How to track your calories and diet

How to track your calories using MyFitnessPal
There are quite a few apps out there that make the process of tracking your calories easier. In this lesson, you will learn how to track your calories and diet using probably the most popular app, and the one that I use: MyFitnessPal.

The MyFitnessPal app and website

MyFitnessPal is a free app that you can use to track your kilocalories, macronutrients, micronutrients, and exercises. It will help you to make sure that you are eating the right number of kilocalories each day, getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals, and consuming the right amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. The app is available on iOS and Android. If you don’t have a smartphone or other mobile device, you can use the MyFitnessPal.com website, which offers the same functionalities. After you create an account, you can access it using your login details via the app or website, both of which sync. Of course, the app offers much more convenience than the website. I would buy a smartphone just to use the MyFitnessPal app—that’s how helpful it is!

How to use the MyFitnessPal app

A step-by-step description of how to use MyFitnessPal is beyond the scope of this lesson. The video below will give you a general outline. The video is old but will give you a general idea. The best way to learn is through practice. What follows is just an overview of how to use the app.

Whether you create a MyFitnessPal account on your phone or on the website, during the process, you will be asked for your stats, goals, and activity level.

  • Your stats are your height, current weight, gender, and date of birth.
  • Your goals are your weekly weight goal (how much weight you want to lose or gain per week, if any) and your ultimate weight goal (what weight you are ultimately aiming for). The options you select will depend on whether you are cutting, maintaining, or bulking, which was explained in Bulking and cutting.
  • Your activity level is the amount of activity you experience in an average day, not including any exercise.

MyFitnessPal then calculates your net kilocalories, which is the number of kilocalories you have to eat each day to achieve your goal. All you have to do is add the foods you eat and the exercises you perform to your diary. Periodically, you also have to update your current weight to inform MyFitnessPal of your weight-related progress.

(Note that the way MyFitnessPal calculates your daily caloric requirement is different from the two manual methods of calculating TDEE that I described in Calories and calorie requirements. The two manual methods take into account all of your physical activities, including your exercises, and give you your total daily energy expenditure. As mentioned above, MyFitnessPal does not include your exercises, which you have to add separately. As a result, the net kilocalories figure that it presents will be lower than your TDEE. What’s more, when you add an exercise, your net kilocalories figure will go up, meaning that you can eat more food!)

Adding foods to your diary

When you first start using MyFitnessPal, adding foods to your diary takes a bit of time. The process involves searching for the food in the MyFitnessPal database (which contains over five million entries and still growing), adjusting the quantity of the food to reflect the amount that you ate, and then adding it to your diary. However, the more you use MyFitnessPal, the faster and easier adding foods to your diary becomes, to the point where you should be able to add a whole meal in under a minute. The reason is that the app remembers what you have eaten in the past and makes the process of adding the same foods easier. What’s more, you can group foods into meals and recipes, and add the meals and recipes to your diary all in one go. You can even copy meals and recipes from the diaries of other people who have chosen to share their diary with you.

The process of adding foods to your diary is made even easier by the app’s barcode scanning feature. If a food has a barcode, just scan it, and MyFitnessPal will locate the food in its database. All you have to do is adjust the quantity before adding it to your diary. If, after a scan, MyFitnessPal doesn’t find the right food, you can add the food to the database yourself.

Are the nutritional figures in MyFitnessPal accurate?

Since anybody can add foods to the MyFitnessPal database, some of the entries can be erroneous. Look for a green check mark next to the food, which indicates that the food entry has been checked and approved. Most of the entries without a check mark are also accurate. It’s wise to check the nutritional values entered for the foods that you regularly add to your diary.

One figure that is often inaccurate is the food’s sodium content. Many people enter the food’s salt content into the sodium field thinking that they are the same thing. Therefore, keep an eye on that figure.

Adding exercises to your diary

MyFitnessPal lets you add both cardiovascular and strength/weight training exercises to your diary. However, it only calculates how many kilocalories you burned from cardiovascular exercises. In other words, if you add a strength training exercise to your diary via the “Strength Training” button, MyFitnessPal will not try to estimate how many kilocalories you burned, and your net kilocalories will not be adjusted. The reason is that estimating the kilocalories burned from strength training is difficult. It depends on too many factors, such as how much weight you lifted, how vigorously you worked out, and how much rest you took between sets. This is a problem because you have to keep track of all of the kilocalories that you eat and burn. The good news is that you can add a strength training workout via the “Cardiovascular” button. Just search for the exercise “Strength training” in the Cardiovascular database, adjust the number of minutes trained, and add the exercise to your diary. The estimate of kilocalories burned will only be a rough estimate, but it’s better than nothing. If you tracked how many kilocalories you burned during your workout using a heart rate monitor or other tracking device, you can also add a custom exercise to your personal database.

Keeping an eye on your nutrition

To see how much protein, fat, and carbohydrate you have eaten, as well as how much of each vitamin and mineral you have taken in, visit the Nutrition section of the app. MyFitnessPal breaks it all down for you nicely, and this is what makes the app helpful. After a short while of using MyFitnessPal, you will learn things about your diet that you never knew before. For example, I discovered that I almost never got enough potassium and that my diet contained way too much fat—despite the fact that I thought my fat intake was low! These insights helped me to make the necessary dietary adjustments. Who knows what you will discover about your diet!

Why don’t the fats add up?

MyFitnessPal breaks fat into saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fat, as it should do. You may notice that when you add up the figures for these sub-categories of fat, they may not add up to the total amount of fat you have eaten. The reason is that food nutrition labels in many countries, such as the US, are not required to specify the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat content of a food, so food companies may only list total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. This means that if, after you sum the sub-categories, the resultant figure is smaller than the total fat content, you can assume that the remainder is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Note also that trans fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; they do not constitute a separate sub-category of their own.

Upgrading to premium

Upgrading to MyFitnessPal’s premium service will give you additional features, such as the ability to set your macronutrient goals in grams instead of percentages and to learn which foods you have eaten rank highest in nutrients that are important to you. The premium service also gets rid of all the ads. However, everything you need is available with the free service.

How to track your calories, diet, and exercises using MyFitnessPal

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