By Crabby McSlacker
I am obviously not the first person seeking to shed a few pounds who has discovered My Fitness Pal.
Any of you have any thoughts on this or other trackers? Here's what I've discovered so far.
However first up...
Some Boring Context and a Couple of Disclaimers
Research suggests that for many folks, keeping some sort of food journal or other method of tracking consumption aids greatly with weight loss.
And I'm one of those people! Food and activity tracking actually seem to work well for me--when I can suck it up and subject myself to it. My portion sizes and snack frequency tend to increase over time, and so every so often, I have to choose between instituting some form of accountability, or shopping for a whole new wardrobe of larger clothes.
And yeah, I hit that fork in the road yet again coming into 2014.
photo: Bexx Brown-Spinell
But rather than pick up that germy road-fork and use it for mischievous purposes...
Photo: michael newman
...I decided to try to take the high road, and actually make an effort to statrt tracking calories consumed versus expended. Plus, with the timing of the Fitbit Force review, the stars aligned and the patent-pending Crabby McSlacker Stop-Stuffing-Your-Face-and-Move-Your-Ass-More! © miracle weight loss program was born.
However, be forewarned: food and exercise tracking is not necessarily a great idea for everyone. Especially if you have a history of anorexia or other eating disorder. Because the last thing you probably need is a program specifically designed to turn you into an obsessive crazy-pants calorie tracking machine who spends ridiculous amounts of time weighing, measuring, recording, and plotting and scheming and daydreaming about food.
Meet some of your fascinating new friends!
You will be seeing quite a lot of each other.
MyFitnessPal is a free website and mobile app that lets you track your food intake, exercise, and weight loss, and allows you to participate in community discussions if you so choose.
I tend to use the website more than the app, because I'm old and hate dealing with tiny print, but there are some features that the app has that the web doesn't and vice versa, so it's good to have both.
As you go through your day, you enter what you eat and what you do:
Um, fun! Right?
I briefly tried this program about a year ago, and as I recall, the goal setting sucked because you couldn't customize much, or maybe even at all. I can't honestly remember.
But you can now! So in addition to the "guided" options you can now individually decide what your weight loss, calorie, individual nutrient intake, and exercise goals are.
So if you want to try some bat-shit-crazy diet that will leave you malnourished or poisoned, or if you're feeling half-assed and don't mind packing on pounds faster than you can say "Ben and Jerrys" and "McDonalds" and "Dominoes?" You can use MyFitnessPal to do that now!
The great thing about MyFitnessPal is the enormous size of the database. Because it is possibly the most popular of all the systems, the bazillions of users add data all the time, so 99.5% of the time you can find exxactly what you're looking for.
For example, they even had menu items listed from my favorite takeout burger place, Burger Lounge! (Which makes the most awesome grass-fed burgers and salads but only has a handful of locations so I was surprised it was in there.)
My Fitness Pal remembers the foods you enter, and allows you to create recipes or meals so if you eat the same things over and over, you don't have to start from scratch each time, you can just check a box and add. And there is always the "quick add calories" option, which allows you to put something arbitrary in when you just don't have time to deal with the details.
However, there are still some major frustrations involved.
For one, MyFitnessPal is not such a great pal it will weigh and measure shit for you. You gotta either guess wildly, or haul out some helpers.
Is it a pain to try to figure out the quantity of every morsel you eat all day long?
Yes, an enormous pain!
Cooking from scratch is already, in my mind, a horribly burdensome and time-consuming endeavor, and if you add weighing and measuring and logging each ingredient into a computer that is usually in a different room but you are to lazy to relocate it, it's that much worse.
What especially sucks about the My Fitness Pal Food Entry System: You can't search your own foods! There is only a search function for the entire database.
Plus you can't display many entries per page, so you are having to scroll through many many pages of past entries looking for that elusive cup of chopped shiitake mushrooms you swore was in there somewhere. It's often faster to start over, but then you end up with 8 different variations of the same foods clogging up your list.
Plus, the alphabetical ordering is a crapshoot. Raw red bell peppers are not with the "R" or "B" or "P" foods but filed under "V" for "Vegetable, Red Bell Pepper," even though Strawberries aren't under "Fruit" but are just Strawberries. And Mixed Nuts are under "K" for Kirkland and .... well, you get the picture.
There is the option to just choose from your "favorites" or most "frequent" but then the lists are too short so it's not all that helpful if you eat a reasonably diverse menu.
Hey My Fitness Pal, if you really wanna be a pal? Just add a damn search function and the option to display the entire list not broken into tiny pages, ok?
The program tracks a fair amount of different data--maybe not every micronutrient, but a lot of the basics.
However, at least on the website, you have to choose only six to display at any one time. It remembers all the nutritional info though, regardless of what you choose. So if you want to hassle with changing your settings to see more data, it has known all along, say, how much sodium or how little potassium you were consuming. It will tell you if you ask it, and then it will wait politely while pick yourself up off the floor and wipe the tears from your eyes.
Activity Tracking and Integration
In general, the exercise tracking is pretty lame. The database sucks and I almost never find what I'm looking for, or if I do, I have little conviction that the numbers are accurate. I have my own independently invented system to approximate calorie expenditures for various activities and I trust that more than their exercise database.
But I am greatly aided by the whole Fitbit Force integration thing! The force does a reasonable enough approximation of calories expended through running/walking/elliptical, and I only have to enter weird things like rowing or biking.
Force Wristband Not Actually Coming Unfastened for Once!
The program integrates with a bunch of other biometric devices too; if you've got one you can check the MyFitnessPal app gallery to see if it's compatible.
There are forums and discussions and special interest groups all that kind of stuff! But y'all know how I feel about Fitness Communities. If it ain't the Cranky Fitness comment section, populated with the most awesome fun, funny, and warm individuals on the planet, them I'm not going to bother hanging out chatting.
(Wait, that's not totally true: I actually posted on MFP once. The topic was intermittent fasting and I thought I'd share my intermittent fasting experiment! And then I realized I was being a total asshole to try to use a community forum to pimp my blog, and even though no one scolded me or anything I felt kinda slimy and so sheepishly wandered away and haven't posted since).
But many others, who are not community-hating blog-pimping spoilsports, find the whole community aspect to be the best part.
To me, having charts and graphs to let me know how I'm doing is an incredibly helpful part of the whole tracking thing. Unless you are a Biggest Loser, weight loss is rarely immediate or dramatic. If you, like me, crave instant gratification, charts and reports can make you feel on track and successful much more quickly! Or can alert you to slacking and backtracking or failure to get the right nutrients or general greediness.
However, this is another place where the website is annoying; it won't give you average values over time; you need the mobile app to see that data. And it can be really hard to eyeball off the web if you are all over the place like I tend to be.
(Note: these are NET calories after exercise has been subtracted; I eat a hell of a lot more than that. My actual consumption tends to be anywhere from 1400-2500 a day).
I don't know how long I'll keep it up, but two things seem to be pretty consistently true of my experience:
- Using MyFitnessPal is a huge pain in the ass.
- And yet it works really well!
Having so much more information and a sense of accountability really does make me more strategic and thoughtful about what I eat, when I eat it, and when I eventually stop. And I actually enjoy myself more, not less!
I feel like I'm having as many "treats" as ever, but if I have enough in the budget, I can have them guilt-free and really savor them.
But I'm actually not having as many treats, it just somehow feels that way because I'm consuming them more mindfully. It's only been 5-6 weeks, so who knows, but so far I'm on target for my calorie reduction and weight loss goals. (While I'm only ultimately trying to lose 5-10 pounds, at a rate of about 1/2 lb a week, the hope is that I can lose this mainly in visceral fat while hanging on to, or even increasing, muscle mass. Yeah right. Wish me luck!).
Further fantasizing: what I'd really like to do is get down to my "fightin' weight," and then stay on the stupid pain in the ass program until I actually figure out a maintenance plan that doesn't involve gaining and losing the same 5-10 pounds over and over every year or two. But I ain't counting my chickens. I've been doing the up-and-down thing my entire life, and can live with it, but heck, I figure it's worth a shot!
What do you guys think about Food and Exercise Tracking? Helpful or Crazy-Making or Both?