Around the start of this year I decided to try MyFitnessPal. In case you haven’t heard of it, MyFitnessPal (often shortened to MFP) is a really popular app used to track food and exercise. I had tried it once years ago and ultimately ditched it. It made me feel like an obsessive, full-time calorie accountant. It only heightened my stress and anxiety about what I was eating. The way I was using MFP simply didn’t work for me.
But this time around, I’ve done a few things differently. And it has made SUCH a difference! I’ve found that MyFitnessPal can be a powerful, powerful tool for good. The key? Using it in a healthy and balanced way.
Is Calorie Counting a Good Idea?
Early this year I found myself thinking about trying MFP again. Having a community of support sounded nice, and logging my food sounded like a good way to keep myself accountable. But, I asked myself, isn’t counting calories the epitome of obsessive, disordered eating? Don’t “normal” eaters just relax about food instead of logging every bite? I created my new MFP account wary of these potential pitfalls. But, since the app was free, I figured that I had nothing to lose.
It’s been about four months now that I’ve been logging into MyFitnessPal more or less daily. I’ve loved it! Here are the five things that set me up for success rather than obsession this time around the block.
1. Take MFP’s Calorie Target as a Suggestion, Not Law.
When you set up your account, MyFitnessPal will ask you for your height, current weight, activity level, goals, and a few other things to generate a number of how many calories you should eat each day. I think the number they give is based on sound science and statistical averages, so it’s a good place to start, but it’s not the eleventh commandment. I have occasional “hungry days” where eating my target amount doesn’t feel like enough. Even if I’ve eaten healthy meals and snacks that line right up into my assigned calorie budget, some evenings I find my stomach literally growling because apparently my body and baby are demanding MORE FOOD NOW!
When that happens, I don’t give myself a blank check to eat cupcakes. But I do choose a healthy snack and eat it without guilt. I do think the calorie amount MyFitnessPal generates is a good target to generally stick to. However, if my body sends the loud-and-clear message that it needs more fuel, I go over. And I don’t worry about it.
2. Be Really, Really Picky About Who You Add as MFP Friends
The single best thing about MyFitnessPal, in my opinion, is the chance it gives you to become “friends” with other users. You can create for yourself a little community of people whose updates appear in your news feed. When I joined this time, I eagerly added as many friends as possible. I figured that the more support, the better. What I found after a few days, though, is that you want to be a complete snob about who you select for your feed. Why? Because having friends with similar goals and methods of losing weight is absolutely essential.
Right now I’m pregnant and intentionally gaining weight, which means I’m eating a fairly generous amount of calories each day. Being friends with someone who is eating 1200 calories a day on a quest to lose 70 lbs isn’t helpful for me. Even if that low calorie intake happens to be legitimately healthy for that particular person, it isn’t for me. Every time I would see a status of someone bemoaning how “they went way over on calories today” by eating a few hundred calories LESS that what I was shooting for daily stressed me out. It would mess with my head and make me start wondering if I should be eating less too.
So, I went through the dozens of friends I initially added and screened them pretty critically. Was this friend eating around the same amount of calories I was shooting for each day? Did their posts and profile pictures reflect that they were interested in true health as least as much as they were in appearance? Were their weight goals (lose vs. maintain vs. gain) similar to mine?
I ended up with a much smaller friend group. It was made up almost entirely of pregnant and brand-new moms. For the most part, my MFPs are girls who began pregnancies at a healthy weight, are/were aiming for a 25–35 lb gain over pregnancy, and who generally eat north of 2000 calories a day. In short, they’re a lot like me!
These ladies are positive, kind, and inspiring. Their comments and attitudes reflect what I’m trying to be, and I’m grateful that I can pull out my phone and vent to them on hard days or share my accomplishments when I’ve done something, big or small, in my eating and exercise that I’m proud of.
They’ve been a powerful support system for me. But again, being a picky, picky friend snob is absolutely key. Whatever your situation and goals are, fill your feed with only positive, healthy friends whose goals and situations are similar to yours.
3. Save Meals and Recipes as Often as You Can
I’m a mom of two little kids. I’m not willing to spend my entire day on my app doing math and entering in each bite of food individually. But I was surprised to find how quick and easy it is to log food on MyFitnessPal with the saving meals and recipes function.
How does that work? Essentially, you have to take the time to enter in individual items in a meal just once. Then you can name and save that group of items for use in the future. For example, one of my standard breakfasts is a wheat bagel, 2 eggs + 1 white scrambled and topped with cheese, and a small bowl of fruit. I entered in that in once and saved it as “Bagel/Egg/Fruit Breakfast.” And from now on I can now check one box and MFP adds all those items at once for me. Ta-da!
I found that after the first week or so of entering in groups of foods I tend to eat together, using MyFitnessPal is not time-consuming at all.
4. Don’t Let Yourself Exercise Off Calories So You Can Eat More
This sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. MyFitnessPal gives you extra calories to eat based on if you exercise. Makes sense, right? Go for a walk that burns 200 calories and you should be able to eat back those 200 calories.
But what I found was that when I entered my exercise that way, I would rationalize a piece of pie by saying I’d just toss in “an extra little workout in the evening.” I’d then find myself feeling obligated to crank out an hour on my elliptical machine to work off the pie, even if I was exhausted by the day’s end or really didn’t have time for it.
Doing this on repeat meant I was regularly both eating too much and exercising too much. It left me chronically sore and short on sleep, even though according to the calorie math I was doing just peachy.
So what do I do instead? I simply add an extra 150 calories daily to MFP’s recommended amount for me to account for the fact that I do burn calories through my workouts. MFP is right in that you should take exercise into account as you calculate how much to eat each day. But I find that subtracting exercise based on individual daily workouts rather than an average led to justifying both overeating AND overexercising. Does that make sense?
So absolutely pad your recommended calorie target a bit to account for your exercise. Thats healthy. But don’t let entering daily workouts get you into a potentially unhealthy pattern.
5. Be Okay with Flexibility and Guesstimating
This last one may be the most important of all. MyFitnessPal is a great tool. But remember: it’s not an exact science. And it’s unrealistic for you to expect it to be. For example, today for lunch I had a veggie burger with some chips and snap peas. I entered in ketchup as one of my items because I did have ketchup on the burger, and I specified a teaspoon as a guesstimate for how much ketchup I used.
Did I pull out a measuring spoon to get the ketchup quantity exactly right? Heck no! Ain’t nobody got time for that! I make peace with the fact that I’m logging to be accountable and aware of what I’m eating, but I don’t need everything to be perfectly precise.
I have also made peace with some meals being impossible to log. For instance, we eat dinner at my parents’ one or two Sundays a month. My mom makes fabulous meals that I have no idea how I could accurately log short of asking her for her recipes and then bringing along my own measuring cups, which would be totally weird. Mark and I will also occasionally eat out somewhere that isn’t a large chain and doesn’t have to provide nutritional data on their menu items. How should you MFP that?
In those cases what I typically do is enter a “dummy meal.” I search the MFP database and guesstimate a meal as a placeholder for the meal I know I can’t accurately log. And then I simply go into that meal with the goal to eat one normal-ish plate of whatever’s available. I’m almost certainly off a few calories in either direction, but that’s just not the end of the world. Plus, I’m willing to bet it all averages out in the end. It’s a classic case of understanding that health isn’t just about nutritional data but about being realistic and balanced with yourself mentally and emotionally as well.
Any other MyFitnessPal users out there? I’d love to get comments on how YOU leverage all the awesome this app has to offer while sidestepping the potential pitfalls.