Updated: Jul 23
With the advent of apps such as MyFitnessPal, diet tracking has become more common among health-conscious individuals. Here, we chat about some scenarios where it may be useful, and another where it is contraindicated.
Diet tracking is one way to get a quantitative picture of what you typically eat. In sports where body composition is particularly important, e.g., bodybuilding, diet tracking is a must—at least for part of the year. But what about other sports, and are there any benefits for someone who is just interested in improving the quality of their diet, with no intention of getting lean or putting on muscle?
Improving Diet Quality
Logging what you eat can give you a good picture of the quality of your diet. If you use a website like Cronometer, you can see the macro- and micronutrient (vitamin/mineral) composition of individual foods and your entire daily food intake (even with the free version). This information can show potential areas for improvement: for example, you may notice that you are only eating one serving of fruit and two servings of vegetables per day, or you may see that you are not eating enough folate and vitamin C. With this feedback, you can make a plan to add extra servings of healthy foods to your diet. In the latter scenario, adding some broccoli and a kiwi would help meet these vitamin targets.
Improving Body Composition
Because protein is important for athletes, and for those looking to gain muscle, diet tracking can help to ensure you’re getting enough through your diet. We have written about what constitutes “enough” protein before, so check that out if you’re interested. Similarly, if your goal is to lose body fat, consuming less calories than you burn (being in a calorie deficit) is necessary. Diet tracking can help you to adhere to a lower calorie diet, setting you up for fat loss. Indeed, in a 6-month randomised controlled trial, those using a diet-tracking app lost more than double the weight (-6.8 kg) compared to those using a bite-counting watch (-3 kg) (1).
Image source: Thrifty Fun
For sports like football that include a lot of moderate- to high-intensity exercise, ensuring you’re well-fuelled is essential. Diet tracking can help to ensure that you’re getting enough total fuel (carbohydrates) each day, which will help to optimise match-day performance. For an estimation of your fuel requirements, visit our past articles on total carbohydrate requirements, and the optimal timing of carbohydrate consumption.
There is a subset of people for whom diet tracking is contraindicated (not recommended). That is those with disordered eating and/or eating disorders. Cross-sectional studies have reported associations between diet tracking and eating disorder symptomatology (2), suggesting a link. The evidence that diet tracking causes eating disorders is lacking, however. In a recent 1-month randomised controlled trial including 200 female University students, those who were told to track their diet using MyFitnessPal showed no significant increase in eating disorder symptomatology or risk (3). Yet still, if you exhibit disordered eating or suspect you have (or have been diagnosed with) an eating disorder, you should consult a professional such as a registered dietitian specialising in eating disorder treatment before tracking your diet.
To bring things together, here are the key points that we have discussed:
Diet tracking can be useful for highlighting nutrients or healthy food groups you’re underconsuming, upon which information you can make better choices
Diet tracking may help to improve body composition by ensuring you’re meeting protein and energy (calorie) targets, and improve match-day performance by ensuring you’re meeting carbohydrate recommendations
Diet tracking is not recommended for those with disordered eating/eating disorders, however the evidence that it causes such conditions is insufficient
We hope you learned some practical points from this article. Contact us at [email protected] to learn more about how to improve your football ability, too.
That’s all for this week, have a nice weekend!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Founder of Just Health — IG: @just.health.info
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Turner-McGrievy GM, Wilcox S, Boutté A, et al. The Dietary Intervention to Enhance Tracking with Mobile Devices (DIET Mobile) Study: A 6-Month Randomized Weight Loss Trial [published correction appears in Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 Dec;25(12 ):2156-2157]. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017;25(8):1336-42. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5529231/
(2) Simpson CC, Mazzeo SE. Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology. Eat Behav. 2017;26:89-92. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28214452/
(3) Hahn SL, Kaciroti N, Eisenberg D, Weeks HM, Bauer KW, Sonneville KR. Introducing Dietary Self-Monitoring to Undergraduate Women via a Calorie Counting App Has No Effect on Mental Health or Health Behaviors: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2021;121(12):2377-88. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34427188/
Body composition: This refers to the main components that make up the body, that is, muscle, fat, bone, and water.
Calorie deficit: This is a state of energy intake that is lower than what is required for your body to maintain body weight, and thus leads to a decrease in body weight, the majority of which being body fat (but muscle will be lost to some extent, too).
Randomised controlled trials: Also known as RCTs, these are a type of intervention study where a group of recruited individuals are randomly assigned to separate groups within a study. The rationale for randomisation is to reduce bias, that is, to evenly distribute any factors that may influence (or bias) the result of interest among groups. For example, if we have a group of 100 people who will either be given a multivitamin or placebo and followed for 10 years to see how many in each group dies, we would randomise so that each group is similar (on average) for factors like age, physical activity status, smoking status, and so on. If we didn't randomise, there's a greater chance that one group may end up being different enough from another group such that the results of the study may be biased, e.g., one group could have a lot more smokers or sedentary individuals, which would likely influence the outcome of interest (death).
Disordered eating: This refers to a pattern of eating that is not normal (e.g., stress-eating, emotional eating, avoiding food groups, etc.), but doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone is suffering from a diagnosed eating disorder.
Eating disorders: These are diagnosable mental health conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Individuals living with eating disorders may exhibit obsessive behaviours regarding food and dietary intake, and impaired bodily functioning due to inadequate dietary intake. If you suspect you have an eating disorder, consult a registered dietitian or registered nutritionist who specialises in eating disorder treatment.
Cross-sectional studies: These are a type of observational study where measurements take place at a single time point. Because they lack temporality, i.e., they do not track people over a period of time, they cannot be used to infer causality. In the example in this article, just because diet tracking is associated with eating disorder symptomatology in these types of studies, that doesn't mean we can say that diet tracking causes eating disorders. It is more likely that those with eating disorders are more likely to track their diet, and this phenomenon is called reverse causation.