases a very tightly measured and controlled diet via tracking diet can be detrimental. For most folk, it is often not the most appropriate strategy for weight management, at least long term and a softer version of tracking may be warranted.
There is no single way to track your diet. In fact, the options and ways you can go about tracking your intake are endless – many of which are less intensive variants of the traditional version tracking.
This could include tracking less frequently (only a few times per week, once a day etc) or weighing only select food items (such as calorie dense foods). This is what I call the soft version of tracking.
For example, I have a lot of my clients track their food once per week and then follow a meal plan. I also have some clients follow a meal plan during the working week when they have routine and structure and then ‘track’ on the weekends to allow a little more flexibility.
Applying a softer version of tracking can be used to achieve the same outcomes without the adverse consequences and demonstrates that there are shades of grey when it comes to ‘tracking’.
The problem with anti-trackers
When people paint a negative picture of ‘tracking’, the softer version unfairly gets thrown in the mix too. They blame the tool for their or others misfortune. What they don’t realise is that it is not the tools fault, rather their use of the tool.
In my opinion, it is not tracking that is the problem, rather it the misapplication or inappropriate use of the hard version of tracking – especially when the hard version of tracking is applied over long durations and when the accompanying neurotic tendencies go undiagnosed or unmanaged.
When you use a hammer to hit a nail, obviously how hard you swing the hammer will determine how far you drive the nail into the wood.
The same goes for implementing any tool for diet.
How hard or rigid the diet method is or is applied will influence the level of restraint and restriction experienced and thus impact the outcomes that ensue – for better or worse.
Compounding the aforementioned is the lack of emphasis generally placed on non-tracking related skills during a diet, such as learning to listen to hunger and fullness cues, mindful eating and being able to transition away from the digital food scales and tracking app. Finally, the real issue that most trackers face is that when the diet is all said and done and they have no exit strategy or alternative methods or variations of tracking to fall back on.
Long story short, tracking is not the enemy. Just like you wouldn’t get angry at a hammer, you shouldn’t get angry at tracking and anyone who bashes a dietary tool is a fool. At the end of the day, is just a tool that we can use to impart dietary restraint.