Tracking your micros from food [Part 2] - How do I do it?

Updated: Feb 22, 2019

For many years, I've been a My Fitness Pal user (translation: addict). I've deliberately cut this back in the last 12 months while not competing. I realised that at least for me, tracking each bite of food too closely for too long can unintentionally spiral into an obsessive and pedantic attitude around food. Tracking tools are incredibly useful, but sometimes it's time for a break. You may have had plenty of practice tracking your macros, but adding micros complicates things. Micros matter (see Part 1 of this blog series for more on why you should bother thinking about micros). If you're interested in the bigger picture that lies beyond carbs, fats and protein, there's simple tools that you can you use to make sure that your meals cover your nutrient bases. This can help you to identify nutrient deficiencies that may be linked to health problems, sticking points or just symptoms of 'not feeling quite right' that you can't seem to crack.

Audit the micronutrient density of your meals across a usual day You don't have to strictly 'track' your micros and monitor each nutrient on a daily basis. That's inefficient and unnecessary. I like to think of it as auditing rather than tracking. To do this, take a sample day of usual eating and use this data to assess your micros profile. From here, you can identify possible nutrient deficiencies and fine tune your nutrition to meet your micros. You could do this on a monthly or quarterly basis, or each time that you adjust your calories or significantly change your foods. If you tend to bulk prepare your meals or rotate similar foods, another option is to create 2 or 3 sample days to establish your macros and micros baseline across a standard week of eating. Tools that you can use to assess and track you micros Cronometer. This is my personal favourite. I first read about Cronometer in Chris Masterjohn's article, What I Eat, and started to experiment using it. Cronometer has a strong data set and an excellent choices for fresh foods (ie, generic vegetable, fruit and meat entries, rather than emphasising brand products and processed items). It's simple to use, although if you're used to MFP you'll need to adjust to entering your foods and quantities based on the day, not each meal. Cronometer links to a range of different databases, including the NCCDB and the USDA data sets. If you're interested in micros, these databases are your friends. The University of Minnesota curates the Nutrition Coordinating Center Food and Nutrient Database (NCCDB), a comprehensive set of food data that contains 17 000 + food entries with data on > 70 nutrients. The United States Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (USDA)[Update: recently relabelled to the USDA Food Composition database] is another leading set of nutrition data, containing 8000 + food entries with data on > 70 nutrients. In many cases, the data sets reflect one another and for some entries the NCCDB estimates additional values based on the USDA data - but there's differences. (If you're curious about whether your results can change depending on the data set that you use, stay tuned for Part 3 in this blog series!) Other, smaller data sets only include the nutrients found in the nutrition facts panels on the label. Cronometer automatically assesses your daily foods based on the applicable US RDA values, but you can also customise your minimum and maximum values if desired. (For example, you could increase sodium and calcium for an athlete to accommodate an increased rate of loss in perspiration.) I like that you can hover your pointer on each nutrient in your final daily report and see the foods that contribute to it, including the quantities of the nutrient and its proportion of the RDA.

SELFNutritionData is another online tool for nutrient tracking. I personally think that the Cronometer app is more user friendly, but you could use either. Like Cronometer, SELFNutritionData generates nutrition information for an entire day and rates your nutrient quantities as a proportion of the US RDA. SELFNutritionData tracks more total nutrients automatically, but you can turn on the additional nutrients in Cronometer. My Fitness Pal doesn't crunch micros like it does macros.* It only captures data on some micros for certain foods, such as potassium, calcium, sodium, vitamins A and C, and iron. The MFP data isn't equipped to generate a complete picture of your micro profile. * (In fact, MFP has limitations for macros too. Any user can submit entries to the MFP database. This is useful because it bumps up their data set, but the flip side is that it increases the possibility of error. MFP has added a 'verified' stamp to help users find accurate data, but not all items have this. Double check the entries you use.) Limitations: Tips to reality check your data These tools aren't perfect. To properly investigate the micro profile of your foods, you'll need to dig a little deeper than just the results on your screen. For example, both the NCCDB and USDA data sets lack values for some key micros (ie, iodine! and molybdenum.) It's even more nebulous if you're trying to assess the nutrient profile of a real food that doesn't have a nutritional panel (and that should be at least 80 % of your foods!). Quality meats, fish and plants don't boast about their nutrients. You can locate plenty of data online, but the application of this data to your humble steak, tomato or potato depends on many factors that I'll look at more closely in Part 3 of this blog series, like:

  • The cut or variety of the food (ie, the cut of beef you select alters its nutrient data).

  • The metric used to define a portion (ie, is the data entry based on the raw or cooked weight?).

  • The location and conditions of its production (ie, the body normally obtains many vitamins and minerals from plant food, because the plants take up the substances from soil. But soil today doesn't reliably contain the right amounts).

  • The method of preparation (ie, for vitamin C,  25 % is lost if cooked).

  • The bioavailability of the nutrient in that food (ie, iron in meat) and its active and inactive forms (ie, vitamin A and retinol compared to beta carotene).

  • The ratios of certain minerals (ie, sodium to potassium, calcium to magnesium).

Sometimes these variables only have a small impact, but other times it is fairly substantial. And if your aim in all of this is to subtly manipulate your calories, macros or micros, then it matters. For calories and macros, it's less relevant - in practice, you can create a pattern of common food choices, portions and cooking methods that enable you to reliably adjust your calories and macros based on increases and decreases to the amounts you consume because you're eating similar foods in a similar manner. But for micros, it's far more complex. If you're assessing your micros, it's because you are interested in optimising your nutrition and identifying any deficiencies. It's important that your data is as accurate as possible and at least comes close to reflecting the micro profile of your actual foods.  Should you trial tracking macros? Absolutely. There's tools out there to help you do it and reliable data sets that you can use. It's exciting to spot the gaps and make little changes to your foods to build a stronger micros foundation.