Do you use Myfitnesspal or a similar tracking tool? If so, hang out with me for just a few moments because there are a few really important things you should know.
Before we get plunge right in, let me be clear: the point of this article isn’t to determine whether the practice of tracking is a good or bad thing. There are passionate advocates and deterrents, and both camps make valid points about the benefits and costs of managing our nutrition with calorie counting.
But if you are tracking your intake or considering it, there are a few important things you should know. I’m using Myfitnesspal today because it’s the most widely used app around and the one I’ve also tinkered with the most.
Unlike some, I don’t hate tracking: it’s great for people who are:
-Just getting started with fat loss. It’s a data tool to tell us if things are moving in the direction they want.
-Builds mindfulness of what’s in food – is it calorie dense? Was the portion surprisingly small? What foods actually have a lot of bang for their buck in terms of filling protein? How on earth can chicken wings be so high in calories?
-Gives us time on “training wheels” to begin learning those lessons and skills that will make NOT tracking way more successful.
-More useful than intuitive eating for someone who wants to more quickly lose weight. It’s hard to intuitively put yourself into a significant deficit. Most people don’t need to put themselves into a steep one, but they do have a place in some situations.
-Tracking intake of nutrients. I discovered I don’t eat enough dietary fat and my iron counts have been low lately.
-A way to regain a sense of control if you find yourself packing on a few pounds. This isn’t the ONLY way to get back on track, certainly. It’s just one way that I find a lot of people actually like.
These tools get a bad rap for a few reasons. Some features are admittedly terrible: I don’t like the arbitrary and usually very low calorie goals that MFP sets for pretty much everyone who uses them.
The calorie burning estimates that allow people to “eat back” calories as a reward from working out aren’t great for our mindset but more importantly, they usually are wildly inaccurate. The macronutrient ratios are needlessly fussy and confusing to new users. Bleh. And stop alerting me that I might go over my fat goal! This is not a crisis, MFP. Sheesh. You don’t even know me, MFP.
But the biggest reason MFP actually hampers fat loss is not so much the fault of the app – just how we use it. This is a “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” kind of scenario.
I saw that lesson played out last night after I got home from an evening talking shop and life with a trainer friend over a taco and margarita.
Myfitnesspal is the tool I use to monitor my overall calories and protein intake right now – I’m trying to build some sweet muscle. I knew my margarita contributed very little to my day except through calories and fun, but I looked up the count anyway.
Imagine my surprise when I appeared to have hit the jackpot:
Sweet baby Jesus. A margarita with 23 grams of protein? Bye bye, chicken! Just kidding. Unless they were mixing tequila with protein powder, that’s not happening. And yuck: that’s a truly terrible idea.
How could this be?
It’s simple: user error. We’re going to fix that as well as we can today.
How we screw stuff up.
You see, Myfitnesspal entries, like those on several other apps, are created by users. People like you and me; I can only imagine that entry was shared by someone who had already enjoyed a few too many beverages.
There are a few ways to make sure you’re getting a close estimate.
-Whenever possible, check ingredient labels: then you can use them to compare with the current entries you see in in the app.
-On foods that don’t contain labels, look up the USDA estimates if you’re unsure. It’s not a perfect tool but it’s less overwhelming than the bajillion entries in the MFP database; and more accurate.
-Look for Myfitnesspal entries that have a little green check mark. Those have been verified by many users as being accurate.
-Mind your meats: was the food entered cooked or uncooked? This changes the weight and caloric density of the meat.
Rock the Recipe Creator
It can be really confusing at first to enter “tuna salad” and have 50,000 entries pop up, all with wildly varying estimates. At this point, you have 2 choices:
-Know that calorie estimates aren’t completely perfect anyway, use your best judgment, and chill out.
-Create your own recipe and have a closer estimate.
Neither of those options is terrible, but if you’re consistently way off on what you’re actually eating, you may be consuming far fewer or more calories than you intended.
Dip your toes in these waters once you get the hang of inputting basic foods. It gets faster as you acclimate to the process too. What’s in it for you? A better estimate of the calorie content of your favorite casseroles, soups, and stews.
Some things are easy to generate with this tool. You look up the ingredients one by one, add them to your recipe, indicate the number of servings, and poof. You’ve got your dinner counted.
No soup for you?
Serving sizes can be tricky for things like soup. For this reason, I have an easy trick to show you. Just do this:
-Input all of your ingredients into the recipe with the MFP tool. 1 medium onion? Check.
50 grams of sweet potato? 1 quart of low-fat chicken broth? Done. They don’t all have to be in grams at this point.
1. Weigh the entire recipe in grams. I scoop it into a bowl; reset the scale to 0; then get the total weight in grams.
2. Input the serving size as whatever total grams you have. So if the soup weighs 850 grams, put 850 servings.
3. When you record having a portion of this recipe at your next meal, input how many grams you actually ate. If 1 portion is 2 calories, and I ate 200 portions, then the total calories would be 400 kcal. Fortunately MFP will do the math so you don’t have to fiddle around. Phew.
This sounds tedious but it becomes faster with time. I’m more likely to do it if the recipe isn’t too complicated or if it’s something I intend to make often.
Another bonus of the MFP tool is the ability to import recipes from other websites. You save a step because they gather all of the ingredients and attempt to find them in their database.
Just check them all. The other day it told me my garlic contained 2,000 calories. That’s one hell of a clove.
There are other times when we’re busy or just not up to the hassle of this. In this case, use the best estimate you can find and get on with your day.
Tracking restaurant meals:
Look, my friend: unless you’re training to be the next worldwide bodybuilding champ and need your diet to be 100% on point, relax. Don’t haul along a scale. People do this. Please don’t. Even when you’re tracking diligently most of the time, there’s a time to ease up.
Sure, some restaurants offer estimates for their meals. You can use that if you wish.
But it’s just as useful to practice an alternate strategy – aim for a plate that has plenty of non-starchy vegetables, a portion of protein, a small portion of something starchy or a glass of wine, and then a little bit of fat to boot. Toast your companions, enjoy your dinner, and put the app away for the evening.
Trackers are tools that have a helpful place while working on our body composition: but they should never become a ball and chain. How do you feel about them? Love? Hate? Love-hate? Leave a comment below and share!