Purpose: This article explains the mechanics of tracking nutrition using a mobile/web app called Cronometer.
Reason: Making a change requires conscious thought and measurement.
Tracking Requires Conscious Thought
Eating is a very automated, habitual process. After decades of eating a certain way, I’ve found that it is extremely challenging to make long-lasting significant changes to my diet. For me, and clients that I work with, tracking helps bring the process of eating into the conscious mind. Once we are conscious of what, when, and how much we are eating, it becomes possible to make purposeful changes. Without tracking, or some method of conscious eating, the subconscious mind goes rogue, making food suggestions in amount, kind, and timing that may have little relation to our actual needs.
Measurement Facilitates Change
In order to know what needs to be changed, we need to know what’s happening. If we don’t know how much energy we’re consuming, and from which foods, how will we know which to eat more or less of? What did you eat two days ago? How much carbohydrate, fat, and protein did you eat? How much zinc did you consume? We’ll never know. It’s very difficult to know and remember all of the important variables without tracking. Tracking allows the measurement and analysis of the energy content and nutrient density of the food that we eat. These are the two major variables that need to be manipulated for any nutrition goal.
How to Use Cronometer to Track Nutrition
Getting / Setting the App
This should be pretty straight-forward. Download the app on your mobile, or access the webpage. Make an account and set up your profile. You’re ready to track. You can also visit my listing in the Cronometer Pro Directory.
When to Record
My personal experience is that tracking in real-time throughout the day is easier, more accurate, and will be done more reliably than trying to record everything at the end of the day. If you wait until the end of the day, you’re more likely to forget items, or to forget to track completely. Also, any nutrition plan that depends on changing when you eat, will be easier to execute if time-stamps are accurate – i.e. if you understand when you eat, you can intentionally change this more easily. Real-time tracking seems cumbersome at first, but once you enter a couple items, it becomes second nature and goes quickly. Cronometer automatically suggests previously entered items at the top of the list. Even for a complex meal, you’ll spend only 3-5 minutes entering data. If the meal is simple, or if it’s a product or recipe that you’ve previously entered, it may take only a few seconds.
How to Record
Weigh Your Food
It’s possible to record without weighing – by estimated portion sizes. But I recommend weighing your food, at least at first. After a short period of time, you’ll get a pretty good feel for how much different foods weigh, which will enable you to track quite accurately without a scale. Get a kitchen scale. I have this one which I use for weighing coffee and food. There are less expensive options. When you eat at home, put your plate on the scale and add one item at a time, noting the weight in grams. In between items, use the "tare" button to reset the scale. Record each item and its weight in Cronometer as you add it to the plate.
Choose Generics, Not Brands
Enter generic food items for the richest nutritional data. (e.g. choose "almonds" rather than "Trader Joe’s almonds." The nutrition databases have more nutritional info stored for the generic item than for most brand items. You can see how many "listed nutrients" are available for any given selection in the app.
Learn From Other Experts
Check out Chris Masterjohn’s recommendations on how to use Cronometer for tracking vitamins and minerals.
Review the Data
As you enter foods throughout the day, you’ll receive feedback from the graphs. The macro and micronutrient bars fill up based on the daily requirements. The app comes preloaded with daily requirements based on RDAs (recommended daily allowances). These targets can be customized. When you’re using the app or the website, clicking or hovering over a particular macro or micronutrient display will reveal which foods contributed towards your intake of a particular nutrient and to what degree.
Here is the Vitamins panel:
Here’s the main dashboard:
Learn from Tracking
Pay attention to the nutrition information and target values as you enter items for the day. After a few days of doing this, you’ll see which foods contain which nutrients and in what amounts. After a few weeks, you’ll start to naturally remember this without much extra effort on your part. You might also notice that some of your foods contain a lot of energy (measured in calories) but very few nutrients (e.g. rice, candy, ice-cream). You’ll notice that some are the opposite (e.g. peppers, spinach, fish). You’ll be getting a nutrition education while you track.
Be Analytical and Efficient
Trends matter more than individual days. Unless you are treating a specific deficiency or medical problem, you likely don’t need to worry too much about missing a target here or there. There are storage-depots for many nutrients in the body (e.g. B12, iron), so a healthy person won’t become depleted in a few days. Instead, use the Nutrition Report tab to look at averages for days, weeks, or months to see if there is a pattern of a deficiency or surplus across longer periods of time.
Use The Oracle
Use the "Suggest Foods" button to receive suggestions for foods that could complete your remaining nutrition requirements for the day. In the mid-afternoon, if my micronutrient graphs are coming up short, I will use this button to help come up with some creative ideas of foods that could round out my daily nutrition. Common deficiencies include Zinc, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Selenium, and Vitamin D — and thus, the Oracle might often suggest foods rich in these nutrients – fish, organ meats, and dark green leafy vegetables for example.
Create custom recipes to save time and to meet targets. Recipes can be actual recipes for cooking, or they can just be combinations of pre-prepared foods that you often eat together. Most people have some dietary staples that they eat repeatedly. For example – if you eat oatmeal with raisins and a coffee for breakfast every morning, you could put these three items into a recipe. This makes your morning tracking trivial. If you don’t have staples, developing some nutrient-dense staples is an efficient method of ensuring adequate nutrition. By doing this, you remove a lot of the "activation energy," that’s usually required to eat well consistently. An effective staple is a food(s) that you know you like, that’s easy to prepare, with known nutritional value. Once you settle on a staple, save it in Cronometer by using the "Custom Recipe" feature. This allows you to track accurately and quickly. You can see in the screenshot a custom recipe that I saved – quick oats, pecans, berries, chia seeds, and a hard-boiled egg.
Here is a sample recipe:
2 Tips for Recipes / Staples
1. Simplicity is Key.
The simpler your staple, the more likely it is that you can reliably have access to this food. It needs to be cheap, convenient, and easy to prepare. Making it easy to track by saving it in Cronometer is the final step.
2. New Staples Can Replete Deficiencies
Use specific staples/recipes to fill in specific gaps. If you know that your usual diet is extremely deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids, for instance, create a staple that you know will give you a periodic complement of omega-3 fatty acids – salmon, mackerel, herring, fish-oil supplement, pharma grade omega-3, etc.
Tracking your nutrition is the first step to purposeful eating. If you find out what, when, and how much you’re eating now, you’ll be able to make informed adjustments to your nutrition plan. When you do make adjustments, you’ll be able to see how those are working. Some people, when they first start tracking, find out that they’re eating far better or worse than they expected. My experience with my own tracking and with my friends, family, and clients, is that it’s really difficult to get a feel for what you’re eating. People who believe they have a firm grasp on their nutrition often find out they’re consuming 5 or 10 times the amount of carbohydrate as they had predicted. Others who thought that massive changes were needed, were pleased to find out that they were actually eating a diverse, complete, nutritive diet, and that only a few small changes were necessary.