Tag Archives: tracking

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!


6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Lower Your Calorie Target


If you track your calories and/or macronutrients, you will probably arrive at a point where it feels like your progress has stalled, either while cutting body fat or trying to pack on muscle. I’m going to talk about fat loss in particular today, because that’s what the majority of my online training clients are after when they track their calories.

Imagine this scenario:

You see barely a change on the scale in a week’s time. Then two weeks go by. It might go up a bit, and then down. And then just hang out in one spot, taunting you. Believe me, I know this feeling. It’s annoying as hell while you’re cutting fat. We want fat loss and we want it NOW! (Then I stomp my feet a bit, like Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

Without a doubt a stall is going to happen. The big question is “well what do I do now?”

The answer depends on both your behavior and your body. My clients (and hell, myself at times) have an initial urge to further reduce calories. Have you been here too? Ask yourself a few questions before you start slashing.

1. How accurate is my diary? Don’t get your feathers ruffled, I’m not saying you’re secretly gorging on treats. Although that happens too, especially if you’re restricting too severely. Most of us aren’t terribly accurate about tracking, as I wrote about in this piece.  Even nutrition pros can be off in their estimates by a few hundred calories each day. 1 

Even if you’re tracking relatively diligently, forgetting things here and there is human nature. If you don’t measure and weigh your food or track nibbles, it’s even more likely that your diary’s data is more of a “guesstimate”. Don’t feel bad about this – it’s really common.

Be honest with yourself. If I hear from clients that they miss tracking regularly, I’m less likely to recommend that they cut their target down even further. Instead, it could be extremely helpful to commit to tracking absolutely everything for a few weeks. This is a long term process, after all, and accurate data is useful.

Alternatively, if you’re someone who truly struggles with tracking or just dislikes it, consider strategies based on portions, honing hunger cues, and learning to compose meals with foods that support your goals. These skills are important to develop for the long run anyway, as you likely won’t track your food forever.

So perhaps you’re certain that you are indeed tracking your calories accurately. Yet you’re sure you’re stalled. But are you?



2. How do I measure my progress? If you’re only looking at the scale, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The scale is only one tool among many for gauging fat loss. Pictures and measurements can tell you much more about your changing body composition.

3. How did I calculate my target? Calorie guidelines are just estimates. It is possible that calculations for key variables are not quite accurate. Your RMR (resting metabolic rate) and TDEE (total daily energy expenditure, i.e. how many calories you estimate that you burn each day through doing stuff) may actually be a bit lower than you were given via the formula you used. Some calculations are broad to begin with, like multiplying your weight x 10 to get a daily calorie target if you want to lose weight yet aren’t active.

For the long haul, moderate deficits that are anywhere from 300-500 kcal below your weight maintenance will make less of a hormonal impact on your body than more drastic cuts. If you decide to lower your target, do it slowly. Sure, this paves a slower road but is a quick fix worth not getting to eat much? In my opinion it isn’t for most people. They’re more likely to adhere to a less fun-sucking nutrition plan –whether or not you count calories, don’t you want to eat as much as you can while still losing fat? Probably so, because food is delicious.


4. Am I factoring in calories burned from workouts? Another red flag is hearing from someone who is stuck mention that they base their daily intake from what tracking apps like Myfitnesspal. These apps often advise them to “eat back calories” from exercise. Calorie burn from activity is tough to estimate, and a number is usually wildly inaccurate unless you have some fancy equipment to aid you. Plus, the idea of trying to earn more food by exercising sets many up for having a more negative relationship with exercise.

5. Have I been dieting for a long while on low calories? Especially if you’re already quite lean, being on a diet for a long while can impact your hormonal signals. In essence, hormones such as ghrelin, insulin, peptide YY and others send signals to your brain that inform it about your energy stores and how much energy you’re taking in from food. When these hormonal levels change, other neurochemical changes happen as well, impacting our metabolic rate, hunger, and many other processes that impact our efforts at regulating our weight. 2

Leptin in particular is a more scarce resource among those who are lean. If you’ve been spinning your wheels in one spot, consider taking a diet break. Nutrition experts like Lyle McDonald and Martin Berkhan have both advocated “refeeds”, extended periods of time when calorie intake and carbohydrate in particular increases. The purpose of a refeed is to make your hormone signaling more favorable to fat loss once again. 

There doesn’t seem to be hard data regarding exactly how long a refeed needs to be, but McDonald theorized that it’s likely longer than the typical increase of calories in a 5-24 hour window that traditional cyclical dieting uses. 

Cyclical dieting is a strategy where you eat lower calories on some days of the week and higher calories on others.

I’m grossly oversimplifying McDonald’s strategies here, and his game plan is most applicable to those who are already very lean and want to diet down for either aesthetic or performance purposes. But extended dieting can and does impact our bodies.

I used cyclical dieting during my last fat loss period and found it to be extremely useful in terms of energy needs, effectiveness, and social happiness – I could plan a dinner out on a day when my calorie goal was higher. However, I’ve now entered a stall in my own progress after months of dieting and am doing an extended refeed myself. I’ll let you know how it goes in a few months and maybe post pics of carbs on Instagram.

6. Have I been to the doctor lately? I’m throwing this one in as a “Hail Mary”. Most people don’t have a medical issue – they just eat more than they think they do. But hormonal conditions like hypothyroidism are very real and can really screw with your body composition efforts; certain medications can also pack on pounds. So if you answered all the above questions and are still flummoxed, a trip to the doc may be in order.

Feeling stuck and want a kick start this month? The Women’s Strength Challenge is in full swing. Join us today, it’s free! 


  1. Champagne, C.M., et al.  Energy intake and energy expenditure:  a controlled study comparing dietitians and non-dietitians.  J. Am. Diet. Assoc.  102(10:1428-1432, 2001.
  2. McDonald, L. (2003). The ultimate diet 2.0. Austin, TX: L. McDonald.

4 Sneaky Reasons Why You Aren’t Losing Weight While Tracking Calories


1.Count calories.
2.Enter them in a food log.
3.Lose weight.

It seems so straightforward, doesn’t it? Then why do so many people feel frustrated that their fat loss stalls, despite faithful calorie counting?

Learning to eat in a way that sustains our goals is a skill that we have to build. For the long haul, building sustainable habits should make meticulous tracking unnecessary. However, for many people, counting calories can be a very useful way to gain data when they’re initially embarking on a fat loss program.

Yet so many people encounter brick walls when it comes to progress, despite feeling like they’re doing all the right things. I feel you — it is frustrating! We swear up and down that we’re eating at a number that should easily produce results. It makes NO SENSE to us that we aren’t losing weight. So what gives? Read on for 4 ways that calorie counting goes off course and what you can do about them.

1. Humans make mistakes. 
User error is a huge factor in tracking. It doesn’t make us stupid. It’s just what people typically do. In the 1980’s, the USDA’s Beltsville study demonstrated that the vast majority of people underestimate their calorie intake. During a carefully-controlled study period, people’s actual intake was on average 13% higher than what they reported. 1 Yikes! Those 200-300 calories a day might not seem like that big of deal, but they can definitely put the kibosh on your progress.

Bites, Licks, and Chews
We tend to forget about little nibbles throughout the day. I’ve become pretty good at remembering to track my food when I’m monitoring my intake, and I still forget about things here and there. The 4 bites of my kid’s insanely delicious mac and cheese at dinner the other night. 6 Jelly Belly Jellybeans.  Cream in my coffee counts too. Those are no big deal on their own, but the calories can quickly add up. Don’t eliminate them, for heaven’s sake, but if you have given yourself a calorie intake range, be aware of what you’re eating and account for them, at least at first so you have a better idea of how many calories you need to consume to actually put yourself in a deficit and lose fat.

If I eat these 1 at a time, they don't count, right?

If I eat these 1 at a time, they don’t count, right?

Calorie-Dense Foods
The day I first looked at what 2 tablespoons of peanut butter actually looks like, I nearly wept. I love peanut butter so much I might marry it. Small handfuls of nuts seem like a healthy snack, and they can be — but they are calorically dense and if you’re tracking and mis-measure what you write down, it can heavily impact your overall intake.

How to Fix It: Buy a scale, preferably one with 1g increments. Is it insane to weigh everything you eat for the rest of your life? Yes, yes it is. A healthy lifestyle comes with being able to let loose and eat some cookies without worrying about how many grams of carbohydrates were in them. At the same time, getting a handle on exactly how much you’re actually consuming can be extremely illuminating.

Look at the my sample diary to see how underestimating our portions can result in big changes in actual calories consumed:

What I Estimated I Ate:
 what i thought i ate


What I Actually Ate:
frame what I actually ate

2. Reactive Eating. 
Let’s say that you actually ate very few calories each day for 6 days. On day 7, you devoured an entire pan of brownies, 6 slices of pizza, and multiple bowls of cereal. Nobody likes to talk about it, but it happens. This behavior can put your overall caloric balance higher than where you need it to be for weight loss. Most of us can’t even bring ourselves to log it. If we set a poor target initially, all the tracking in the world won’t prevent a nose dive.

The body needs fuel. If you deprive yourself excessively, eventually the dam will give way. These are a different sort of binge than those commonly associated with eating disorders. While those are emotional in nature, reactive eating is your body’s way of trying to maintain homeostasis. Sometimes it takes the form of mindless nibbling, and other times it comes in one big binge.

The Fix: First of all, ditch the extreme diets – the ones that ban food groups or demonize a particular food. There’s nothing that makes us want a damn brownie like a diet that tells us we can’t have one. Secondly, set your caloric deficit conservatively enough that you don’t feel ravenous.

3. Calorie Tracking Apps Can Be Filthy Liars
Let’s be fair, the apps themselves are potentially great tools. But again, user error makes them only as good as the person inputting information. Last night I went onto MyFitnessPal to enter 4 ounces of beef brisket. Here’s what popped up:

calorie countsPretty confusing, yes? These counts are all over the place.

The Fix: 
When you have a label available to verify, use it. Most often I encounter trouble when logging food from a recipe I’ve made or from cooked meat.

  • Raw meat will have roughly the same amount of calories as it does cooked, but due to water loss during cooking, it will weigh less. Some entries on tracking apps are measuring the calories based on the final cooked weight. Others are based on raw weight. Raw meat nutrition labels indicate the calories per ounce before cooked. When some meats are grilled or broiled, fat from the meat drains off and is not actually consumed. So that can skew your totals as well. Understanding that how you prepare your food will help you look for entries that closely match what you’ve prepared.
  • Look for “verified” entries when you have multiple choices. Myfitness pal uses a green check box.
  • Pay attention to how the entry is measured. Where possible, choose entries that measure with ounces or grams instead of cups or slices. What’s a slice? It depends on who’s slicing!
  • For recipes, my favorite trick is to make the entire recipe and enter it as a recipe onto my app. I weigh the entire batch in grams and enter 1 serving in the total grams. From there, I weigh my portion, enter in the total grams, and like magic, it calculates my calories and nutrients for my meal. (I can’t even math, so whoever taught me this along the way, thank you thank you.)

4. Embarrassment over our choices. 
I used to neglect to track my foods accurately on Myfitnesspal, a social tracking app. I mostly did this because I felt embarrassed about writing down that for lunch that day I actually ate a handful of cheetos. What would my friends think? Not all days are great days, but if we don’t have accurate information, then tracking loses its best utility – data.

The Fix: 
Until you get to a place where you feel emotionally okay about eating without guilt or shame, make your diary private. It’s a lot easier to be honest.

Do any of these feel familiar to you? I’ve experienced all of them! Leave a comment below with any questions or challenges you have with tracking. Let’s chat about them!


  1. Mertz W, ed. Beltsville one-year dietary intake study. AJCN 1984;6(suppl):1323s-403s.