How to track your diet progress

Summary

Inputs:

  1. Training: Keep track of your 1RM’s or best weight for reps for each of your major lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift, Chin Ups). This can be written down on a piece of paper, your phone, your computer, whatever works.
  2. Food: Buy a digital food scale with up to 1 decimal place accuracy – measure your food whenever you can and count your calories/macronutrients as often as you can
  3. Miscellaneous: Rate your sleep and stress levels on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 each week.

Outputs:

  1. Photos: Take 4-6 photos every month. Make sure to take these photos at the same time each month and under the consistent lighting.
    • Front – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed
    • Side – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed
    • Back (if you have someone to assist) – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed
  2. Body Weight: Buy a digital body weight scale that has an accuracy of up to 1 decimal place and weigh yourself every day at the same time (preferably morning after you have gone to the toilet)
  3. Body measurements: Buy a measuring tape with a retraction/locking feature like MyoTape or Orbitape and take body measurements of key areas each week.
  4. Miscellaneous: Rate your hunger and energy levels on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 each week.

Introduction

In the previous post we talked about the importance of tracking. I now want to briefly highlight a few practical recommendations as to what to track and how to track it when dieting. As described in the previous post I like to approach this topic from an inputs vs outputs view.

Inputs

Training

Training is relatively straight forward. As discussed previously, simply record the number of sets, repetitions and weight for each exercise. Whether you write this down on paper or in an excel sheet it doesn’t really matter.

Another option is to simply keep track of your maxes for 3-4 of your major compound lifts. This can either be a 1 rep max, or a maximum weight for specific reps. This simpler approach is often used when trying to lose fat where you are only concerned about maintaining strength in key lifts such as Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift and Chin ups.

Food Intake

Buy a digital food scale (the ones with spring in them tend to lose their accuracy over time) and weigh your food whenever you can. What I mean is weigh your food when it’s practical. There’s no point bringing a scale with you to a restaurant just because you have been instructed to weigh your food. Of course, if you are at home and aren’t in a rush to eat your food then why not weigh it first so you know how much you’re eating.

When tracking food, it is recommended that you weigh all your food rather than use volume based approaches such as a measuring cup. This is because a cup of rice is very different depending on how you pack it – to the top? Over the top? Are you compressing the rice and pushing it downwards so you can fit more in?

All of these will have a slightly different result. Compare the following:

rice-1

VS

white-rice1

Both of them are “a bowl of rice”. Both of them probably different caloric content. Just saying.

As far as recording your food intake goes, I like using an app called myfitnesspal. It makes things much easier when you can scan packaged food and even enter your own food etc. On top of keeping track of all your calories, it also tracks your macronutrient intake. Any other nutrient calculator or even an excel spreadsheet or pen and paper could work though. At the end of the day you should go with what works for you and what will motivate you to keep it consistent.

With regards to accuracy, it is again a matter of practicality. What we are looking for isn’t the EXACT value of each measurement, but rather the consistent application of measuring technique. What I mean is that some people use a more simplistic counting method eg. 100g of rice is 100 calories, just to make it a round number and easier to count. It doesn’t matter if 100g of cooked white rice is actually ~151 calories as long as you CONSISTENTLY count 100g of rice as 100 calories then it’s fine. Why? Because at the end of the day you just have to review your results to see what to do next.

If you aren’t losing weight eating your current intake (whether it’s accurately 2342 or simplistically 2100) you will have to decrease your intake and then review your results in the coming weeks. As long as you stick to one method consistently the whole way you will know what adjustments to make etc.

It’s not about accuracy it’s about consistency.

Tracking food is quite an exercise when you first start and for some people it can become a chore if they are the type to become obsessed with 100% accuracy. At the end of the day we should be aiming to fit food into our lives rather than our lives around food. Don’t let counting calories ruin all the fun in your life, because that’s not what it’s all about!

Remember our tiered structure discussed previously. The following levels of priority:

  1. Calorie target for the day
  2. Protein targets for the day
  3. Carbohydrates/Fat targets for the day

Note: When aiming for certain calorie or macronutrient targets for the day, do not obsess about the exact number. If your protein target is 165g, you do NOT have to hit 165g on the button. If you are within 10g on either side of it (155g – 175g) you would have already ‘hit your goals’ for the day. I find that obsessing over the exact numbers can often cause more unnecessary stress for very limited benefits.

Miscellaneous Inputs – Sleep and Stress levels

A typical recommendation is to write down your sleep quality and the number of hours slept in day. I personally find that if you are able to get into this habit then that’s awesome. However, for most people in the interest of not overloading them with things to stress about I would recommend to rate your sleep on a weekly basis on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10, whatever works for you. This makes it more practical.

Stress levels is another common input that is tracked to troubleshoot your diet. High levels of stress can cause water retention. If you had a stressful week but kept your calories and exercises on track and yet your weight jumped – don’t panic. Understand that it is probably just water retention and that the fat loss will show in the coming weeks. I would also rate this every week on whichever scale you choose.

Outputs

Similarly to inputs, there are a million outputs you could measure which would give you an idea of your progress. I personally like to view things in the tiered/layered format below:

diet-related-outputs-v3

In a perfect world, I would recommend to track all of these outputs. However, I am conscious that not everyone has the same level of motivation and not everyone has the same desire to reach their goals. If you are overweight and want to drop a few kg here and there, you may not have to go to such lengths as taking body measurements.

At the end of the day I just want to illustrate that these measurements are like layers of information – the bare minimum you would look at is your body in the mirror or taking progress photos. This is fairly obvious. Then you move into the next step which is still relatively easy – weighing yourself and so on.

More often than not, when we are overwhelmed, it is always easier to not do anything at all. To  just stay still. I want to avoid this and hence I would recommend you to take measurements to the extent that it helps you reach your goal.

Photos

Photos may not be the best tool for granular analysis of week to week progress. However, over a longer period of time it can definitely show changes in body composition which are much more motivating that seeing numbers on the scale.

My recommendation is to take 4-6 photos every month:

  • Front – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed
  • Side – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed
  • Back (if you have someone to assist) – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed

Ensure that the location and lighting for each photo is the same from month to month.

Body Weight

Your weight is probably one of the easier things to measure and gives you good amount of information for the amount of time and effort it takes. In today’s day and age there’s probably no longer an excuse to not have a digital scale which gives you at least up to 1 decimal place.

When dieting our aim is to lose anywhere from 0.5% to 1% of body weight a week. This might translate to around the 0.5kg per week or 1lb per week for some people. When looking to achieve such small changes in weight scale on a weekly basis it quickly becomes obvious that a 1 decimal scale weight reading becomes a minimum requirement.

Does the scale need to be accurate? Not necessarily, because what we are interested in isn’t to get the 100% accurate weight reading but rather we are interested in the change in weight rather than the absolute weight.

One thing to note is that your physical body weight will fluctuate from day to day due to various reasons. All of these will be discussed in further detail in a later post, for the moment just know that things like salt intake, stress levels and even your bowel movements can affect your body weight at any given time due to water retention. Water retention isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something to keep in mind when weighing yourself. This is why when looking at your change in weight over time it’s better to weigh yourself each day rather than once a week.

Due to these fluctuations in weight, I wouldn’t recommend putting a huge amount attention on daily weight changes. What we are really after is a change in weight over a long period of time rather than day to day changes.

If your goal was to lose weight, you wouldn’t expect your weight to drop every single day you jump on the scale, and neither would it be considered a failed diet if your weight actually increased from one day to the next – what you are more concerned about is the average change in weight over time. Your weight will always fluctuate up and down, the more important question is – What is the overall trend? It heading up or down?

An example is the recent cut I went on for my powerlifting competition. My progress report showed my weight going up and down every single day. However, you can clearly see that the trend was slowly heading downwards. Because of this I was inclined to think that I was doing something correctly and did not change my diet.

As far as timing is concerned, I would recommend to weigh yourself at the same time each day, preferably in the morning after you have gone to the toilet, this tends to make measurements a little more consistent (despite all the other factors over which you don’t have as much control over).

Body Measurements

Body measurements are a very useful tool to use when tracking progress beyond the weight level.

It allows us to go one level deeper in our understanding and knowing what exactly is happening. I have talked about the need to make adjustments as you go along your diet etc. One of the ways to know whether an adjustment is necessary is to take body measurements as they give you that one extra level of information.

Going back to the weight loss example, if you were eating the right things, exercising right but your weight appeared to be staying constant for 2-3 weeks, you would be inclined to think that you are not losing weight and that you need to change something about your diet. However, if you took body measurements also, you may notice that although your weight isn’t moving, your stomach measurements are going down! If this were the case, you may want to keep things the same.

I would recommend a measuring tape with at least up to 1 decimal place accuracy and preferably with a retraction/locking features to ensure accuracy. MyoTape and OrbiTape are a good example of these. They have a push-button whereby the tape will tighten around the area you are measuring. This means that the tightness for your measurements will be more consistent. Make sure to tense the muscle every time you take the measurements to ensure consistency.

With regards to which areas to measure, I have found Andy Morgan’s measuring guidelines to be invaluable (scroll down to find the 9 measuring sites he recommends to use). Andy Morgan also has a fantastic book which talks about dieting and how to make adjustments in much more detail. I would highly encourage everyone to purchase it and read this in your own time if this is a topic that interests you.

Miscellaneous Outputs – Hunger and Energy levels 

Similar to the miscellaneous inputs, I would recommend rating your hunger and energy levels on a scale every week. These two measurements may not give you a very good indication of progress. Just because you aren’t hungry and have high energy levels doesn’t mean you have reached your goal of losing 20 kg. However, they do help to give you a more holistic view of your diet progress.

There is a big difference between having already lost 10kg but feeling beaten, drained and always hungry versus having lost 10kg so far but still feeling full of enthusiasm and not feeling like you are starving all the time. In the former case, it is often an indication that you are due for a diet break to recover from the physical but also the mental aspects of dieting for a long time.

Wrapping it all up

I am conscious that I have already included a summary at the very beginning as I always do. However, I often find that although I personally like using the Inputs vs Output model to explain the concept of tracking, it can often be confusing when you are trying to apply it all. So here is another summary with an activity based lens rather than the inputs vs outputs model.

Daily Activities:

  • Weigh yourself at the same time each day (preferably in the morning after toilet)
  • Weigh your food – track calorie and macronutrient intake (using an app like myfitnesspal)
  • Track your 1RM’s or best weight for reps of key lifts such as the Squat, Bench, Deadlift and Chin Ups

Weekly Activities:

  • Take body measurements using a measuring tape with a retraction/lock feature
  • Rate the following from a scale of 1-5 or 1-10:
    • Sleep Quality
    • Stress Levels
    • Hunger Levels
    • Energy levels

Monthly Activities:

  • Take 4-6 photos with the same lighting, location and camera:
    • Front – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed
    • Side – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed
    • Back (if you have someone to assist) – 2 photos – relaxed and tensed

 

Toni

Toni is management consultant by day and an amateur powerlifter also by day.. he sleeps at night. He loves to strive for personal development and he achieves this through training, reading and maybe even writing.

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