My FitnessPal is an app that allows you to track calories and macronutrients based on manual uploads or scanning product barcodes. It advises setting calorie goals for the day, with your “allowance” being adjusted based on exercise levels. It’s marketed as a way to improve fitness, and assist in weight loss. As a dietitian who works with eating disorders, I’m not a fan of calorie tracking apps like MyFitnessPal. Here’s why…
Calorie goals made without knowing you
MyFitnessPal suggests a calorie goal after collecting the most basic information about you. It is incredibly difficult to know what your basal metabolic rate is, and yet MyFitnessPal assumes this and creates calorie goals from very arbitrary information. Similarly, macronutrient goals (the amount of carbohydrates, fats and protein that you eat) are created without any real grounding behind them. Creating energy and nutrition goals without any real basis behind them can create targets completely inappropriate for you.
Can recommend a very low calorie intake
MyFitnessPal is often set up with weight loss in mind and so typically suggests a low calorie goal. In my next post on semi-starvation, you can read about how even a loss of a few calories can have several negative repercussions. It isn’t uncommon for MyFitnessPal to suggest a calorie goal of 1200 kcal –this is the daily calorie requirement of a toddler.
Although, on paper, there’s a logic to setting a lower calorie limit to lose weight, it doesn’t often work like this. Weight loss calculations are often based on the concept that a pound of fat (0.45 kg) is equivalent to 3500 kcal. Therefore, by eating 1200 kcal per day instead of 2000 (the recommended amount for an average woman), the theory is that you would lose around 1.5 pounds per week. In reality though, our bodies don’t work this way at all. Moreover, heavily restricted diets like this can actually make you more likely to regain weight (and more) later on.
MyFitnessPal doesn’t take fluctuations in hunger into account
Humans aren’t machines. Our energy needs and hunger levels will not be the same from one day to the next. Factors such as how well you’ve slept, where you are in the menstrual cycle, and activity levels can all impact your hunger levels. Because of this, you may need to eat more on one day than the next in order to be satisfied. External calorie trackers can’t account for this. Instead, you will have to ignore your hunger to stick to your goal amount. Or, if you honour your hunger, the app will flag this as overeating.
Inaccurate calorie and macro figures
Calorie counting using food diary is not an exact science. Inputting all the ingredients for a recipe you’ve made yourself leaves lots of room for inaccuracies. For example, portion sizes might be incorrect and different versions of foods or brands can have different nutrition values. Cooking methods can also influence calories and macronutrients. Not to mention, inputting all this information takes up lots of time!
When you eat foods that you haven’t made, apps like MyFitnessPal become even more inaccurate as it relies upon guesswork. This means you’re basing your progress for the day on a large amount of unknown factors. Trying to improve the accuracy of these apps by controlling your food environment can also damage your relationship with food, and your social life. Being “that friend” who has to scour menus and attempt to measure out restaurant food can be miserable. This can escalate to avoiding social occasions for fear of losing control around food. Avoidance of social eating is a key indicator of disordered eating. This reason alone is enough for me to dislike MyFitnessPal and similar apps!
The way that tracking apps can create excessive focus around food is really problematic and can be a huge driver towards negative relationships with food.
Encourages “burning off” food with exercise
When you add your exercise into the app, it takes this off your calorie count for the day. This is sometimes referred to as “eating back” your calories. For example, if you ate 1800 kcal, with a 2000 kcal goal and reporting burning 200 kcal through working out, MyFitnessPal would say that you have 400 kcal remaining for the day. Like estimating calories in food, exercise calories are highly inaccurate. Moreover “calories in = calories out” is an oversimplification of our bodies processes of consuming and expending energy. This means that trying to out-exercise food intake doesn’t work in practice.
The way that MyFitnessPal encourages exercise as a means to burn off excess calories is highly problematic. It can encourage an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Instead of exercise being something to enjoy or to support the body beyond weight loss, it becomes a tool to manipulate energy balance. Framing exercise in such a light can make it seem like a chore or punishment. It also risks demonising rest days. Rest and recovery is essential and can, in fact, improve athletic performance. However, by only looking at exercise through this lens, rest days become a day for restricting calories to meet the day’s goal.
Freedom from MyFitnessPal
Ultimately, there are much better ways to get to understand your body and how foods can affect you. There can be times where tracking or recording food may be useful, such as identifying if a food triggers a flare up of a symptom.
For “normal” eating, or recovery from eating disorders, MyFitnessPal is, at best, unnecessary, and, at worst, harmful. If you can, delete those meal tracking apps and learn to trust your own relationship with food.