My Fitness Pal (MFP) is an online fitness and weight loss website that I can’t praise strongly enough. The site is based around a tracking tool that you can download as an app onto your smart phone or use off the computer, and has other features such as the opportunity to collect ‘friends’ like any other social networking platform, and a vibrant community forum.
The MyFitnessPal App
The MyFitnessPal app is available for iOS and Android phones. You can just use it as a desktop-based program and not use the app, but it’s really best intended to be used ‘on the go’ via your phone. How it works is you set up a profile, set your goals, then log your food diary and exercise daily to help keep you on track.
MFP automatically gives you a daily calorie target, based on your stated goals, and you can then theoretically ‘eat back’ any exercise calories you burn. It also gives you a guide for the macronutrient split you should be aiming for (i.e. carbohydrates, protein, fat, etc), but you can also tailor this so if you know you need to make sure you’re eating enough fibre and not too much sugar, you can change the goal by manually choosing to track those macros instead.
The same goes for the daily calorie goal – this can be manually adjusted to suit you.
As a hypothetical example, a 65kg (143 pounds), 5 foot tall woman who wants to lose ½ a pound a week (approximately 200gm – a reasonable rate of loss considering she doesn’t have much to lose in the first place) would likely have a daily calorie goal of approx. 1350 calories a day. This assumes she has a sedentary lifestyle. If this woman then burns 300 calories a day through exercise, she can eat 1650 calories worth of food and still theoretically lose weight.
The MyFitnessPal Calorie Counter
The overwhelming reason why you would use the app is because it has a calorie counter built in. There is a food and exercise database so you can search for the number of calories in a chicken breast, or a tomato, or a donut. The database has literally thousands of food types in it including items off seemingly most fast food menus (which is in itself a little bit sad…). You can also add your own food items or ‘meals’ – for example if there’s a dish you cook regularly and you want to easily add one serving size without having to individually add up each ingredient, you can do that.
You can also search for the ‘average’ number of calories you might have burned through a half hour jog, or aerobics or just about any other activity you can think of.
It’s not a foolproof system of course – in fact sometimes the database entries for exercise (and food!) as I’ve noted below are laughable, but it works very well as a guide and the site has thousands of members who’ve all seen extraordinary results through using it.
Personally I never used the ‘guesstimates’ of calories burned through exercise from the database but instead used either a heart rate monitor or a Fitbit to collect the information myself and logged it. And once it’s there it’s easy to then select the same ‘recent exercise’ in future.
And that brings me to another cool feature: MFP syncs with the Fitbit smartphone dashboard (and presumably with other fitness trackers too, I just never used them).
At the end of the day when you’ve logged all your food and your exercise, you’ll get a summary of where you are against your goal and you can close out the day letting everyone on your friends list know that you’ve come in under your goal (or not – you can disable this feature if you’re not comfortable with it).
I’m sure there are other sites/tools out there that do a similar thing, but MFP is the one I’ve had direct experience and success with. What do I love about it?
- The ability to plan – At the height of my weight loss efforts I would plan sometimes a week in advance, logging different size meals, with different combinations of food, to try to come up with a meal plan that looked delicious, nutritious and easy to shop for/prepare and obviously also under my daily calorie goal. It also meant I could look back on my diary and make a note of those days that hadn’t worked so well. For example “I ran out of energy mid-afternoon and hit the cake shop on that day – it must have been because I had too many carbs at lunch, or not enough fat with my protein”.
- The friends – I’ve collected some friends along the way who’ve been invaluable supports. We can cheer each other on, celebrate the good days and commiserate with the bad ones. We can seek and offer advice on how to mix up our training routines, etc, and other ‘non-fitness’ related life stuff as well. We’re basically all there for the same reason – to improve – and this creates a really collegiate, supportive community. A big shout out to my MF Pals – you know who you are!
- The projections – At the end of each day when you complete your daily diary, you’ll get a projection “If every day were like today you would weigh xxx in 5 weeks’ time”. Now every day won’t be like today, but it is motivating.
- The success stories on the forum – Anytime I’m struggling for motivation I duck into the forums and browse the success stories. It’s incredible the way some of these people have turned their lives around, in some cases taking years to lose half their body weight and they glow with happiness and pride.
Some words of advice if you do choose to get on board with MFP:
- Be wary of the database, be sceptical and verify information with other sources if necessary. If you see a database entry for a cup of cooked white rice at 20 calories per serve, hopefully common sense will tell you this just can’t be accurate. The person who made that database entry in the first place is fooling themselves, so don’t you be fooled too. As time goes on and you become more familiar with calories you’ll learn to trust your instinct about when something is legit. If in doubt – check. Caloriecount and Calorieking are both good sources to check against. The same goes with exercise burns. Our hypothetical 65kg woman is not going to burn 500 calories in an hour of “walking – slow pace”.
- Weight loss itself can really screw with your head and from one day to the next it’s difficult to accurately take stock of whether your relationship to your weight, your health, and the way you use tools like MFP is ‘healthy’. Hopefully you’ll be able to judge for yourself when the time comes, but my advice is that if the counting and tracking is making you obsess about every single number, beyond what’s necessary in order to do the job properly, then give it a break for a while. I saw this frequently among my friends list when I was a regular user, and took frequent breaks myself. The other thing you can consider doing if it all starts feeling ‘too much’ is change your settings to lock down your diary or certain features so that any ‘bad days’ aren’t always on display.
Bearing in mind the above, my advice is to arm yourself with a few additional tools/devices to complement MFP – an activity tracker like a Fitbit and a kitchen scale. The Fitbit tracks your step count and your heart rate and tells you how many calories you’ve burnt. You can then automatically sync from your Fitbit dashboard (also on your smartphone) to MFP, and it will adjust the amount of calories you have left you can eat that day or if you don’t need them you can ‘bank’ them for a future special occasion.
A kitchen scale is essential. Guessing the weight of food is something that you only become good at after many many months of practice. I advise that you don’t guess how much a 30gm serve of almonds is – weigh it. Similarly, don’t go by size – how big is ‘one sausage’ anyway, or ‘1 tablespoon of cream cheese’?
There’s too much margin for error using these methods, and you risk not seeing results quickly enough, which can be pretty discouraging. Over time you might be able to use your Fitbit and scale less often, but certainly for the first 6 months I recommend you use them religiously, to retrain your brain about what exercise really burns, and how much we really should be eating!
And finally, the most important question…
Is the MyFitnessPal App still free?
For now, the answer is yes – the basic account and functionality is still free. But since MFP was bought out by Under Armour (who paid $475million for it and no doubt want a good return on investment!!) ads have appeared and some new features have been introduced that are only available to ‘premium’ account holders.
Some of the premium features include:
- no ads
- priority customer support
- exclusive content
- you can customise your goals to a more finite level, for example by setting different goals for different days of the week.
- you can also ‘drill down’ into a finer level of detail about the nutritional content of your food.
It costs $12.99 a month or $65 for the year to upgrade to a premium account.
The MyFitnessPal Review: In Conclusion
That’s all from me for this review of MyFitnessPal. As I said, I credit MFP with a huge part of my success. It’s an invaluable tool, and the community around it is absolutely worth getting to know. MF Pals make the journey a lot less lonely!
If you’ve used MyFitnessPal I’d love to know your experience of it. Was it helpful or did it do your head in? Drop a comment in below and share your experience.