MyFitnessPal and Calorie Tracking
Suggest to people that keeping an eye on their bank balance might be a good idea, and no-one bats an eyelid.
You know; just make sure enough is coming in to match everything going out. Check your balance once a week or so. We all know if we don’t pay attention, we spend more than we intend.
So why when it’s suggested that people monitor their food and drink intake for a few weeks, does the world turn upside down?
It’s not really any different. In fact, the knowledge that tracking your intake for a few weeks can give you is almost literally invaluable.
It can save you hundreds or thousands of £ over a year.
It can shrink your waist and improve your health, in turn keeping you active and strong. It can help you get over that “sticking point”, free of charge, that until now you’ve been throwing supplements – and £££ – at.
If I said I could save you thousands a year by going through your finances, you’d probably give it a go. Apply the same mentality to the thing you only ever get one chance at: your health and your body.
Tracking is education. It teaches you what’s in the food you eat. It removes the misconceptions and (sometimes) wilful self-deceit. You know deep down that sausage roll probably isn’t 100kcals, but did you know it’s 600? Bananas are basically calorie free, right? Not 120-140 each, surely…
Proper tracking, and being guided in it by folk like RWF, can actually be tremendously liberating. You suddenly have control. You have numbers and parameters to work with. And when you start seeing those numbers translating into the change you want to see in your body…then the value of investing a little time and thought becomes blindingly obvious.
What IS tracking?
At it’s loosest, tracking would be simply writing down what you eat each day. What, when and the amount. For some people with particularly poor or haphazard eating habits, this can be enough to kickstart a big change- “oh my god, I didn’t realise I ate so much crap all the time”. Once it’s written down, it’s hard to BS yourself. You can either accept something needs to change, or deliberately ignore it – but at least you have to make a decision.
It can work, but it’s not terribly accurate long term. For some people it’s enough, but almost certainly, once you’ve been “dieting” a while, you’ll need to fine-tune the process. So, because almost everyone at some point will need to get a little more organised, we tend to push people towards electronic monitoring.
We all carry mini computers around with us these days, so tracking using an app on your phone is ridiculously easy. We recommend MyFitnessPal. It’s on the AppStore and Android, and free to use. It also has the biggest database of any tracking software, meaning almost ANY food you can buy – supermarkets, takeaways, mainstream restaurants – is held within it.
If you’ve bought pre-made products that come with a barcode, you can even simply scan the barcode and it’ll drop the food into your diary for that day, complete with a calorie breakdown and how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats included. For when we want to get really, really detailed, it even tracks things like vitamin and mineral intake.
This is technology that even 10 years ago, did not exist. You had to carry around Weight Watchers calorie counting books and a damn calculator. It has never been easier, for the sake of minutes each day, to know EXACTLY what you’re putting in your body.
In the simplest terms, you’ll have a daily target of calories to hit. The app does all the maths for you – you just tell it what you’ve eaten. As you get comfortable with tracking, your PT might give you other targets. As well as staying within a calorie range, they might ask you to try and consume X grams of protein, or keep your carbohydrate intake to a certain level.
Once you’ve got to grips with the app, and had a couple of trial and error weeks, it’s very, very simple to use.
The Reality of Tracking
Ok, so we’ve painted a picture of how tracking will save your life.
The reality is that plenty of situations pop up which can derail the process. Alas, the technology is nearly perfect. Us mere humans, are far from it. The problem with tracking always comes down to the user, rather than the tech. IT support have an acronym for this – PICNIC. Problem In Chair, Not In Computer.
Here’s a whole bunch of common problems when tracking, and some hints of how to overcome them:
- You’ve told me to eat X kcals, but the app says something different
Trust your human coach, not the algorithm on the app. The app with give an estimate based on your height, weight and activity levels. Your PT knows what you actually look like, how much muscle mass you have, and how active you really are. Trust the human, not the computer.
- Don’t ignore the small stuff
That knob of butter doesn’t count, right? Well yes, it does – it’s probably around 100kcals. Likewise the milk in your 5 cups of tea; that’s around 100kcals too. If you’ve got a 1500 kcal target, that’s around 12% of your daily calories going untracked…
Basic rule for tracking – if it goes in your mouth, track it (keep it clean, please…)
- Save effort
If you regularly have the same meal, same quantity, same ingredients etc – use the Save Meal function on MFP. Saves you having to input egg, bacon, beans etc etc every time you have a cooked breakfast on a weekend. You’d be surprised how often you eat the same stuff – most people don’t eat more than 20 different foods in a week, so it doesn’t take long before all your usual favourites are just a click away.
- I didn’t track it, so it doesn’t count
It does. It still went in your mouth!
Not tracking something because you feel bad about eating it, is simply childish. It doesn’t help you, and it makes it practically impossible for your PT to do their job. You’re asking them to help you, but only giving them partial information. Ultimately, we *know* when someone isn’t tracking everything, because progress won’t go at the rate we expect. We’re experts at this, and I can promise you that we’ve seen every trick going. You’re only conning yourself and wasting time and money by not tracking.
We can help if we know what’s going on. We will NEVER ban a client from a particular food, but we will suggest ways you can incorporate it. We will always do our best to let you have your cake and eat it, but ONLY if we know about it.
- Got friends?
Do you have friends that already track? You can add them and follow their progress. This can massively help with accountability and a sense of community. Most of the world doesn’t really care what it’s eating (hence a 60% obesity rate and climbing), so we get it; tracking can feel lonely. It needn’t be!
- Shop in the same place
Want tracking to be dead easy? Shop in the same supermarket most of the time. There is often a large variation in calories between different brands of the same foods, even such basics as oats. Don’t make the mistake of assuming Aldi’s cornflakes are the same as Tesco’s etc.
- Eating out?
If you’re eating out in the evening, and you have a vague idea where you’re going (Indian, Italian, steakhouse?) then guess at what food you might have, and put it into the diary at the start of the day. You can then work backwards, and make sure your food in the daytime fits in with what you’ll have later.
e.g you have 2000kcals as a limit. You’re going for Italian. You put in a pizza at 1100 and a pint of beer at 250, and all of a sudden you realise you might have to get a bit peckish during the day to stay on track. The alternative is not doing this, having a normal breakfast, lunch and snacks and then…bam…oops…messed up, gone way over and may as well start again tomorrow – and let’s have a few more pints because it’s all gone wrong anyway. Sound familiar?
- Check your data
Just because something’s on MFP, it doesn’t mean it’s 100% accurate. That especially applies if you pick the wrong version of a food. Cooked chicken, for example, weighs less than uncooked chicken – so there’s a big kcal difference between 200g of each! Make sure that the weight you put in is the version you weighed – if you weighed before cooking, look for raw/uncooked weights. If you weighed after cooking…you get the idea.
Likewise, there can be huge variation between different brands of the same product. One brand of sausages may be vastly different to another, and even the recommended portion sizes that MFP has programmed may be different. Just double check that what you’ve input, is what you’ve actually had.
- When you mess up, it’s a learning moment!
Don’t stop tracking the second you cock it up. You will go wrong. You will forget stuff occasionally, and you will have those “screw it, I’m eating my bodyweight in wine gums/chocolate/crisps, and drowning myself in wine/beer tonight” moments. Track it anyway. At the very least it will teach you how many calories are in “junk” food and might even show you that, occasionally, you CAN get away with a bag of crisps or a small chocolate bar.
It’s certainly not worth destroying the entire week over, and by not bothering to track again until Monday, you’ve just made the damage worse.
- Don’t account for exercise
Seriously, unless you’ve run a marathon that day, don’t account for exercise. People, and apps, are notoriously bad for over-estimating the calorific burn of exercise. A solid weights session might burn anywhere from 300-700 kcals, but there’s no way of really knowing. Also, the longer you’ve been training, the more efficient you body gets – that 5 mile run that burned 700kcals the first time you did it might only burn 350kcals now that your body has become more adept at running, and now uses less energy to produce the same result.
If you’ve got a good coach, or you’re teaching yourself and being smart, your calorie level will be already taking exercise into account. Half an hour on a spin bike and walking to work doesn’t mean you earn two Kitkat Chunkys and a bag of Sensations, no matter how many kcals the app “gives you back”.
So, it might be daunting to first track your food intake BUT it doesn’t need to be a huge daily chore. A bit of thinking, putting a couple of strategies in place to prevent problems like everything above, and then creating less than five minutes of free time each day for the inputting. Like anything, it only gets easier with practice – and equally, the results that start coming get better and better.
Do you already track? Do you have any tips or come across issues we’ve not covered here? Let us know and we’ll update this article with the best ones.