Getting Started with MyFitnessPal: Expert Tips for Calorie Tracking

Updated

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No matter what diet program you’re following, you’re probably asked to count calories. Weight Watchers uses points instead of calories, Jenny Craig uses portion control in the form of pre-packaged (nice way to help people get healthy…here’s a bunch of processed garbage to eat), Zone uses blocks, they’re all the same. Trying to have you follow their customized system, which really comes down to counting calories.

And all of these programs work! Up to a point. they are all based on the idea of calories in versus calories out. Eat fewer calories than you burn and you’ll lose weight. One of my favorite coaches, ChristianThibadeau says, “There are many factors involved in a weight loss program, but a calorie deficit is always one of them.” Knowing how many calories you need to eat (or how many you are told to eat, which is often far too few) to lose weight or gain muscle, and meticulously sticking to those numbers, works.

Enter MyFitnessPal (MFP). There are a ton of calorie counting apps available, but this one was the first to reach mainstream popularity. Because of that popularity is has been able to grow, and has the most complete food database I’ve seen. It’s also incredibly easy to use, and the free version has everything you need to track calories to your heart’s content.

In my professional life as a Holistic Nutritionist, I often have people use MFP. Rarely, however, do I actually have clients count and track calories! To learn why, read my article Don’t Count Calories, Do This Instead (coming soon).

Why then would I have clients download, sign up, and enter foods into MFP? I have my reasons. They are as follows:

  • I have them track their eating for 3-5 days before we have our first meeting. This allows me (and my client) to see their eating habits.
  • I want to know exactly how much they eat right now, on average. Not some random calculation that doesn’t know my client, but their actual calorie intake.
  • I want to see what their macros look like (“macros” is short for macronutrients, which are protein, carbs, and fats).
  • I want to see how much fiber they eat (this is the most important metric I look at!).
  • I want to see what foods they eat.
  • I want to see if they have days that vary from their normative eating habits.

And I can see all of this easily! It’s also easy for my clients to complete. Imagine trying to track all of this by hand. I did that for years as a bodybuilder and powerlifter, and it sucked. While MFP may be a hassle for those who have never done this before, it’s so much easier than any alternative. And I get real data that we can use to create new habits and reach goals.

So, for those of you out there that want to give calorie tracking a go, or are just curious about trying out the app, here’s how to set up MFP for success. These are the exact settings and steps I have my clients complete!

Table of Contents

How to Set Up and Customize the MyFitnessPal App

Let’s get started. Download the app (you can go online and work from a desktop, but all of the instructions I’m going to give here fit the mobile version) and sign up. The free version is plenty! Complete the setup questions to the best of your ability, but don’t worry too much about all of this. We’re going to erase and customize everything here in a bit anyway.

Step 1 – Get Into Your Settings

Now that you’re in, navigate to the MORE screen by selecting that section on the bottom right of your screen.

Choose MORE at the bottom of your screen to access your settings

This is where you find all of your settings.

Step 2 – Let’s Set Your Goals

Select “Goals” from the MORE section to see your starting weight, current weight, goals weight, weekly goal, and activity level.

Choose Goals and you'll be able to set your own goals

MFP uses equations to calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This is the amount of calories that you burn at rest. If you slept for 24 straight hours, this is how much you would burn.

It will then add a number of calories to that based on how active you are. You selected either Lightly Active, Active, or Very Active. The app is now trying to account for how many calories you burn “not resting” (working, playing with your kids, exercising, etc.). It then pairs that with your chosen goal. If you’re trying to lose weight, it will give you a number of calories to eat each day that is less than it thinks you burn. If you choose a big weight loss goal or a quick time frame, that number is going to be lower than if you choose a smaller weight loss goal or a longer time frame in which to achieve success.

Just watch what happens if I play with that little Activity button. First, you get a warning:

you will get a warning that changing your activity level will change your goal calories

We’ll go ahead and select Yes, and change from Active to Lightly Active. And let’s see what happens. For reference, I eat 3,000 calories a day, sometimes more. You’ll notice that I have a weekly goal to lose 0.5 lbs per week. I’ve just never changed that from the initial setup when I was getting ready for a competition.

By changing to Lightly Active my daily calories dropped by almost 1,000!

Let’s put it back because that’s way too low!

That bumped me up, but only to 2,370. That’s a long way off from the 3,000 that I know I need. In fairness to the algorithm, it is picking up on the “lose weight” weekly goal. But this is why I like to do settings on my own.

Step 3 – Calorie, Carbs, Protein and Fat Goals

To make adjustments to your Goal, click on the Calorie, Carbs, Protein and Fat Goals tab under Nutrition Goals. Now you can make your own personalized adjustments!

Now you can customize your goals using the Calorie, Carbs, Protein and Fat Goals section

Step 4 – Customize Your Calorie Tracking Goal

If this is all new to you, I want you to set your daily calories at 3,000. Yep, that’s right, 3,000! We will spend the next couple of days finding out exactly how much you actually need to eat. So, for right now, you want a number that you aren’t actually trying to hit.

If you know how many calories you need to eat for your goal, set your calorie number to that.

If you want you can use the Mifflin-St Jeor method to calculate your BMR on your own (I’ll put that equation at the bottom of this post). Then I want you to add 1,000 calories to that number.

Set your calorirs high!

Step 5 – Macros

While we are here, let’s set up your percentage of calories from carbs, fat, and protein as well.

Above, you can see my personal setup. You can set these to whatever you want. I don’t actually pay that much attention to them myself. I like to see how many carbs, fat, and protein I ate, but I am very intuitive about how I eat and I have my own habits.

When I counsel clients I am counseling for their health. Therefore I always have them set their ranges as follows:

  • Carbs – 50 to 70 percent. We don’t low carb here. Our bodies run on carbs. Scientific studies on low carb vs high carb diets have consistently shown that “[b]ody fat loss slowed (3)” with low carb dieting and that muscle mass, strength, and performance also decrease! Our healthiest foods, with the exception of beans and legumes, are carbs! I do not counsel people to eat in a way that is not in the best interest of their health.
  • Fat – 20 to 30 percent. Lower than 20 percent of calories from fat is hard to do. Especially since we need healthy fats in our diet.
  • Protein – 20 to 25 percent. Never higher. If you are working out really hard and trying to gain muscle, go for 25 percent. If you are just looking to be healthy and fit, 20.

Step 6 – Other Nutrition Settings

Ok, these are my favorite to set up! I have ranges for macros that I am kind of shooting for. Rarely do I hit my macros. I am typically over on both carbs and fats, and under on protein. But I am in the range.

Here are the ones that I actually care about: fiber, calcium, and iron.

So, let’s adjust those to what you should really be aiming for!

Adjust your fiber goal to 75, your cholesterol to 0, and bump your iron to 150%

Cholesterol

You should not be eating any cholesterol. In fact, the 2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that “trans fat and dietary cholesterol consumption to be as low as possible without compromising the nutritional adequacy of the diet” (1).

Cholesterol is incredibly important! And your body makes all that you need.

Fiber

Get that fiber number up to 75 grams! The current recommendation is actually 35 grams each day. So why would I recommend 75?

We continue to learn more and more about fiber and how incredibly important it is for our bodies. It helps lower cholesterol and insulin levels. It also feeds our good gut bacteria, helping with digestion (among so many other things, but I’ll cover that in another article).

But one of the biggest benefits we get from a high fiber intake is lowered risk of stroke. According to Dr. Michael Greger M.D. FACLM, “If you really don’t want a stroke, we should try to get 25 grams a day of soluble fiber (found concentrated in beans, oats, nuts, and berries) and 47 grams a day of insoluble fiber (concentrated in whole grains). One would have to eat an extraordinarily healthy diet to get that much, yet these cut-off values could be considered as the minimum recommended daily intake of soluble and insoluble fiber to prevent stroke. (2)”

And for my Paleo friends out there…studies looking at the availability of food during the Paleolithic Era and from analysis of Paleolithic human fecal matter, the average daily fiber intake was 104 grams!

Fiber is the number I look at the most, and it’s the one I want you focused on. Don’t count calories! Count fiber instead! If you get 75 grams of fiber each day, the chances that you’ll overeat (consume too many calories) is pretty low.

One caution, however. Start by tracking what you normally eat. Don’t try and hit a certain number of calories. Don’t change up your eating habits. After 3 to 4 days, look and see what your fiber intake is.

Set a goal to eat 10 grams more fiber than what you eat on average for the next month. Make that a habit and let your body (and good gut bacteria) adjust to the higher fiber intake. After one month, up it again by 5 to 10 grams. Eventually, you’ll be eating 75 grams each day, no problem!

Set a goal to eat 10 grams more fiber than what you eat on average for the next month. Make that a habit and let your body (and good gut bacteria) adjust to the higher fiber intake. After one month, up it again by 5 to 10 grams. Eventually you’ll be eating 75 grams each day, no problem!

Calcium

Pay attention to your calcium intake. You want to hit your 100% mark. And not with supplements! With whole plant foods.

What plant foods are high in calcium?

  • soy foods, like tofu, tempeh, nato, and soy milk
  • beans, peas, and lentils
  • almonds, chia seeds, and flaxmeal
  • seaweed
  • dark green leafy vegetables like bok choy, collard greens, okra, kale, and cabbage
  • cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts
  • some fruits like figs, raspberries, and blackberries

Iron

I bump the iron recommendation from 100 percent to 150 percent (but only for vegans!). Vegan sources of iron are nonheme iron, and its absorption can be hindered by certain other foods (like grains that have some anti-nutrients).

Also, your body only uses the nonheme iron it needs. Any excess is released by your body. This is actually unbelievably healthy!

Heme iron, found in animal foods, is more readily absorbed, but your body does not release what it doesn’t need. Meaning that you can end up with too much iron, which is incredibly unhealthy. In fact, one of the reasons women live longer than men is that they lose excess iron through menstruation.

If you are not plant-based, leave the iron recommendation at 100. If you are vegan, bump it and shoot for closer to 150 percent to account for iron you ate that may not have been absorbed.

Pro Tip: eat iron-rich foods with foods that are rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C helps iron absorption. And, try and avoid coffee and tea one hour before and one hour after eating.

Want more information on what nutrients you need to pay special attention to as a vegan? Read Essential Vegan Nutrients.

Step 7 – Custom Meal Names

There is one more setting that I really like. Creating my own custom meal names. I don’t always eat all 6 of the meals MFP has space for, but hey, it’s good to have goals, right? Here’s how I set my names up:

These names more accurately represent when and how I eat and help my diary flow better.

Now It’s Time to Start Tracking What You Eat in Your Diary

You’ll notice I said “tracking what you eat” instead of “counting calories.” It’s a small distinction, but an important one. Focus more on the quality of the foods you are eating (the foods themselves) instead of the quantity (number of calories). That is how you will build long-term healthy habits.

Every time you eat, you track it in your food log. Go to your Diary and simply ADD FOOD to the appropriate section.

Add food items to the appropriate section

In the beginning, you won’t have any food items saved by MFP, so you’ll have to do a bit of adding. If you are eating any food item that is packaged and has a bar code, simply SCAN it!

scan a new food item with a barcode

That will take you to a screen and you can adjust the number of servings to match how much you are eating of that food. Simple! And, MFP will save that food item for easier access later.

now you can change the number of servings to match how much you're eating

If the food doesn’t have a bar code, like a piece of fruit or leftovers, or if the item cannot be found in the directory (this happens mostly with the little stickers individual stores put on pieces of fresh fruit), then you will need to search for a food (found at the top of the screen). Again, MFP will save the food you choose for later.

you can also search for a new food item

Here are some tips when using Search for a food

  • use the food name and brand if you know it
  • if you don’t know the brand, enter the food name and then write the word grams after it.
    • food items in the search will come up with a lot of different measurements, and I find that grams is the most accurate way track your food.
    • words that show up like cups, medium, large, etc. have way too much variability, and can add up to literally hundreds of extra caloreis eaten each day wide eye emoji

Going out to eat and have no idea how many calories are in the meal you’re about to consume? use the Quick Add function to add a “number of calories meal”. This won’t allow you to add carbs, fats, and protein, but you can account for calories. Many restaurants will have the number of calories for their meals on their menu or online. If not, look up how many calories on average that type of meal in a restaurant usually has and use that number.

Tips for Speeding Up Food Entry

Most people tend to eat the same foods, or entire meals, multiple times throughout the week. We know what we like, know how to prepare it, and it’s easy.

I almost always eat the same pre-workout meal right when I wake up (dates, walnuts, and a banana), followed by the same breakfast (blueberry oatmeal), and one of the same 3 or 4 dinners.

To speed up your food log entries you can create Meals, Recipes, and Foods. Each of these will take 5 to 10 minutes to set up, but you will get that investment in time back quickly.

MFP Custom Recipes

You can manually enter recipes or you can import them. The best part about these is having quick access to your recipes when you need them. Not just to add them to my diary, but to go in and see what all the ingredients were and how much of each. I use this part of MFP all the time when I’m cooking!

MFP Cutsom Meals

Meals are super nice. Instead of having to manually enter the 7 ingredients that typically go into my oatmeal, I can just click on my oatmeal Meal choice and add it in one step!

MFP Cutsom Foods

I don’t use the Foods section often, but it has a solid purpose. I love to shop bulk sections! But, when you get home with a bag of dried black beans or wild rice how will you know what to put in your diary? You can look it up (dried black beans grams), or, if you are super into this, enter the exact nutrition values from the store into MFP.

Take a picture of the Nutrition Label in the store after you fill your bulk bag, and then add the food to your MFP Foods section when Then, when you need it, it’s there.

Create Foods so that you have their nutritional values for later on

You’re All Set Up, So What Now?

Should you be counting calories? Probably not. I rarely, if ever, recommend counting calories to my clients. I don’t find it to be a healthy, long-term practice.

No one wants to meticulously count calories day in and day out for the rest of their lives.

Calorie counting also has the potential to contribute to an eating disorder.

And, calorie counting only looks at food quantity (how much you eat), not food quality. You can eat 1,800 calories’ worth of cookies every day and probably lose weight. That doesn’t mean you’ve taken steps to improve your health.

So, why use MFP at all? I like it in the beginning, mostly as a food diary, to truly see how many calories you are eating, what your macronutrient ratios are, how much fiber you are getting, and to begin to see what portion sizes look like. Most people are shocked to see what 100 calories of different foods look like!

If you are just getting started on your health journey, or if you have a long way to go to reach your goal, please don’t count calories. Use MyFitnessPal to get some information, and make adjustments to eat healthier.

Increase your fiber intake. Eat more whole plant foods. Add physical activity and move every day. Those are sustainable practices that will make a huge difference.

If you are close to your goal or have a short timeline (getting ready for a wedding, reunion, competition), then by all means, track your calories.

Need Some Help?

Need some additional help or looking for more structure to your eating? I love to help! Check out my customized, plant-based meal guides and recipe books. Each plan or recipe book is loaded with plant-based, vegan recipes that will help you reach your goal, along with personalized notes to help you create new habits and make healthy eating a lifestyle, not a chore.

Conclusion: Getting Started With My Fitness Pal

Always use information you get from tracking foods or calories with the idea of learning how to eat. Listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry. Fill up on whole plant foods. That’s how you eat for health. That’s how you’ll reach your goals. That’s sustainable.

Resources

Here is the Mifflin-St Jeor Basal Metabolic Rate calculation I mentioned. Use the formula to find your BMR, and then add 1,000 calories to that. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a great starting point.

  • Men: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
  • Women: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161

*Author's Note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It's always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet, or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

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AUTHOR
Matt Walter, CHN, M.A.T
I studied Food Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the WSU football team. I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and former personal trainer and competitive CrossFit athlete. My mission is to make embracing and adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle simple and fun!