One of my favorite tools for weight loss and maintenance is MyFitnessPal (MFP). To make using this tool easier, I’m sharing 10 tips on MFP, so that you can have quicker and better tracking.
I love MFP because I do calorie counting with all my clients and it’s the easiest way to track. The reason I use calorie counting with my clients is that a calorie is a measure of energy. It's how much energy you get from a specific food, and knowing this helps you understand how much energy your body needs to function per day. So counting calories is actually just a measurement of how to fuel your body for the day. I know counting calories can get a little tedious and overwhelming or frustrating. However, if you have the right tools and right understanding of MFP, it's going to be so much easier for you to use.
So let’s get started with my top tips for using MFP.
1. Don't listen to the calorie count.
MyFitnessPal is a great tool, but a really bad dietician. I’ve heard it said a lot that the calorie count on MFP is a little bit on the low side. Do I agree? Honestly, it depends on where you’re starting. Usually when clients come to work with me one-on-one, they actually have already tried MFP, Noom, or Weight Watchers, and they're just looking for something more customized. They want to work with somebody who is an expert in that area. Before they start working with me they may have been on a lower calorie count for several months. The problem is that MFP doesn’t know you’ve been eating a lower calorie count. Whenever you sign up for MFP, it's going to give you an estimated calorie count based on your basal metabolic rate, which is how many calories you burn at resting. Then you're going to put in your estimated activity level, which will then figure into your daily caloric needs.
Here’s where the problem arises. Based on the information given, MFP may give you a higher number of calories than what you have been eating. For example, it may say you need 1800 calories a day, but you have been eating 1400 because you were trying to lose weight. If you follow MFP, you start eating 1800 calories, which is a big shift for your body and could result in weight gain if you make that huge jump so quickly.
Instead of using the calorie count in MFP, I recommend using the Harris-Benedict calculator. Of course, it is always better to work with a registered dietician because you're going to get the most accurate measurement of where you should be calorie-wise. But in a pinch, use the Harris-Benedict equation. There are plenty of calculators online, so just do a quick Google search. First the calculator will determine your basal metabolic rate (BRM). Then the calculator will determine your total energy expenditure based on your activity level. When you have your total calorie count, you will want to make a deficit from there.
2. Don’t calculate exercise in the app.
One of the most common questions I get is if you should calculate exercise in the app. The answer is “no.” When you calculated your calories you factored in your activity level, so you don't want the app to start calculating your activity and telling you how many calories to eat. 99.9% of the time the number of calories the app tells you to eat based on exercise is wrong.
The app automatically tracks steps if you are using a FitBit or iPhone, so make sure to turn that feature off. On the bottom right of the app there are three little dots. You click that, and then in the “categories,” you're going to see something called “steps.” You want to go in there and turn your steps off. Save yourself a headache from the start and don't track exercise in there. This allows you to get into a routine of working out consistently instead of exercising more on a day so you can go have a margarita or ice cream. That is the yo-yo dieting mindset, which you don't want to get into. You want everything to be consistent and fluent. So turn off the step syncing in the app and don’t track exercise in the app.
3. How to use macros in the app.
I often get asked what to do with the macros inside MFP. I personally set the calories for my clients and then establish macros based on their current activity, how much they're eating and what their food preferences are. But I would say just a general marker you could start with is 40% carb, 25% protein and 35% fat. Then you can adjust those percentages from there based on your needs. But I would highly recommend looking even further at how much of those macronutrients you're eating at each meal, which leads into step four.
4. Get the macro breakdown for each meal.
If you buy the premium version of MFP, you can get the macro breakdown by meal. Now, you don't have to pay for premium to use the app. You can still do really well on MFP without the premium, but if you want the macro breakdown per meal, you will need the premium.
So if you do have premium, go into “goals” and click on the show macros by meal. This is a great tool to help you stay on track. If you are focusing on 20 grams of protein per meal, that can really help you with balance.
How you're spreading out your calories throughout the day is important. You don't want to just eat all your calories in the evening, right? You want to fuel your body properly throughout the day, and that means eating a balance of macronutrients at each meal. If you wanted to, you can actually turn off calories and turn the macro focus on, and that will give you better balance.
If you want, you can calculate the protein grams yourself and then split them up by meal. So let's say your protein goal for the day is 80 grams. You could split those 80 grams up between meals and snacks so that you know what your goal is for each meal. Let's say your goal is 20 grams of protein per meal, which would add up to 60 grams. Then the remaining 20 grams of protein is going to come from snacks, and you determine how many snacks you want and how much protein per snack you would need. So, again, don't just make this big goal for yourself for the entire day. Make sure you break the big goal down per meal so you can start to see that balance.
Side note about carbs. If you first and foremost have your calorie count set, focus on protein and fat goals and meeting those goals, and the carbs are gonna fall in place. You don't need to worry about all three macros at once. It just gets to be too much. Again, first you want to focus on calories. Secondly, I would say protein and fat are going to be your most important to focus on and spread out throughout the day to make sure you're getting consistent with that. Then carbs will fall into place.
5. What about grandma’s lasagna?
You're tracking really well. You're so excited. You're doing really well. And then you get to grandma's house and she’s made her famous lasagna. You’re thinking, “How the heck do I put this in MyFitnessPal? I have no idea how many calories are in here.”
Don’t try to calculate the calories on your own! My favorite tool for situations like this is Calorie King. It will give you the average calorie count of any food out there. They have all these different restaurants as well as common dishes you would have at home. For grandma’s lasagna, you just type in “beef lasagna,” and it would give you the average calories a slice of beef lasagna. Then what you can do in the MFP app is when you're in the diary under “add food,” you can “quick add” the calories for the lasagna. If you do have premium, you can also add in the fat, protein, and carbohydrate breakdown. If you don't have premium, don't worry about it. Calorie King is just an estimation anyways. This method is so much quicker than trying to figure out all the individual ingredients that were in the lasagna. That is like the quickest way to quit MFP because it's just too much.
6. The 80/20 rule.
The next tip is the 80/20 rule with MFP. What I mean by the 80/20 rule is that 80% of the time you're tracking things that you can scan a barcode or you made it home. So you know exactly how many calories are in there. 20% of the things you track are the grandma's lasagna situation, where you just do a quick ad and estimate calories.
As you work with calories and macros more, you will get used to what is in foods and dishes and how many calories there are. This knowledge has been something that's helped me so much in managing my weight. Understanding how many grams of protein are in an egg versus three ounces of chicken has really helped me understand how much I'm going to actually need to fuel my body in a day.
The goal is to eventually get off of MFP. You don't want to be on the app forever. So it's really important to make sure that you're paying attention to the unit of energy that you're putting in your body. How much energy are you using and how many calories are in your food? The more you use the app, the more familiar you will get with this information and it becomes second nature. You eventually won’t need the app anymore.
So that's what I would say is the 80/20 rule with MFP. Don't drive yourself crazy trying to figure out the exact calories all the time.
7. Use a food scale.
A food scale is the most accurate way to measure food. To be completely honest, using measuring cups is a mess, dnd it isn't the most accurate way to measure food. You can use measuring cups, of course, but there's liquid measuring cups and dry measuring cups, and it’s just so much easier to get a food scale and weigh things.
When using a scale, you want to make sure you're weighing what you're taking out of a bag. For example, trying to scoop and weigh a specific amount of peanut butter on a scale is a nightmare. Right? There's stuff everywhere and everything is dirty. If you're trying to measure every ingredient this way it’s too much. Instead, put the bag or container on the scale and measure what you're taking out. So if there's a jar of peanut butter, you want to zero out the scale, weigh it and then take out your two tablespoons and then you weigh again, zero outweigh the jar again so that you can see the difference. That is the grams that you're going to calculate. This way, when you're baking for example, you can just weigh ingredients very quickly as you're adding them, and you don't have to try to scoop everything out, put it in a bowl, put it on the scale, zero it out, etc. Making tracking more complicated than it needs to be is the quickest way to quit MFP.
Another thing to pay attention to when it comes to weighing food is raw meat versus cooked meat. Make sure you measure either raw or cooked meat because raw meat weighs more than cooked. Weigh your meat raw and then add it as raw to MFP. Don't calculate it as cooked, but weigh it as raw.
Pay attention to the green check mark on MFP, which means a food has been added and is accurate. You want to use the green check marks as much as you can to ensure your adding foods correctly. Anyone can add foods into MFP, but the calculations may not be accurate. Sometimes people miscalculate or maybe they use a specialized product that just was a lot different than your average chicken. So use the green check marks to ensure you are getting the most accurate calculation for what you’re eating.
8. Use the “meal” feature.
For meals that you make often, such as a salad or sandwich you often have for lunch, here’s how to make your life easier. Add regular dishes to MFP as a “meal.” If you save things as meals all you have to do is search recent meals and quick add it. You can also go into that meal and adjust any ingredients that may have been different than normal. But the important thing is that you have the base in MFP which makes tracking much easier. I prefer this method over adding dishes as a recipe because you can easily adjust ingredients in “meals.” If you save your go-to sandwich as a “recipe,” you have to edit the whole recipe if you made any changes the one time you ate it. If you’re adding a chili that you made on Monday and eating the rest of the week, add that chili as a “recipe” because you won’t be making any changes to it throughout the week.
9. Don’t undereat.
Something I see far too often is under-eating the calories. Listen to me - You don't want to under-eat your calories. When you set a calorie goal, first make sure that you eat enough calories, and then make sure to meet those goals daily. Your body wants and needs consistency for weight loss and maintenance.
10. Utilize the time cooking to track your food.
Never track food while you're eating your food! Whenever you sit down to enjoy your dinner, you should be enjoying your food and thinking about how good it tastes and if you're full or not, instead of inputting your meal in the app and stressing out about the food. Tracking while eating just makes the eating experience unpleasant. Instead, use your cooking time or wait until after you're finished with your food to track your food.
I've found with clients what the best and easiest way to track food is to do it throughout the day. Don't wait until the end of the day when you have to remember everything you ate. You want to immediately put your food in the app.
I hope you guys found these tips helpful, and that you got a better understanding of whether premium is for you. If you want to learn more about MFP and calorie tracking and how to make this easier and faster, follow me on Instagram!