Tracking It with MyFitnessPal

MFP LogoI recently blogged about how I’ve made the switch to a vegan diet, or what I prefer to call Plantpowered, to borrow Rich Roll’s term.  It’s been really good so far, and far easier than I imagined.  The results definitely speak for themselves in terms of my weight, energy and just general feeling of health.  If you have the time, definitely read my post on why I did it, how I did it, and how it’s going.

One thing I didn’t mention in that post is the need to be mindful of what you’re eating to ensure you’re getting enough.  A vegan friend suggested I start tracking what I eat to see if I’m taking in enough calories and to make sure my sense of what foods I need match my actual need in terms of nutrients.  While I thought I knew how to build a well-rounded and sufficient diet, the shift from ‘omnivory’ was big enough to want to be sure I was ok. Turns out, I learned a lot and have made some changes.

This notion also fits with my 1st principle – Track It. I’m a big fan of tracking what you do because knowing where we’re starting from and the route we’re taking helps us get to where we’re going.

On my friend’s advice, I created an account with MyFitnessPal (connect with me on MFP).  If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s the de facto online food diary solution. They’ve built a huge network of users and database of foods.  The former doesn’t matter a ton to me, but the latter does.  You have to enter what you eat, so the extent that they already have that food in their dataset, you spend less time logging your meals.  If you eat a lot of pre-packaged items (not just processed, but packaged whole food items like nuts, seeds, packaged produce (often times cauliflower is sold this way), etc), then you can merely scan the barcode with your phone’s camera, and the app enters the nutritional details and serving size (which you can adjust based on what you actually ate).  If you do a lot of your own cooking, this can be more laborious as you have to build recipes by putting in the ingredients and amounts to build the nutrition profile of the food.  If you have a nutrition label on something that isn’t in their database, you can enter the nutritional facts directly.  Once you do any of this, the items go into your searchable history and recent foods, so you can quickly and easily log them again.  You can also copy a particular meal from a particular date, which is a great feature.

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On top of food details, you can enter exercise you do, which MFP takes into account when measuring your total calories taken in for the day versus what it thinks you need based on your size and activity. I have it linked to my Garmin Connect account, and this connection goes both ways. By that I mean if you enter an exercise into MFP, it will tell Garmin what I did. That was a pleasant surprise for me. I expected that my runs with my Garmin watch or cycling with my Garmin bike computer would make their way into MFP, but I didn’t expect MFP to tell Garmin that I did an elliptical workout (it always bugged me that my Garmin account didn’t reflect my full workout activity). So that’s pretty cool. And the list of apps and fitness services MFP connects to is massive. Jawbone Up, Fitbit, Garmin, Strava, MapMyRun/Ride/Walk/Fitness, RunKeeper, Endomondo, Misfit, WiThings, etc, etc, etc. The list is literally five pages long. And they were just bought by Under Armor (along with Endomondo, adding to their existing portfolio which includes the MapMyFitness brands), so we can expect the list to grow since it’s a great way for UA to expand the user base and value of MFP by exposing users of other apps to this tool and getting them hooked.

First of all, I found that I’m getting fewer calories than I should. Plants naturally contain fewer calories than meat (generally speaking). There are also some things that are harder to get from plants that are worth being aware of to ensure you get in high enough amounts, like vitamin B12. Also, as someone who tries to take in a lot of protein, I did have to add more to my diet, but I think this isn’t really veganism’s fault since I wasn’t necessarily eating enough before – I just assumed I was.  I realized I’ve been eating about 75% of the protein I want to get even before going vegan, and the tracking I’m doing as a vegan brought that to the surface.

So, protein aside, it was really eye opening that I need to eat more as a vegan. I was actually concerned as I added fruit, smoothies, potatoes and other foods I was trained to fear when following the Slow Carb Diet that I was suddenly going to be taking in far too many calories and way too much sugar. Turns out, before I started tracking it, I was running a 300-600 calorie deficit most days. That’s not intentional. But it’s pretty liberating to know I can and should eat more. No need to be hungry to be a healthy weight.

When you enter a food, MFP will pop up a little message telling you that it’s high in something or if you’re approaching a daily goal or recommended limit (e.g., “this is food is high in fiber,” or, “your daily fat goal is X, and you’re at Y”). That can be useful, but I don’t always agree with the goals or limits, and often care about something else more.

While there are definitely benefits to using this tool, there are a few things I don’t care for. As I was just getting at, it mainly revolves around the way MFP views fat. It does warn me about my fat intake. I wish it didn’t. I don’t eat much saturated fat, if any, and I don’t have an issue eating fat. I’d rather it more closely looked at my vitamin intake, which is fairly limited in the app to vitamins A and C. What about B vitamins? Potassium? Calcium? Iron? Zinc? The essential amino acids? The list goes on. Let’s not overly worry ourselves with fat when there are other things of import – especially to a new vegan looking to be sure he’s getting all he needs. The system does track some of it, but it’s buried in the UI a bit. And because it knows what you’re eating, it should know how you’re doing at this more-detailed level. So far, I can’t see how to get the real depth in MFP’s reports that I want.

More importantly in my eyes, the rules of ‘enough’ and ‘too much’ are based on FDA standards. I get that, but why not allow people to alter the benchmark?  What if you’re anemic? Or diabetic? Hypoglycemic? Something else? Why not let me up my iron goal if I’m anemic?

Also, I don’t like about it is the work it takes, which is never as bad as I think before I go to use it. But I also don’t know that tracking everything I eat is something I want to do for any long period of time. It has many benefits around being more conscious of what you’re eating. You definitely are less likely to eat something bad if you have to write it down and have it recorded with the impact showing forever. But it can also leads to obsessive behavior, which is a concern of mine.

So, overall, I’m liking using this tool. I don’t think this will be something I do for eternity, but at least for a few months (perhaps through running my first marathon in October). I do wish it could be set to report and alert you on things other than fat, carbs, sugar and calories.

All that said, it’s been really beneficial from the standpoint of understanding what I’m using to fuel myself. Knowing your body at a deeper level like that is a great way to enlighten.your.body.

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.

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