By: Alex Cromartie, CPT
Last week I wrote about how much I had learned by counting calories (even though I’m not trying to lose weight) after many years of avoiding the practice. In it, I mentioned that the key to my success was using the MyFitnessPal app on my iPhone. I’d like to go in to detail about that wonderful app today. Here goes…
MyFitnessPal is by no means a new app. It has been on the smartphone scene for a while and has extensive features. Between having a local library of your most commonly used “favorite” foods, having a handy bar-code scanner function, and allowing the user community to add their own food combinations to its online database, MyFitnessPal makes logging food items just about as easy as can be imagined. Sure you have to be consistent, but it is so easy that it is usually do-able while you’re eating (with the other hand of course)! In fact, the online database of foods is so extensive that, at least as of yet, I’ve never scanned (or text entered) a food item that it didn’t recognize. That is saying a lot, as I have been known to eat some pretty obscure foods. Add this to an amazingly complete macro and micronutrient breakdown, a newsfeed of your friends’ latest accomplishments, the ability to view their food journals, and then throw in an adequate workout tracker, and you have one heck of a food journal that can teach you volumes about your eating habits in addition to helping you lose body fat (or gain weight, if that is your goal).
Use an online calculator to find what your caloric maintenance level is (the number of calories you need to eat to neither gain nor lose weight), subtract 500 calories from your maintenance number, and you have a safe, muscle preserving calorie deficit that should allow you to lose one or two pounds of body fat consistently per week if you stick to it each day. When you plug that number into the app, it appears on your home screen as your daily goal, as does the amount of calories you have consumed thus far, the number of calories remaining in your day, and finally the calories burned during daily exercise activity. The workout tracker is the feature of the app that is the least complete. It has your basic exercise modalities built in, but you’ll have to create custom entries for anything beyond that. My biggest complaint with the app though is that it doesn’t factor in strength training into your daily calorie expenditure at all (only aerobic training). I understand that this is because it is a lot harder to account for strength training calorically. Many calories are burned AFTER the training session, and even then are very dependent on the effort, technique, and metabolism of the individual. Still, you would think they would come up with some sort of algorithm to estimate calories expended. But as of yet, MyFitnessPal only accounts for cardio exercises. Don’t let this turn you off to the app though if you’re into strength training. Yes, I wish they would do something to correct this, but there is still plenty of insight to be had here.
The insight comes when you view your nutritional statistics for the day, or for the week. MyFitnessPal has a complete breakdown of the macronutrient groups (proteins, carbs, and fats), and also of the micronutrient groups (vitamins and minerals). After a week of logging, you will be able to see if you are deficient in (or overdoing) any vitamins and minerals, and also see what your macro nutrient levels look like. 45 to 65 percent of your diet should be carbs (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), 20 to 35 percent should be protein, and 20 to 35 percent of your diet should be healthy fats. Finally, make sure that those carbs aren’t made up of sugar-rich foods, or empty (not whole grain) carbs. Not the kind of carbs we’re talking about here. Try whole fruits, vegetables, and grains instead.
The feedback you get from MyFitnessPal is amazing. Even if you think you are doing everything right, you’ll probably find some room for improvement. I learned that although I eat primarily healthy fats, I eat way to much of them. And although a little extra fat may help with strength training, it certainly isn’t going to keep the waistline in check. Whats more, the newsfeed function of the app allows me to check in on my clients’ diets to see how their progress is going or simply send them an inspirational message. I really wish that in the next version though, the developers allow you to take a peek at other users macro and micro-nutrient breakdown. It would make this feature infinitely more useful.
So despite one or two features that could use a little improvement (the workout tracker and sharing friends macro and micro-nutrient breakdowns), MyFitnessPal may literally be the easiest way to record and analyze your diet in existence. Trust me, you will learn volumes about your habits, both the things you’re doing well and about areas that need improvement. Everyone should give this app a try for at least two weeks, and indefinitely if you are serious about your health. Stay strong.