Anyone reading this blog who has ever tried to lose weight (or gain it, too, I suppose) has probably tried “tracking” in one form or another: diet tracking, calorie counting, fitness tracking in all its new and various forms. I certainly have. I have counted my calories (both on paper and with an app), I have tracked my steps, and I have tracked my daily weight. (For the purposes of this conversation, let’s define “tracking” as a method of dieting that involves the daily recording of personal health or fitness information.)
In this post, I will discuss how tracking doesn’t work well for a whole-foods plant-based diet, the philosophically problematic nature of tracking yourself as a form of dieting, and the issues surrounding privacy and tracking personal health information.
Calorie counting was my least favorite form of tracking. It was irritating to try to input the foods I eat, since I regularly incorporate a lot of home-made whole-food meals, frequently created without a recipe. How do I accurately count the calories in my hand-made bread? How do I tally up the calories of a quick improvised stir-fry on a week night when I have a thousand other things to do and I’m already tired? The long-term trends were also sometimes pretty demoralizing, which made me want to do it even less.
I could probably write a whole blog post about the pros and cons of calorie counting. But what I want to dwell on in this post is how ineffective calorie counting is for a whole food plant-based diet. The big reason it doesn’t work: Calorie counting relies on accuracy, otherwise you won’t know if you’ve really gone over or under your goal. Without that accuracy, what’s the point? You’re just putting arbitrary numbers onto a piece of paper or an app. Eating WFPB makes it notably difficult to track calories accurately. Here’s a few reasons why.
Fruits and veggies vary calorically based on the season, soil, weather, ripeness… And there’s no barcode to scan with your phone to track calories quickly and easily. Say you’re making a stir-fry — you’d have to weigh every single ingredient, and even then the calories/gram are still an estimate that could be different depending on how much starch the broccoli has been storing for winter or how ripe the zucchini is. And let’s be real: Who really has time to weigh every little thing?! We’re already taking the time to eat delicious whole foods, which sometimes involves a little extra preparation. And what if you don’t eat the whole stir-fry, or whatever you’re making – then you lose even more accuracy by multiplying by an approximate percentage.
Calories are not a very useful measure of a food’s utility in our bodies. (This could also be a blog post in and of itself.) Without nutrient density, you could meet your calorie goal or even exceed it and still be hungry because your body is still craving the nutritional building blocks that keep us running. In a WFPB lifestyle we already do that – just without the calorie counting! Because when you’re already eating nutrient-dense foods all the time, there’s not much of a point to tracking calories.
Personally, I’m not interested in overhauling my culinary habits and cooking process to keep track of one small part of food: the calories. I like to think there’s a much more holistic (wholistic) solution to eating healthily.
Tracking steps was by far my favorite. It got me to go outside for walks in the evening when I realized I hadn’t hit my goal for the day. I’m not sure I would have discovered how lovely it is to walk during sunset if I wasn’t tracking steps. I also liked tracking steps because it involved meeting a daily goal rather than analyzing long-term trends. (I’ll come back to this idea – daily goals and habit forming!)
Tracking is also philosophically problematic. Inputting daily data implies that someone is watching or evaluating your data, which in turn makes us feel like we must obey certain rules because we are being watched, even if nobody’s checking up on us (except advertisers, apparently) or evaluating our behavior.
Fit is a Feminist Issue, one of my favorite fitness blogs, ties in 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the panopticon: a prison where the inmates are tricked by the design of the building into believing they are always being watched. They moderate their behavior based on this belief, even if it’s not actually the case that they are under constant surveillance. The problem with conforming behavior through perceived surveillance is that it has an inherent power imbalance; the surveilled person is not changing their behavior because of knowledge, but because they are obedient.
When I was tracking calories, nobody was checking up on me, but I still felt like I had to obey the rule of staying under X number of calories per day because… why? Someone’s watching? They’re not, but I still felt the impulse to obey. And that is simply not a way to nourish myself with food.
What’s the takeaway? Eat whole foods. Eat lots of plants. Don’t worry about tracking calories – you will fill feel full because you’re eating nutrient-dense foods. Move your body, train competitively, whatever floats your boat. Most importantly: Build healthy habits!
The best tool I’ve found so far is the Daily Dozen app from Dr. Gregor’s NutritionFacts.org. This app simply involves checking boxes to help you balance your meals throughout the day. It doesn’t count calories per se, although it does have serving sizes associated with each box you check off. I like that it pushes me to include a wide variety of veggies (with a specific box for cruciferous vegges), fruits and berries, legumes, whole grains, nuts, etc. It also has two boxes to remind me to take my vitamins! The app allows me to track how many boxes I check off over time, which is super motivating, because even if I have a bad day where all I ate was toast, potato chips, and mac n’ cheez, I can get back to it the next day and I will still maintain a good trend.
The organization behind Daily Dozen strikes me as trustworthy because they are founded on the principle that knowledge is power (Michel Foucault, anyone?) and the more you know the more you can be empowered to take charge of your own health.
Unlike constantly counting calories or tracking every little step I take, I think that the Daily Dozen app helps me to build healthy habits. On the days that I forget to use it, I still find myself thinking through my meals for the day and making sure that I’m balancing lots of healthy whole foods in each meal. In the end, the Daily Dozen is actually changing my behavior, which is not something I can say for any other tracking app or system I’ve used so far.
This is why I joyously embrace the philosophy behind the whole-foods plant-based lifestyle. Eat plant-based whole foods, and lots of them. Don’t stress out about it, because nobody’s watching! Do this because it’s good for YOUR body. The nutrients in these foods will nourish your body and help you feel more full. Slowing down enough to cook and prepare whole foods will lower your stress and help you connect to the food that is nourishing you. Why track that when it’s such a simple idea? If using something like the Daily Dozen app helps you get on the right track, all power to you – I’ve been doing the same thing. But you don’t even need that to eat well.