What Should I Track to Lose Weight?
Tracking things for weight loss can be a tedious job after a few weeks (or even a couple days).
The task of opening an app like myfitnesspal multiple times per day to find the exact food you ate and how many calories it was is hard enough. (Is that 1 cup serving size of pasta cooked or dry?) Then remembering to log your workouts and water, setting the right goals, tracking grams of protein, carbs, etc…
It isn’t a realistic lifelong habit.
So what do you REALLY need to track if you want to lose weight?
To answer that, I’ll tell you what we do with our clients…
I could start by telling you how successful our clients are, but that’s not what I’m gonna do. (If you’re curious, we have some testimonials listed on this page.)
What’ll be more helpful for you is to tell you the type of person we work with. Because if you have drastically different goals or motivations than they do, this entire blog may be a waste of your time.
You want to know what to track based on YOUR situation, not someone else who lives a totally different lifestyle.
With that in mind, I’ll start by telling you who we DON’T work with.
We don’t work with fitness enthusiasts who have goals like, “I want to take my deadlift from 305 pounds up to 345 in the next 6 months.” There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what we do.
We don’t work with someone who wants a quick fix with goals like, “I want to lose 30 pounds in a month for my beach vacation.” Not only is that type of goal unhealthy, even if it’s achieved, the results are always temporary.
We also don’t work with young adults who are already in great shape and just want some new, fun diet or exercise challenge to do in their abundance of free time. They can hop on pretty much any diet or exercise program and be fine.
The type of person we work with is the opposite of all that.
So if you’re someone who has trouble staying consistent with diet and exercise…
If you know you don’t have a ton of time to commit to it because you have other priorities and responsibilities (kids, a job, a social life, etc.)…
And yet you’re ready to take this seriously because you want to learn more realistic habits that will actually make a long-term difference (for you AND your kids)…
You’ll want to keep reading so you know exactly what we recommend you track (and don’t track) to lose weight.
Track Your Progress
There are 3 ways we have our clients track their progress:
How can you know you’re losing weight if you don’t know how much you weigh?
Well, it’s not impossible, but it’s way easier if you’re willing to step on a scale every now and then.
We have most of our clients do that every day. Some opt to do it less frequently, which is fine in certain situations. But if you have anxiety over the scale, it can actually be a good way to conquer that fear and not let it control you.
As you practice healthier habits and are patient with the ups and downs that WILL happen with your weight, you’ll learn to see past that to the bigger picture — like how your clothes may start to fit differently even if your weight isn’t dropping as quickly as you’d hoped.
Overall, you want to look for the longer trend of weight loss that happens over the course of months, not days.
It’s possible to lose fat while also gaining a little muscle (especially if you want to tone up), in which case the scale may not accurately reflect the progress you’re making.
That’s why we also have our clients measure certain parts of the body on a somewhat regular basis (sometimes monthly, sometimes every 2-3 months).
Specifically, we have them measure their upper arm, waist (at the belly button), hips (at the widest part), and thigh.
It’s not that there’s anything magical about measuring these areas. We just try to keep it as simple as possible and limit it to this. If you want to do more, go for it. The important thing is to be consistent in the way you measure each spot so you get the most accurate look at progress.
Even measurements can be slightly misleading sometimes because you may gain some muscle before losing fat in certain areas.
Taking pictures (at the same time as when you do measurements) can give you a perspective that weight and measurements miss.
Don’t expect quick changes with this. The pictures might not show a significant difference for a few months. So don’t get frustrated and don’t give up. It might even help to show them to someone you trust for a more honest review (most of us tend to be too hard on ourselves and focus on our flaws).
Also, don’t expect to always be happy with all three of these forms of progress at the same time. As long as you’re seeing changes with at least one of them, that’s what matters.
It’s not uncommon to rely on only one form of progress and give up too early when you very well may be making headway in other ways. Don’t make that mistake.
Track Your Food
Everyone’s process for how to be successful with nutrition and weight loss will be a little different. Not everyone follows the outline I’m about to share.
Still, the following 3 steps are a good way to think about it, even if your exact approach varies a bit.
1. Literally, the Food
We start most of our clients with at least a few days of getting a snapshot of how they normally eat. Meals, drinks, snacks, bites...
No matter how well you think you know what you eat — and I’m speaking from personal experience here, both for myself and all of our clients — until you’ve tracked it, you’re probably wrong.
If the only thing you were to do is become more mindful and track everything you eat, you’d be amazed at how quickly you could make simple changes and get results.
It doesn’t even matter how you do it. Take pictures on your phone. Use an app. Write it in a notebook. Whatever’s easiest for you, go with that. If you’re looking for a place to start, this is it.
2. The Quantity
Once you have a good handle on WHAT you’re eating, you need to have a way to track HOW MUCH you eat (specifically: calories, protein, carbs, fats, and veggies).
The good news is that 99% of our clients don’t track literal calories or grams of anything. Instead, they use something called the hand guide.
What the hand guide does is it manages all that stuff automatically — it’s built-in so you don’t have to worry about it.
It’s super convenient and simple.
You don’t have to get an app out every time you eat for the rest of your life. You just need to gauge how much food you put on your plate based on the size of your hand.
For the sake of time, I won’t go into more detail about that, but we’re happy to give you free info on that and help you with it as much as you need. (You can email Megan about it here.)
You can take a more difficult route and literally track every gram and calorie, but the hand guide is just as accurate and effective and takes less time and energy, especially once you get the hang of it.
3. The Quality
The third step you can take (usually after getting plenty comfortable with step 2), is assessing the quality of the foods you eat.
For our clients, no foods are off limits. We want you to enjoy what you love.
But if you want to see a faster rate of weight loss, a good way to achieve that is to make sure the majority of your meals are high quality.
Sometimes this is super obvious, like the difference between eating chips or fruit (both carbs).
Sometimes it’s less obvious, like the difference between coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil (both fats). It’s not that one is “healthier” than the other. But extra virgin olive oil will give you a different type of fat that you’re less likely to get from the rest of your foods.
Differences like that add up over time.
Since we’re talking about weight loss, the easiest guidance to give you (without actually talking to you personally or taking you on as a client) is to look for foods that have less calories, more nutrients, and are more filling.
Or, easier still, just track how many of the foods you eat are highly processed (e.g. pre-packaged foods and eating out) vs. minimally processed (e.g. single ingredient foods and home cooked meals).
Track Your Movement
There are 2 separate components to this, and you don’t want to confuse the difference.
Strength training is the most efficient and effective type of exercise for weight loss. We have every client focus on that as their main form of exercise.
As far as tracking, I create a specific exercise program for them every month, but the things they track are the same things I would recommend you keep track of no matter where you find your workouts.
It comes down to tracking the exact exercises from week to week, along with the number of sets, reps, and how much weight you use on each exercise.
Many people make the mistake of just doing a random workout and not tracking any of those things, which makes it impossible to create progress. And that progress is super important for weight loss.
It’s what signals your body to adapt and change the way you want it to.
Not to mention, if you’re at all interested in also getting stronger or having more energy, tracking your workouts will become all the more important.
2. Daily Activity
You also want to have an idea of how active you are when you AREN’T working out.
It’s important to recognize the difference because exercise is something that can only be done so much without starting to wear your body down — especially since none of us here are professional athletes who can literally base our lives around fitness (as well as the recovery that’s needed with that).
Being active during the day in simple ways like going for walks, playing with your kids, doing yard work, shoveling snow… there are limitless ways to spend more of your time throughout the day on your feet rather than on the couch.
One of the easiest things to track with this is your step count (read How to Use a Step Count to Lose Weight).
But if that doesn’t interest you, another option is to track either the number of times you get up and move per day, the total amount of time you spend doing some intentional movement (like a walk, bike ride, etc.), or both.
Things We Don’t Track
OK, so I know that was a lot, but it doesn’t mean you have to track everything all the time (more on that in a minute). And compared to the amount of things you COULD track, that’s a rather small list.
Speaking of which, I thought it might be helpful to include a few of the things we don’t have our clients track.
1. Calories Burned
Tracking how many calories you burn each day (or in a given workout) is not only unnecessary, it’s a bad idea.
You can read more on this in “The Mistake of Exercising to Burn Calories,” but the bottom line is that tracking calories burned is inaccurate, it will affect your progress negatively, and if you’re already tracking your food, your movement, and your progress, the “calories burned” aspect will work itself out without you having to account for it.
2. Literal Calories & Grams
I know I already touched on this, but I wanted to add some clarity.
Losing weight comes down to energy balance. If you’re eating too many calories, you can’t lose weight. So you do have to have an accurate way to control for this.
The hand guide is a great tool, but even if you choose not to use this, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to count literal calories. You may be more content just working on specific behaviors, like finding new ways to improve the quality of your meals.
If you’re smart about how you do it and stay consistent with it, those changes can cause you to eat less calories, less grams of sugar, more grams of protein, fiber, and a host of other nutrients, all by tracking the behaviors rather than the numbers.
3. Specific Sleep Metrics
I’m a big fan of making sure you get enough sleep (most people need 7-9 hours) and making sure that it’s high quality sleep.
Having said that, those are pretty easy things to gauge without actually tracking the specific things you may see in your fitbit, apple watch, or any other device like that.
Those things aren’t very accurate, and as long as you’re getting enough hours and aren’t tired all day long, this isn’t something we track regularly.
If you DO think sleep is an issue — and it definitely can affect weight loss — it may be worth your time to come up with a plan and track your behaviors surrounding your bedtime routine. You can even use other metrics on your device as a guide, just don’t live or die by those numbers.
4. Body Fat Percentage
If it were easy to get an accurate measurement, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to track. Unfortunately, not only is it not easy, it’s close to impossible.
At-home scales and special machines at gyms or health stores can be inaccurate to the point of being comical (or tragic).
Skinfold measurements (where they pinch your fat with calipers) can be more accurate, but only if the person using them knows what they’re doing, and there are very few people I would trust with that.
Ultimately, it’s likely you’ll just get inaccurate information. But even if you did get an accurate reading, it won’t give you any edge on tracking your progress with what you can get with your weight, measurements, and pictures.
5. Anything Else
There’s so much you can track now, I’ve intentionally left some things off the list, and I’m sure there are some I didn’t even think of.
The point is that the reason we don’t bother with it is because, for our clients, tracking anything else almost always just amounts to extra work for little to no extra benefit.
Keep This In Mind
When you break it down, there are really only 3 things you need to track:
Yes, there are multiple things you can track within each category, but if you try to track every single one of those things at the same time on a daily basis, you’ll be less likely to have success with any of it.
Especially if you’re doing it on your own.
WIth coaching, we can help you take on more at once because WE’LL be the ones who look at all of it and help you decide what you should emphasize more than others in order to get the best results.
But even with a coach, there are times when the best thing you can do is pick only one thing to work on and forget everything else. If you’re doing it on your own, it only becomes more important to narrow your focus.
If you want help on knowing where to start, you can either contact us, or check out our free guide that has a worksheet designed specifically to help you decide what the best starting point may be for you. Download that guide here.