Tag Archives: dieting

Your calorie tracker may be busting your body comp: use these tweaks to fix it.


photo credit: Memphis CVB

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.

Now a smelly pre-teen. Did not throw out with bath water.

Now a smelly pre-teen: did not throw out with bath water.

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:

Go home Myfitnesspal. You are drunk.

Go home Myfitnesspal. You are drunk.

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.

Grandma didn't eff around.

Grandma didn’t eff around.

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!


10 Surprising Secrets I Learned from a “Naturally Thin” Friend

question mark fruit

I wished for years that I could be “naturally thin” like Sarah, until I changed my mind about what that means. You’ll soon see why.

I met the woman who would become one of the dearest friends I’ve ever had in a painfully loud play area at a local mall. Despite the din of our young children shrieking, Sarah had a warmth and nurturing calm about her. We soon bonded over our babies, knitting projects, a mutual warped sense of humor, and most of all, a love of cooking and eating phenomenal food.

Over the years, Sarah and I have spent hours upon hours together – whether lifting weights in the gym or knitting at a coffee shop, we compare notes about favorite recipes, the new best restaurant in town, or the steamy appeal of chef Eric Ripert.

French silver fox, am I right?

French silver fox, am I right?

But in the early days, when Sarah would wax poetically about a loaf of brioche, I would look at her standing there. She’s a tall, lean blonde with legs that go on for days. And I’d wonder: how the hell could she eat all this stuff and stay slim? I knew that she’d never been on a diet. Meanwhile, I was pregnant with my third kid and was reaching an all time high point in my own weight. After my son was born I was over 100 pounds heavier than I am today.

I started paying attention to my health and actively began a slow but sustainable fat loss process that would span several years. And most critically, I began noticing things that Sarah did that were different from how I managed my own life. I’d attributed her lean build to good genes and great luck. But mostly I was off base. We can control so much more about our body composition than we believe.

Genetics certainly must play at least a bit of a role in weight management. We all know people who seem to be able to stay slim effortlessly. But do they?

I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say for sure. I think there’s probably some truth to the idea that it’s harder for some people to stay lean than others, just like it’s difficult for some people to gain weight. However, I think we attribute too much to passive genetics and not enough to what we can do to actively manage our weight.

The more I saw what Sarah did on a daily basis, the more I was able to link her successful weight management to habits instead of her family history. Here are the biggest “light bulb” moments I discovered through spending time with Sarah – and changes that I would make over time that ended up being the same things I do now to successfully manage my weight as well as help my clients with their own fat loss programs. Take a look at these tips:

1. Learn how to handle food-focused gatherings.
Sarah hosted a large potluck dinner one night for our mom’s group. What I remember most strikingly, because I was just starting to diet, was that I felt like I was missing out. I saw loads of decadent food around me that, at the time, I felt was forbidden. Most people around me were loading up their plates. Many went for seconds.

But then I peeked at Sarah’s plate. She had very small portions of several things, including the items I’d labeled “naughty” in my head. Hmm. Could she be on to something? She never went back for seconds. But she got to taste everything she wanted.

She also sometimes left a little bit on her plate, stopping when she was full. Even with dessert. Imagine that!

2. Make a meal plan. 
My friends and I share our meal plans in a private Facebook group. We post our week’s worth of dinners along with links to recipes when available. It gives us ideas for future meals, accountability for staying organized, as well as a place to talk about great recipes. And perhaps Eric Ripert from time to time.

Here’s an example of one of my own:

Sarah realized a few weeks ago that she’d posted a menu every single week for an entire year. When we have meals planned, we’re less likely to hit the drive through at the last minute or call for pizza delivery.  If we want to have pizza or leftovers, we just write it on the menu plan.

And yes, a few times we’ve penciled in “Friday: I can’t even. So make your own damn dinner, family.” But having everything laid out really relieves stress and keeps us on track for eating well.

3. Learn to love to cook.
We both love a good restaurant but dining out is a special treat, not a regular part of our routine. Cooking at home not only saves money – it allows us to control portions, ingredients, and methods of cooking. We also learn to appreciate just how delicious nutrient-rich foods can be when we learn to prepare them correctly and with creativity.

4. Eat mostly nutritious, whole foods.
I have spent enough time with Sarah to know that she always has really good chocolate in her pantry, but most of the time, she fills her plate with nutrient dense foods like plenty of lean protein, vegetables, and fruits.

5. Snack smarter. 
Sarah once shared with me that every day at about 3 p.m. she got a serious hankering for a snack. Instead of mindlessly grabbing nibbles of things, she was usually prepared with Greek yogurt to keep her satisfied until dinner, which her family often ate at around 7 or 7:30 at night.

6. Be realistic. 
Sarah is an amazing cook. But she also has three kids to haul around to soccer practice, choir rehearsals, and piano lessons. Her menu plans purposefully include very minimalist meals like a sandwich for dinner on busy evenings. Toss those at the kids, load everyone up into the car, and go.

7. Ditch the moral value that you attach to food. 
One of the funniest and truest things that Sarah ever told me was “we have multiple pleasure holes. Our mouth is one of those holes, and it’s okay to want to fill it with pleasurable food.”

She’s right! Food isn’t just fuel. It connects us to one another at the dinner table and across cultures. It gives us pleasure. If she enjoys a decadent dessert, she smiles at her good fortune and goes back to normal life the next day. There’s no guilt when you don’t label a food as “bad”. There’s no shame spiral of saying “I ate this terrible thing and I’m bad and screwed up so screw it.”  It becomes a lot less stressful to strip away that kind of power from food. Eat it less frequently and in smaller quantities if it’s really high in calories and not all that nutritious.
8. Work out with consistency. 
There’s no way that exercise will make up for poor eating habits. However, the more we move and the more muscle we have, the better our metabolism hums along and we burn some extra calories each day. We also have better energy to do all that stuff like meal plan, cook, and feel in control of our days. In short, regular exercise isn’t just about the calorie burn. It is a critical component in helping us have a positive mental outlook toward our bodies, our health, and our overall lives.

Sarah has awakened nearly every day each week at 5 a.m. to exercise: for years. She doesn’t work out like a lunatic. She doesn’t care even a little bit about “beast mode” or winning a race. She just wants to move. Sarah lifts weights because she wants to be strong for life. She cycles because it feels good. Sometimes we even bike to restaurants.
9. Know when you need to make a change – then be a problem solver.
Sarah notices when she’s gained a few pounds. She observed the other day that she’d been hitting the jelly beans a little too hard and said she didn’t even find them very satisfying to eat. So she stopped buying them as frequently. She evaluated a potential problem and solved it.

10. Develop an Active Mindset
Within our group of friends, Sarah has earned the nicknames “Mama” and “Macguyver”. She’s the one we turn to when we have a household emergency and need to know how to fix something ourselves. She can repair a toilet, tell us when we need to actually go to the doctor, and brings us soup when we’re sick. She is always the one who will have band-aids (and maybe a wrench) in her handbag. We’ve already designated her property as our compound in the event of a zombie apocalypse, because when the shit hits the fan, Sarah offers us the best chance of making it.

Sarah has had really tough stuff of her own to wade through. Everyone does. But she always makes it through with grace and a mindset that allows her to take control of situations and make the best of them. This same frame of mind is crucial in tackling any challenge, whether it’s with our careers, our families, or our fitness.

I’m so grateful to have Sarah as my resourceful, generous, big-hearted friend. When I shared a draft of this article she replied “I don’t know about this, I feel like I have life 0% figured out”. If that’s true, then we’re all screwed. She is humble but one of a kind.  And if you’re lucky to know someone like her, follow closely and take some notes. I guarantee you’ll learn something.

So all in all, does it really matter if someone is “naturally thin”? Nah. We can only control our actions – but look at how many there are that can impact our health. That’s great news in my book.


Want to torch fat, sculpt muscle, and get hella strong? Just send me your email below to join my insider list. I’ll even deliver my e-book Fat Loss on a Budget to your inbox. It’s free!