When you’re trying to lose weight, managing how much you eat is key. But between counting macros and calories, using portioning methods and mindful or intuitive eating, it can be tough to figure out which food tracking method works best for you.
“The most important factor to consider is what will work for you long term,” says Mary-Catherine LaBossiere, RD. “The method you choose should be something you can implement for a while, so you don’t crash and burn and continue a yo-yo dieting cycle.” To help figure out what’s sustainable for you and your individual weight-loss journey, we asked weight-loss experts about the pros and cons of each approach.
TRACKING MACROS AND/OR CALORIES
In this approach, you log everything you eat in an app or journal. The MyFitnessPal app makes food logging a breeze by allowing you to set your desired macro breakdown and premium features, like meal scan, let you simply take a photo of your meal to log it seamlessly.
It’s possible to count calories without tracking macros, but because each macro has a certain number of calories per gram for protein, fat and carbs, you automatically count calories when you count macros. The drawback of only counting calories is you may not get an appropriate balance of protein, carbs and fat. For instance, you might eat mostly fat and carbs without much protein, which is an important part of any fat-loss diet. Many people weigh and measure their food as precisely as possible to get more accurate calorie and macro counts.
- It provides accountability. “The benefit of counting calories and macros is seeing raw, objective data on yourself,” explains Jana Wolff, RD, director of nutrition for the Comprehensive Obesity Management Program at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. “Looking at what you eat with curiosity and asking if it’s helping to fuel you appropriately throughout the day can help with long-term weight management,” she adds. Moreover, “knowing if you are eating a balanced diet is important,” notes Silvia Meléndez Klinger, RDN. “This approach helps make sure you are eating mainly nutrient-dense foods from different food groups, and limiting indulgent foods.”
- It can highlight what needs to change. “People are usually surprised to find out how much or how little they’re eating once they start logging their calories and macros,” says Wolff. You might be stunned at the impact one food is making on your overall calorie budget. For example, “maybe you’re drinking orange juice for the vitamin C-supporting immunity and don’t realize a 12-ounce glass contains 165 calories and 33 grams of sugar,” explains Wolff. “Even just removing that daily [and opting for the fresh fruit instead] could produce some weight loss over the course of a few weeks.”
- It illuminates trends. “Because you have the ability to look back on your recorded calorie and macro counts, this method tends to provide insight into eating patterns over time,” LaBossiere says. This can result in valuable intel, as people might notice they tend to reach for sugary foods after a stressful day at work or that they’re hungrier and overeat when they don’t get a balanced breakfast.
- It’s more accurate than other methods. No method of food tracking is completely accurate — at least not outside a metabolic lab. But in a non-research setting, weighing and measuring foods (or scanning the barcodes of packaged foods to get their nutrition info) is the most accurate way to gauge how much food you’re truly eating, making it one of the most effective ways to lose weight.
- Some people have a hard time transitioning away from macros and calories. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to go from one method to another less limiting method,” says Klinger. In other words, people sometimes feel like they can’t stop tracking or counting and maintain their progress, even if they might want to.
- It’s not right for everyone. “If a person has a history of eating disorder or disordered eating such as strict calorie restriction, skipping meals, body dysmorphia or obsessing over caloric consumption, then calorie and macro tracking might not be a wise option, as it can make restriction and food fear worse,” Wolff says.
- It can take the focus off internal cues. “Calorie and macro tracking can cause us to focus too much on numbers and not enough on our body’s hunger and fullness cues, energy levels or how we feel,” LaBossiere points out. “This can lead to becoming obsessive or feeling guilt around food.”
HAND OR PLATE PORTION SIZES
There are several ways to count portions, including using your hand or dividing your plate up into sections. Some people also use measuring cups or other ways of portioning out their food or snap photos of their plates in order to keep themselves accountable to reasonable portions. The idea isn’t necessarily that you’re tracking everything you eat the way you would with calories and macros, but instead, you’re eyeballing how much you eat at each meal based on whichever portion guide you choose.
- It doesn’t rely heavily on numbers. “This method allows people to eat anything more freely without the fear that they don’t know how many calories are in this or that dish,” Klinger says. It can also help people start to learn what a portion of food looks like for them, so they can gauge how much to eat in other situations.
- It’s easy to learn. “I frequently use the plate method with my clients because it is easy, visual, and can be adapted to individuals of all ages,” LaBossiere says. “It helps people who want to make better choices without the time demand of measuring and logging. It can also encourage balance and help us realize all foods can fit.”
- There are fewer guardrails. “The plate method is great – when eating on an appropriately sized plate and one plate per meal,” LaBossiere says. But it can be easy to reach for seconds and continue eating, which could hinder weight loss efforts.
- It requires smart food choices. You’re less likely to see weight-loss results if you’re using the portion method with very calorie-dense foods. So, for it to work properly, you’ll need to choose mostly whole, minimally-processed food sources.
- It’s not as accurate. An extra tablespoon of peanut butter here and a heftier-than-usual scoop of pasta there can easily add up and slow or stall weight loss. For people with more targeted weight-loss goals or who don’t have much weight left to lose, using portions might not be precise enough to see results.
MINDFUL OR INTUITIVE EATING
Technically, intuitive eating isn’t meant to be used for weight loss. In fact, some people gain weight when they follow the intuitive eating method because it’s more focused on eating according to hunger and fullness cues, letting go of dieting and breaking down ideas about “good” and “bad” foods. On the other hand, mindful eating focuses on bringing attention and awareness to the process of eating, often resulting in eating more slowly and a lower calorie intake overall. Mindful eating can be a great strategy for weight loss for some people, experts say.
- It enhances the experience of eating. “Mindful eating is my favorite method and something I hope everyone strives to eventually achieve,” Klinger says. “It allows you to savor your foods while still being mindful of what you consume, which is very powerful.” With mindful eating, you won’t feel guilty for eating something indulgent. “It allows you to eat the foods you love in a way that you can enjoy them,” Klinger adds.
- It can work well for people with a history of disordered eating. A mindful approach with a personal hunger scale may be the best option for people who fall into this group, Wolff says, since it doesn’t rely on obsessing over numbers.
- It can be combined with other methods. “I am a huge proponent of using hunger and fullness cues in conjunction with the plate method,” LaBossiere says. “Using these cues helps us develop trust in our bodies, which can promote more body love and respect,” she adds. Plus, by using mindful eating in conjunction with a portion guide, people start to understand more intuitively what portion sizes their bodies need for energy.
- It takes time to learn. “While the use of hunger and fullness cues is great, it does take time to relearn how to listen to our bodies,” LaBossiere says. “Society and diet culture have largely caused us to override those cues.”
- It’s not precise. As you’re getting up to speed on how much food your body really needs, it can be difficult to gauge whether you’re eating the right amount for weight loss when using mindful eating alone. That’s why experts tend to recommend using it in conjunction with another method, then eventually transitioning to a more mindful approach once you’ve reached your weight-loss goal.
- It’s not for everyone. For some people, “it makes them feel like they have no control over the foods they are eating,” Klinger says. “They need more accountability and an actual measurement of their intake in calories and nutritional value.” Also, some people struggle to get in touch with their appetite cues no matter how long they’ve been working at it.
- It’s not always easy to practice. “If you’re not paying attention or you have a busy day, you can easily get derailed and not focus on what your body needs,” Wolff points out. Plus, if you’re surrounded by noise or other distractions at mealtimes, it can be tricky to tune in to those all-important appetite signals.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Once you’ve evaluated the pros and cons of each approach to managing how much you eat, consider which method is most likely to deliver the results you’re looking for and be sustainable over a longer time. Of course, you could also use a combination of methods depending on the situation. For instance, some people use plate portions when they’re at home, and mindful eating when they go out to eat. But most people find it easiest to pick one food-tracking strategy — and stick to it. Ultimately, consistency beats perfection when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off.
Originally published April 2021, updated March 2023
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