Bellevue Club personal trainer Cory Patterson is not a registered dietitian, but his experience with food tracking and nutrition is extensive. For roughly 15 years Patterson has tracked every food he has eaten. “I’m quite robotic about it,” he says. In all that time, what he’s learned about how nutrition affects the human body (especially an active body) is vast and his advice for the average person is certainly worth noting.
Reflections magazine: When did you start tracking your food?
Cory Patterson: Probably around 18 or 19 years old, right when I really started getting into fitness. It started with just calorie tracking, and then I started figuring out how to track [macronutrients].
RM: What was your fitness goal at the time?
CP: At that time I was trying to gain strength and size.
RM: How were you tracking your food?
CP: Just simple paper in a notebook.
RM: You also tracked your exercise, correct?
CP: Yep, all of it.
RM: What have you learned over the years of tracking food?
CP: Mostly about the actual value of foods. When you start paying attention, it’s very surprising how quickly calories can add up. You look at a label, and it says 100 calories. But when you actually measure the amount it’s surprising how small it is. For example, peanut butter. That’s one that adds up super quick. People will just eyeball it. You can easily jump up your count by 200 to 300 calories.
RM: What did your diet look like when you first started tracking?
CP: I started in with high protein. At that time the low-fat trend was in, so it was a lot of protein and carbohydrates. And way too much in the way of protein powders and those things.
RM: How long was it before you got into bodybuilding?
CP: It probably took me about eight years before I attempted bodybuilding. Tracking was a big piece for that. A lot of the systems stayed the same with the workout routines, and from there you just start slowly going into a caloric deficit. I think I dieted for 18 weeks or something along those lines.
RM: And you tracked your diet that whole time? Do you still have those notebooks?
CP: Yep, they are tucked away somewhere in a box. But it’s funny, looking back I would do so many things differently.
RM: What’s the biggest thing you would do differently?
CP: Not just hitting the caloric values, but focus more on nutritional value of foods. When I look back at the eight to 10 foods I ate—oatmeal and bread—there was hardly any green stuff in there. And all the supplementation was more along the lines of sports supplementation—things like creatine, glutamine and pre-workouts—not so much of the vitamins and minerals.
RM: What does your tracking look like these days?
CP: I still track macros. But I’m a lot more flexible with meal timing. As far as what I’m actually eating, it’s a lot more fruits and vegetables. I also pay a lot more attention to how I feel in terms of energy levels, and then digestion definitely. That’s something I’ve paid way more attention to in the last couple years.
RM: How are you tracking these days?
CP: I currently use the My Macros + app. I started using it three months ago, prior to that just a one-off on Android.
RM: In your opinion, what should most people be tracking?
CP: My best advice is to track the input and not the output. A lot of the trackers now hook up electronically, so you can make an attempt to plug in foods and track activity levels. But I think that’s where the errors get even greater. People tracking foods—being honest with themselves or portion size error—that’s already one place with room for error. Plus food labels being off. But then once you start factoring the output and saying I jogged for 40 minutes and weightlifted for an hour that multiplies it. It often ends up giving people a much higher caloric value than they need for a deficit. But that’s advice typically for people looking for fat loss more than people who are trying to gain size.
RM: Overall would you say tracking is more effective for fat loss than size gain?
CP: Definitely more for fat loss. Most clients geared toward building size or muscle just get to have more food, so that’s much easier.
RM: Do you encourage everyone to track food? Is it beneficial for everyone?
CP: I think it’s beneficial for everyone at least temporarily. It’s good to find a baseline for what it is that allows people to maintain body weight, even if they don’t have a particular goal. … I have a tendency to over eat, so I do it for peace of mind. But I actually don’t think everyone needs to track for their entire life, unless they’re looking for something very specific, like trying to lose another five pounds or get into bodybuilding.
RM: Any last thoughts on food tracking?
CP: Yeah, one thing I will say is if someone says to me, ‘I’ve tried everything for weight loss,’ I always say, ‘Trust me, you haven’t tried everything unless you’ve tried counting calories.’ Tracking can be very helpful.