Every project is an opportunity to learn, to figure out problems and challenges, to invent and reinvent.
So, you’re on board with the idea of tracking your calories and macros to gain muscle and lose fat.
You read my “Macros 101” article and learnt how to set your nutritional targets.
You started tracking and saw some good results.
But then, a few weeks in, you think you’ve hit a plateau.
And now you’re wondering, “Do I need to change anything?”
To be honest with you, tweaking a client’s macros or calories is usually my last port of call.
Often, a much more effective solution is to review your approach to tracking. After all, you haven’t been doing it for that long, so you may have yet to master some tips and tricks to make this system truly work for you.
In this article, I’m going to share five tracking hacks that always help my clients overcome their first plateau.
If you’re ready to master tracking, keep reading.
Hack #1: Don’t use average portion sizes, cups or tablespoons.
Weigh your food on a scale and record the weight in grams or ounces instead.
The reason is simple: average portion sizes, cups and tablespoons are inconsistent measures.
Let’s take peanut butter as an example.
The standard serving size on most peanut butter jars and calorie-tracking apps, is a non-heaped tablespoon, which is 15 gr (90 calories). The problem is that most of us take heaped spoonfuls, which can weigh anywhere from 20 to 30 gr (120 to 180 calories) or more.
So, when you’re logging “one tablespoon of peanut butter”, using the portion size provided by the app, this may be 90 calories on paper (well, on screen), but you may actually be eating twice as much or more…
However, weighing peanut butter or any other non-solid food can be a real pain.
Try this handy workaround to remove the hassle and record the right amount of calories:
Now those pesky extra calories you didn’t realise you were eating, are accounted for.
Hack #2: Double check your food entries or create your own.
Food databases on calorie-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal are awesome, but they also have a common flaw: anyone can add a new entry.
As a result, some entries could be years’ old and no longer accurate, or simply incorrect.
When you’re choosing an entry from the database, or scanning the barcode of your food items, ensure that the calories and macros reported on the app are accurate and up-to-date.
For foods that don’t have a nutritional label, like fresh fruit and vegetables, you can check that your selected entry matches – or at least comes reasonably close to – the nutritional information provided by the national food database in your country.
In the UK, this is the Composition of foods integrated dataset (CoFID). In the US, it’s the USDA Food Data Central.
If you can’t find an accurate entry, you can create your own and copy the nutritional information from your nutritional label or the national food database into the app.
Personally, I create all of my own entries, using either CoFID or the information available on food packaging. This way I don’t have to rely on anyone else’s accuracy but my own.
If you’re looking for advice on how to track your calories and macros when you’re eating out, head over to this in-depth article on the topic.
Hack #3: Don’t forget your extras.
Many people religiously track all of their meals and snacks, but forget to account for unplanned bites and sips. Unfortunately, all of these have calories, too, and a lot of the time they’re more than you’d think.
These are some common bites and sips that a lot of people tend to leave out of their food logs by mistake:
You might think that these extras are too small to do any harm, but are they?
Let’s say that you drink three cups of coffee with a splash of full-fat milk in each.
Then someone brings home-made cookies to the office, and you take a bite from a chocolate chip one, because it would be rude not to.
When you get home, you make yourself stir-fry for dinner, coating the pan with a tablespoon of olive oil that you’re not weighing.
After dinner, you eat two chips from your partner’s tub of Pringles in front of the TV.
In this hypothetical scenario, you’re not recording:
In total, you’re not accounting for about 225 calories.
If your target is 2000 calories per day, you could be unconsciously eating over 2200.
The easiest solution is to avoid these extras as much as possible. They won’t usually satisfy you as much as an actual meal or snack, so why waste so many calories on them?
If you still want to indulge from time to time, take a picture of these extras, so that you don’t forget about them. When you add them to the food log, estimate the serving size. It may not be the most accurate method, but it’s a lot better than not logging anything at all.
Hack #4: Keep your meals simple.
If you have the patience to weigh and track meals with more than 10 ingredients, more power to you. If you can do that accurately, I bow to your superior tracking skills.
However, even if this were possible, it might drive you crazy after a few days, so you’d lose consistency and accuracy pretty quickly.
Instead, stick to a simple yet balanced meal composition in order of priority for muscle gain and fat loss:
Logging four to six single-ingredient nutrient sources – such as low-fat ham, lettuce, tomato slices, wholemeal sourdough bread, and a handful of almonds – is much easier than trying to figure out every single item in an exotic recipe.
Hack #5: Plan at least your last meal of the day.
Trying to track every meal on the fly and hoping to hit your nutritional targets is, quite frankly, a complete crapshoot.
Not everyone can plug their entire week into MyFitnessPal on Sunday night, but you can plan at least one meal.
And that could make all the difference between sticking to your calories and macros, and going over or under by hundreds of calories every day.
Depending on how busy you are, try one of these approaches:
Is this necessary?
It depends on your goals.
In a fat loss phase, being more accurate pays off because you don’t have as many calories to play with as when you’re maintaining or in a muscle-building phase.
For instance, it’s much easier to overshoot 1500 calories than it is 2000.
And, if you’re consistently overshooting your fat loss calorie target, you may be spinning your wheels for six months when you could have wrapped up the diet in three.
What’s important to understand is that a fat loss phase is temporary.
When you achieve that goal, you can transition into maintenance or into a muscle-building phase, two stages of your fitness journey that allow for a lot more flexibility than fat loss.
So, in theory, tracking as accurately as you can isn’t “necessary”, but it sure is a lot more efficient. Personally, if I could achieve my fat loss target in eight weeks, I wouldn’t want to do it in 16 just for the sake of a couple extra tablespoons of peanut butter.
When I increase my calories to maintenance or above after the fat loss phase, I’m going to be able to enjoy much more peanut butter on a regular basis, anyway.
If your calories and macros aren’t working for you…
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
To receive helpful fitness information like this on a regular basis, you can sign up for my newsletter by clicking here.
An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
Want to work with me? Check out my services!