How to Use MyFitnessPal to Lose Weight
If you Google how to use calories or macros to lose weight, you’ll likely be overwhelmed by information.
This is because when it is used skillfully, tracking is an incredibly effective tool for weight loss. It has come in and out of fashion over time, but every once in awhile it emerges as the strategy to lose weight. Most food-tracking apps use calorie and/or macro tracking in some way – MyFitnessPal still reigns as the most popular, but other apps like Noom use essentially the same strategies.
It should be simple, right? You just get your calorie (and/or macro) goals, track everything you eat, and then fine-tune your eating to consistently hit your number goals, until you are satisfied with your weight loss.
If you’ve tried to use MyFitnessPal as a tool to lose weight before, however, you know it isn’t always so straightforward. Life has a way of not being 100% quantifiable. I often hear issues like this:
- How do you log restaurant meals (or takeout)?
- How do you log meals someone else cooked?
- How do you log a recipe, once you’ve made it and all the ingredients are combined?
- How do you log food at events or parties?
- Should I use tracking on vacation?
- How do you log food at a cafeteria at work?
- How do you even pick which food is the “right” one in MyFitnessPal when you use the search function?
- How do you log without becoming overly-focused on food all the time?
So in today’s blog post, I’m going to share with you my top ten tips for getting the most out of MyFitnessPal (yes, the free version, because you do not have to upgrade to premium), and to know whether or not tracking calories/macros is right for you at all.
First Things First
Each time I start with a new client, we collaborate to decide if using calories or macros is even a good strategy for that individual.
Here are some reasons that I would focus on alternative strategies (other than tracking) for a client:
- Eating disorder recovery
- Suspected untreated eating disorder (or very disordered eating patterns)
- A food lifestyle where most of the food is not prepared at home (i.e., heavy travel schedule, various restaurant meals more than 3-4 times per week, etc.)
While it might be tempting to think that tracking will “straighten out” your eating, it won’t (and I’ll get more into this in a minute). In fact, I only use tracking with clients who already have fairly organized eating patterns and just need to tweak. If your lifestyle has an element of food chaos, numbers won’t help you – your first step should be creating food regularity and calm.
But if you have a fairly healthy relationship with food, you want more clarity about your diet to achieve your goals more efficiently, and you do a lot of your own grocery shopping and cooking, you are probably a good candidate for tracking.
The Right Way to Think about Tracking
Finally, before I get into my 10 tips, I want to share something that I say frequently on calls with my clients:
Tracking is a tool, not a lifestyle.
It is a means to an end. It is a skill-builder. It’s educational. It gives you x-ray vision. It helps you plan.
And most of all, it is temporary.
I highly recommend choosing a time-frame during which you’re going to actively use tracking as a tool – let’s say 8-12 weeks max – and then “wean” off of tracking once the time frame is completed.
This mindset helps you to see tracking not as a method of self-policing (to “keep you” from eating certain things), but as a bootcamp for tailoring your habits to meet your real needs.
As you wean off of tracking, the ideal scenario is that your eating stays stable, because you didn’t need tracking to force yourself to eat a certain way. Instead, using calories and macros built new habits that you can now use without tracking. The external evaluation of your menu (and snack) planning becomes ingrained and automatic, instead of conscious and laborious. With better skills, you can scale food up or down to meet the needs of your active lifestyle even after you stop intentionally losing weight.
Now, onto the 10 tips!
10 Tips for Using MyFitnessPal to Lose Weight
Of course, you have to start somewhere. You can use an online calculator like this to guesstimate the ideal calories and macros for your goals. And once you have your calorie goal, make your protein goal at least 100 grams (more like 150 if you’re male), and then carbohydrates and fat can fall where they may (with fat no lower than 50 grams per day). If you’re more active, it makes sense for your carbohydrate percentage to be higher and for fat to be at the baseline. Of course, we could get much more precise than this, but these are the broad strokes.
Once you have your goals established, here are 10 tips to track successfully:
#1 Build a new repertoire of foods that help you hit your goals
Once you start tracking, you’ll notice quickly that some meals or snacks drag your day down, while others help you sail through the goal posts of your daily goals. Obviously, it helps to start emphasizing the winners, and let the less-helpful meals become occasional treats instead of regular staples.
You can download my 28-Day Meal Prep Guide for free, which is synced to MyFitnessPal and includes all the calories and macros. You can also check out other blog posts of mine, like this one about snacks, or this one about vegetarian protein, for ideas. You can also use the “Create a Recipe” function in MyFitnessPal to save recipes that you make frequently, which is smart, too.
#2 Use pre-tracking and the “Nutrition” button at the bottom of your diary at the beginning of the day, and then don’t track while you’re eating
Instead of tracking retroactively as you go (which encourages poor recall and can be stressful or distracting), I highly recommend to all my clients that you “pre-track” at the beginning of the day. This helps to reinforce the idea that tracking is actually planning, not policing.
A nice hack? If you eat fairly similarly day to day, you can go to yesterday’s diary, click “Edit,” and then highlight everything and copy it to the next day. Easy!
Want some more tips to side-step MyFitnessPal’s urgings to upgrade? As you work in your Diary to add foods, you can turn the phone to a landscape position, and you can see your macro breakdown by meal in that view. Also, at the bottom of your diary, you can see the “Nutrition” button. Click it, and then set the view to “Nutrients” instead of “Macros.” It’s just much easier to look at gram goals instead of percentage goals.
#3 Keep a focus on your “per meal” numbers, rather than getting swamped by the full daily numbers
If you see “100 grams of protein per day,” that can be an overwhelming number. But if you break it into three meals at 30 grams each (plus one snack that contains 10 grams of protein), suddenly it seems much more manageable.
And in general, our bodies like this, too. Keeping an even distribution of nutrients throughout the day makes it easier for our bodies to use food efficiently and to maintain more stable blood sugar.
#4 Log beverages, too (especially adult ones)
It almost seems like I shouldn’t have to say this, but it’s important to log liquid calories. My clients often sharply reduce their alcohol intake once they start tracking, because something that they thought was balanced and moderate was… not.
Alcohol, for example, can absolutely be part of a moderate and healthy approach to eating. But from a weight loss point of view, it tends to take up a lot of room in someone’s daily plan, especially if the person has a calorie goal under 1600 or so. Drinking less, and even being more observant of the “portion sizes” of alcohol, can help significantly with weight loss. Tracking is not effective if you leave off your beverages.
#5 Don’t major in the minors, and vice versa
I have seen people (in online forums, not my clients) obsess about whether they should log five ounces of chicken or three ounces of chicken, because it lost some of its weight in the cooking process.
As I tell any of my clients who use MyFitnessPal, it’s unlikely that weight issues come down to two ounces of chicken breast.
People like to over-analyze things that they feel they have more control over. It’s tempting. If you cook your own food, it’s easy to weigh literally everything you cook and agonize over small details.
But in my opinion, there are some variables that have a big impact (whether or not you measure oil, cheese, or other calorie-dense foods), and other variables that have almost no caloric impact (one cup of broccoli vs. two).
But most importantly, if you eat out frequently, that is a “major,” not a “minor.” Let’s talk about it.
#6 Define what role restaurants, takeout, and social dining play in your life
For some people, eating out is a big part of their work lifestyle – they have to entertain clients or their staff on a regular basis. For other people, dating pushes them to dine out more than they would actually like. For still others, travel dominates their work schedule and doesn’t allow them to eat at home regularly. Or maybe an empty-nest couple has retired, and enjoys eating out more than than they do cooking for two.
Restaurant dinners, fast casual lunches, takeout meals, and on-the-go car meals can all be an impediment to effective tracking.
There are no hard rules, but as a general guideline I encourage clients to minimize restaurant eating (or takeout) to 1-2 times per week, and to improve their “meals on the go” choices by developing a repertoire of manageable convenience meals. “Convenience” meals could either mean that you nail down 400-500 calorie options (with 30+ grams of protein) at places that make their nutrition facts public, like Sweetgreen, Starbucks, Chipotle, Jimmy John’s, or even Wawa. Or it could mean that you pack big snacks, like a protein bar with hardboiled eggs and a piece of fruit.
In this case, I encourage clients to track their convenience meals (which don’t count as restaurant meals), but not to track their restaurant meals, but instead to assume that even with conscious, moderate choices, the restaurant meal is probably 600-1,000 calories. You can check out my blog post on eating out, but in a nutshell, it’s wise to not get bogged down in trying to track it (since you didn’t prepare it), and to simply assume it’s extremely calorie-rich. Plan your day around it, and be moderate in your expectations (i.e., you might go slightly over your calorie goal for the day).
Taking a flexible approach like this is less stressful than trying unsuccessfully to track restaurant meals (or, on the flip side, burning out on trying to cook literally every single meal from scratch), and it encourages a balanced mindset and moderation.
#7 Don’t expect tracking to solve all your food problems
If you’re struggling with binge eating or stress eating patterns that are affecting the quality of your life, tracking calories and macros will not magically give you the “willpower” to stop.
That being said, can tracking help to correct overeating by creating more structure, a more regular eating pattern, a higher-protein and higher-fiber diet, and better exercise fueling? Yes, absolutely.
Tracking is effective for improving someone’s eating overall (and thus encouraging weight loss), but it won’t eliminate eating patterns that are coming from something deeper than physical hunger or garden variety bad habits. In fact, for someone who is entangled in an emotionally unhealthy relationship with food, applying numbers and limits can make food feel even more difficult to handle.
If you’re having a hard time with binge eating episodes and feeling like you’re out of control with food, don’t use something like MyFitnessPal or Noom. Instead, I would highly encourage you to work with a therapist or dietitian who focuses on helping people heal their relationship with food.
#8 Keep an eye on health-related nutrients, not just calories
Focusing on calories and macros can have the unwanted side effect of losing perspective on other nutrients like fiber (which we want more of), as well as saturated fat, sugar, and sodium (which most people need less of).
Technically, you could lose weight on a diet compromised almost entirely of protein products like bars, shakes, and snacks. But over time, this eating pattern would take a toll on your health because of what’s missing – the fiber of real vegetables, the prebiotic content of real whole grains, the anti-inflammatory benefits of foods like olive oil, and much more that the “real food” matrix has to offer.
It is possible to be thinner and not healthy. If tracking creates blind spots for you, you might do better with a meal plan that helps you hit all your bases.
#9 Maintain an experimental mindset
If you use tracking as a tool for weight loss, be prepared to put on your scientist hat, collect data, and make changes based on results.
Any calorie calculator or meal plan is only an estimate of what you need. It’s not a rule – it’s an experiment. Start with the spirit of, “What happens if I do __________?”
- What happens to my insatiable pre-dinner hunger if I eat a 200-calorie snack at 4 PM?
- What happens to my weight trend over 1-2 weeks if I switch from 1800 calories to 1700 calories?
- What happens to my workouts if I make my lunch slightly smaller and make my pre-workout breakfast bigger?
Be a scientist. Do things deliberately. Track the results. Collect data. Tweak.
#10 Check in with your values frequently
Finally, it’s so, so important that you measure your tracking “success” against metrics like…
- How does it fit into my whole lifestyle?
- Am I limiting myself or restricting myself in ways that don’t feel right to me?
- What kind of person do I want to be around food? Is tracking helping me do that?
I use tracking with a lot of my clients. But I don’t use it with all my clients, and I certainly don’t use it with any clients all the time. This is also why I discourage tracking at restaurant meals – does it improve anyone’s self-esteem or relationship with food if they have to pull out a food scale on a date?
If tracking helps you to bring your eating into alignment with your bigger goals and values, then it’s a good tool for you.
If tracking creates a disconnect from your higher self, then it’s not a good tool for you.
As dietitian Susan Kleiner says, “We eat food, not macros.” Ultimately, if tracking doesn’t improve your eating habits and your overall relationship with food, it’s not going to help you with long-term weight loss, even if it’s successful in the short-term.
If you don’t feel like tracking is for you, check out another blog post of mine, How to Lose Weight Without Counting Calories.
If you’re interested in talking with me more about your individual goals, you can set up a consultation here!