Crunching the calories: What I learned from two weeks with MyFitnessPal

What I found out about food tracking, wearable tech and my own motivation
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Often considered to be the be-all-and-end-all of weight loss and nutrition-tracking, over the past few years many experts have called into question the accuracy and efficiency of calorie-tracking.

In our exploration of nutrition tracking and wearable tech last month, I delved right into the nitty-gritty of whether tracking every single calorie is useful or just a big con.

Unfortunately, while there are many factors to consider, putting in less calories than you burn will make you lose weight.

Essential reading: The best food tracking apps

That's the view of Nick Mitchell, founder of Ultimate Performance Fitness, who told me "anyone who tells you calories don't count fails to understand basic mathematics."

But he also added that, "For most people, however this can be an extremely painstaking form of dieting and takes a great deal of will power and exercise."

For many, calorie counting is a loaded term. Depending on who you speak to it can invoke worried emotions and all kinds of pressure. While many do it without the stress, for me it seemed dull, boring and something people only did if they had a serious amount of weight to shift.

But deep down I knew it was all based on a fear of not being able to do it. So, armed with a realisation that I was afraid of calorie tracking, a fascination with trying a new diet and a love for wearable tech and data driven by me, I decided to take part in a mini experiment.

The result...

Crunching the calories: What I learned from two weeks with MyFitnessPal

The experiment was simple: track every meal for two weeks and see whether calorie counting was a revolutionary way of losing weight or a pain in the backside.

I chose to use MyFitnessPal, considered one of the best calorie tracking apps on the market, to track my calories, as well as keep tabs on my intake. I then chose the Jawbone UP3 to monitor my activity levels and exercise — syncing them both up from the start so I'd get the most accurate picture of the calories I've eaten and the calories I've burned.

Despite having a built-in heart rate monitor, the UP3 is able to calculate your calorie burn, based on your step count, using a basal metabolic rate (BMR) method; derived from your age, weight, height and activity.

Instead, the UP3's heart rate tracking smarts are used to gather data about your Resting Heart Rate and Passive Heart Rate. Metrics gathered are useful in painting a picture of your overall health and general wellbeing, but it's worth pointing out they don't provide a more accurate picture of calorie burn.

MyFitnessPal has a huge following and wearing a fitness band isn't 100 percent necessary, but it does make everything about a million times more accurate, which means you're less likely to over eat or under eat in the long run — or at least that's the official line.

As well as syncing up both the (new and improved) UP app with MyFitnessPal, I filled out all of my details, selected a "light" activity level and set a goal of losing 2lbs per week.

My BMI is slap bang in the middle of average/healthy weight, so even though I didn't need to be quite so extreme I felt a shock to my system would make for a much more interesting experiment. This meant MyFitnessPal gave me 1200 calories to work with each day.

So here's my day-to-day food tracking diary, along with some of the most valuable lessons I learned along the way.

Day 1 to 4

Educating yourself is empowering (and a little bit shocking)

Crunching the calories: What I learned from two weeks with MyFitnessPal

I'm no stranger to having a wearable strapped to my arm or logging into an app every few minutes, so the experiment didn't feel particularly difficult at the start.

I was surprised at how easy MyFitnessPal was to use. Of course you have to type in each and every thing you eat, which is a particularly time-consuming and mind-numbingly boring task for stuff like salads. But MyFitnessPal does its best to make it as intuitive and easy as possible.

Most, scrap that practically all, food brands are already in the app itself and members of the community and MFP team have already filled out the calorie and nutrient information for you. So it's just a case of finding what you need and typing in the quantities. I'm a sucker for over-priced health food stuff (think spirulina bars and raw chocolate maca thingies) and even some of the more obscure "wellness" brands were in there, which was a nice surprise.

But, once you get into it there's an initial hump when you're consistently shocked by how many calories are in certain foods. As someone who's always been interested in nutrition but has never been concerned with calories this stage was hugely eye-opening.

It made me realise that the simple act of tracking what you're eating, and becoming more mindful about it in the process, could actually lead to healthier choices and weight loss — an insight that has been proved accurate by studies many times in the past.

Help yourself to make good habits

For many the challenge is in making the constant tracking of food habitual. All you need to do is forget to track one big meal and your calorie count for the whole day could be thrown way off.

So I decided from the start I'd need specific prompts to ensure I actually did it.

I consulted a post I wrote for Wareable back in June about the Science of Habits and decided to use Charless Duhigg's (the man behind The Power of Habit) simple habit-building loop. So I chose to use a "cue" to trigger my tracking habit — preparing food.

So I reversed it a little, counting calories during preparation in order to build the habit into my daily routine. And it worked. I never once forgot to track anything for the whole two weeks. I found that (at the start at least) I didn't even need a reward as such to cement the habit, something Duhigg felt was vital, but instead the satisfaction of knowing I kept it up was a reward enough.

I found that setting up this groundwork at the start to be totally invaluable. Between days one to four I must have logged stuff in the app at least 30 times — roughly the amount of times some experts believe it takes for a behaviour to become habitual.

Day 5 to 8

I discovered My Food and Meals and Recipes in MyFitnessPal, separate tabs that make the whole calorie counting thing way easier. This is where you can add in detailed recipes so you don't have to weigh stuff or measure stuff or (let's face it) wildly guess at stuff each and every time you have the same thing.

Heading into the second week of the experiment and everything was going smoothly. 1,200 calories per day is a challenge, but logging it all made it easier – even if it did mean the experiment was always on my mind.

Yet despite the fact it was all in the name of a feature, I was a little uneasy about shouting my experiment from the rooftops.

I can't help but feel that there's an unwritten rule that many people will occupy their minds with food and dieting, yet we can't talk about it openly. Obsess behind closed doors – and while staring on your stats on your phone – but don't admit you actually want to diet.

But, when I did start telling people, they'd do what people love to do — begin imparting their own wisdom.

And many said "Oh, so you can eat what you want as long as you note it down?" And here we have one of the biggest misconceptions about (successful) calorie tracking. Sure, you could eat a Dairy Milk or a big mac and very little else all day and stay under your calorie limit. In fact I remember a nutrition professor making headlines five years ago for calorie counting and eating solely Twinkies and Oreos and still managing to lose weight and lower his cholesterol.

But you'd feel like actual crap. You'd have very little energy and chances are many people would overeat to compensate. So of course in theory you can, but I'd recommend you don't. Not if you want to actually be successful.

Unfortunately there's no easy way to lose weight. Although counting calories can give you more flexibility in some ways, it's the tried-and-tested salads, lean meats and veggies that will provide you with the energy you need get through the day. As boring as it sounds.

Day 9-12

The only time using MyFitnessPal falls down a little is when you eat out. Luckily I used this food tracking as a great excuse to make a lot of simple, home-cooked meals. But I did eat out a few times and unless you're willing to be "that guy" and quiz the waiting staff about the nutritional value of that sauce it's a lot of random guesswork. This is hardly going to throw you off once or twice a week, but if you're a social butterfly or eat out a lot for work it could be the difference between actually losing weight and feeling healthier and staying put.

However, aside from some vague meal entries, there was very little to report about food tracking. I was logging everything, and while I admit to being frustrated by the fact desserts and "treats" wouldn't tally with my strict 1,200 calorie limit – I was getting on with it.

But on day ten it was the Jawbone rather than the food tracking that just started to bug me. Having to take it off when swimming or bathing because it's a bit water resistant but not fully waterproof as a chore. It also promised a better battery life and instead needed charging every 2/3 days, which sounds good in comparison to the Apple Watch, for instance, but just it knocked me out of my routine regularly.

So why is all of this complaining relevant to food tracking? Well, if you want to start wearing a wearable consistently and tracking every calorie consistently, routine is what you need. Anything, no matter how small, that makes routine-building even slightly difficult and irritating is a recipe for failure.

Day 12-14

Crunching the calories: What I learned from two weeks with MyFitnessPal

Towards the end of the experiment I felt cocky. I was tracking every calorie. By this point I'd lost 5lbs in just under two weeks, and I was feeling great.

Unfortunately, I then got some really bad news about a family member. Pretty sad, but fascinating when you stripped away the emotion and looked it its effect on my eating. That was the only day I ripped the band off and over ate. Really sad? Yes. But putting on my objective specs and getting my head back in the experiment what was it? Really fascinating.

Now again, this could be a subjective learning. But I'd like to bet that many people would be in the same boat. When I'm conscious of my thoughts, feelings and actions and can see a clear goal in sight, it's easy. I coast through. Throw a spanner in the works and it muddies the waters leading to emotional eating and doing away with good-for-me habits.

And although I'm upset a bit of a personal tragedy happened, I'm seeing the silver lining that it taught me a lot about willpower. In that it decreases depending on your mood and personal circumstances.

Crunching the calories: What I learned from two weeks with MyFitnessPal

After becoming so attached to MyFitnessPal and the Jawbone UP3 over the past few days, something interesting happened.

I realised I was becoming really well-informed.

Now admittedly I already had a good understanding of nutrition, but in less than a fortnight I had become massively educated on calories, the implications of eating certainly calorie-laden foods and its effect on my daily goal, my mood and my levels of hangry.

In other words, after a certain amount of time, tracking my calories became less important. Great news for me. Not so great news for the wearable tech industry. The excitement of checking how well I slept and the curiosity of seeing how much that workout burned all wore a little thin. Because I'd done it all already.

What I learned...

Crunching the calories: What I learned from two weeks with MyFitnessPal

The food tracking experiment was way easier than I expected. Once you strip the emotion and pressure away from your eating and rely solely on numbers, it does become a lot easier to stick to it.

But, it also becomes way less human and even those of us a little obsessed with quantifying ourselves and the latest tech are human. Sounds simple, but there's no escaping it.

So the mechanical filling in each day wore a little thin — and became near impossible when emotional, human stuff just took over.

And for anyone feeling pressured to lose weight, battling with emotional eating or dealing with any kind of disruptive life thing (which is like 80 percent of us at any given time) the ride probably wouldn't be so easy because this is about numbers and equations — not feelings and emotions.

I certainly lost weight, even after two weeks (I dropped 6lbs in total). I felt good because I knew I had to stretch those measly 1200 calories throughout the whole day and made them count with salads and lean meat. I learned a lot about myself, what motivates me and why I fall off the wagon. And I learned a lot about food.

Will I keep calorie counting? Probably not. I have no reason to lose a huge amount of weight, so maybe the motivation past writing up this feature just isn't there. But I also think that constant tracking should be seen as a push in the right direction rather than a habit you'll stick to for life.

How we test

Becca Caddy


Becca has been writing about technology for nearly ten years. In that time she’s covered topics from robotics and virtual reality to simulated universe theory and brain-computer interfaces for a wide range of titles, including TechRadar, New Scientist, Wired UK, OneZero by Medium, Stuff, T3, Metro and many more.

She’s passionate about helping people wade through tech jargon to find useful products they’ll actually use – with a focus on health and wellbeing.

Becca is also interested in how scientific developments and technological advances will impact us all in the near future. Many of her features ask big questions about what’s in store for wearable technology, especially the potential of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

She spends a lot of time interviewing researchers and academics to explore the ethical implications of a world increasingly filled with tech. She’s a big fan of science-fiction, has just traded in her boxing gloves for weight-lifting gloves and spends way too much time in virtual reality – current favourites include painting in TiltBrush and whizzing through space in No Man’s Sky.

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