Diet trackers: friend or foe?
After being asked to fill in a 24 hour food diary for a nutrition conference and discovering I was consuming a lot more (albeit healthy) fat than I thought, I decided to download the diet and exercise tracker My Fitness Pal to monitor my eating and training for a few days. While I found the process to be enlightening in some ways, I came across several pitfalls of My Fitness Pal in particular but also diet and fitness tracking in general. Trackers can help you identify areas in which you can improve your diet and lifestyle but as you’ll see in this article, they can be highly misleading and may not be good for mental health.
Day 1 – A shock to the system
I think I eat a pretty healthy diet most of the time while also having a healthy attitude to food, i.e. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full; my diet is mainly plant based with small amounts of meat, fish and dairy products; I never weigh out food or calorie count and I tend to rely mostly on whole foods, made from scratch but I don’t sweat it if I eat the odd biscuit, meal out or piece of chocolate.
So my first My Fitness Pal output was an eyebrow raiser. A day that consisted of homemade overnight oats for breakfast, tuna salad with small piece of buttered toast at lunch, Italian chicken one pot meal with baked potato for dinner and a few crackers with hummus as a snack put me over 300 calories past my daily energy target with 50% of my calories coming from fat (which came in at 100g for the day).
To cap it all, My Fitness Pal gaily announced that if I ate in this manner every day, I’d gain 1.5kg. Thanks for the vote of confidence My Fitness not-so-pally Pal! You might want to rethink you’re communications policy. I must admit, this lead me to have a momentary lapse in confidence and faith in myself as a nutritionist! Am I really eating too much?
So what’s going on?
Let’s take a closer look at how My Fitness Pal calculates these targets first. It calculated that to maintain my weight, using only my BMI and activity levels in my mainly desk-based job as data, I’d need to eat just 1500kcal a day. Now this isn’t the most accurate way to assess energy needs which not only vary with body size but also muscle mass, age, gender and genetics. I am pretty active and do plenty of resistance training as well as a lot of swimming, so I’d imagine I have higher than ‘average’ levels of muscle. But for the purposes of this exercise, I went with their estimate and tried my best to ignore the hysterical messages about weight gain (knowing that I’ve been eating like this for years and haven’t gained any weight).
The second area of inaccuracy is in logging your activity. There were lots of different types of cardiovascular exercise that you could input and it would calculate the calories burnt. But I spent significant amounts of time entering in my back and triceps workout (which was no mean feat, given that most of the exercises I do weren’t in there) and found that My Fitness Pal ascribed no energy expenditure for resistance exercises. Now clearly this is just because it’s too complicated for them to figure out but it’s misleading because resistance training not only burns calories while you are doing it but also it elevates the metabolism for hours after training, more so if the workout is high intensity.
My Fitness Pal automatically assumes that you want your macronutrient proportions to (roughly) reflect the national dietary guidelines (50% calories from carbs, 30% from fats and 20% from protein) though you can change these. Personally, I tend to eat a little more protein to help my recovery from training, a little more fat to be reflective of a Mediterranean style of eating and slightly lower carbs, while still allowing enough to recovery after exercise. It’s a balance that works for me but I don’t measure or track my intake. Again, I stuck with the macro balance My Fitness Pal set me just to see if I could meet the fat targets, or at least get a little closer to them, bearing in mind that the UK guidelines recommend 35% of calories come from fat and a traditional Mediterranean diet around 37%.
Finally, while My Fitness Pal has an excellent database of foods and nutrients, both generic foods and branded, there’s no knowing how accurate the figures are.
For the period of the experiment, I therefore took the energy in – energy out data with a pinch of salt because I haven’t gained weight and I only entered cardiovascular exercise into the tracker.
The next few days
The key drivers of my fat intake are avocado, olive oil, full fat natural yoghurt, nuts or nut butters and seeds. All healthy sources of course but portion size is key, particularly when it comes to energy dense fats. I decided, therefore, to be more sparing with my dressing on salads (which I don’t eat every day, anyhow) and to switch to a fat free, plain natural yoghurt for overnight oats. I’m certainly not going to stop eating foods rich in essential fats because that would be removing a considerable source of nutrients from my diet.
Subsequent days therefore had a lower fat intake but it still hovered at around 70g a day or about 40% energy from fat. This is not a figure I’m particularly worried about because of where I’m getting the fats from but I still got the weight gain message on several days which started to become tiresome, as well as slightly anxiety-inducing, even for me.
I also found the supposedly encouraging message that I’d “earned xxx extra calories from exercise”, every time I logged my cardio. I don’t think this is the right message to send. Burning 450 calories from swimming doesn’t mean I can treat myself to a chocolate muffin on the way home from the gym! We shouldn’t view energy expenditure from exercise as a penance for eating food, nor reward exercise that’s seen as a chore with the food we crave. The two should not be linked: both activity and food should be independently enjoyable and not framed as a boom-bust economic model.
Did I ever meet those macro targets?
I did almost hit the fat targets but in a rather unorthodox way, which saw any remaining faith I had in diet trackers go out the window. The weekend is a time where I often eat out in the day. I don’t always go for the healthy option because, ahem, cheese and bacon. So on Sunday, I had my normal healthy breakfast and a normal healthy dinner but I had a brie and bacon panini in a coffee shop for lunch. My Fitness Pal nearly shut down in shock, telling me in its customary alarmist fashion that the panini had 24g fat. It was therefore a surprise to learn that this was the day where I actually came close to 50g total fat for the day and only 30% of energy came from fat. Obviously, there was a great deal of saturated fat, coming from the cheese and bacon and much less of the healthier fats. So on this seemingly perfect day, at least on the superficial pie chart output, I actually probably consumed the least nutritious food.
My thoughts on macro tracking and specifically My Fitness Pal
Firstly, tracking anything like diet, nutrients, calories or fitness automatically makes you hyper-aware of details you’d never normally focus on and with this comes the risk of becoming obsessive. If you have existing anxiety around food, weight or fitness, then tracking may not be for you. It may trigger obsessive behaviour that can be detrimental to mental and physical health.
My Fitness Pal does not help alleviate this anxiety by providing daily messages about potential weight gain or loss on the basis of each day’s diary. You don’t gain weight after a day of eating more calories than you need, so this is misleading and overly alarmist. The message about ‘earning’ more calories from exercise is equally unhelpful. Extra calories are not an award. This sort of language can create an unhealthy relationship with food. We don’t need to reward activity or anything else with food. Food is food. It is to be enjoyed because it is delicious and nutritious not because it is a reward for some form of penance. “Earning extra calories” sets food above exercise in the hierarchy of pleasure. Activity should be something that you enjoy or that is part of your daily living, rather than something to be seen as a chore.
Looking only at macronutrients and calories ignores the bigger picture and can be hugely misleading. My less healthy days actually were closer to the pre-defined targets because I either skipped a meal or because my diet was more restrictive, neither of which are strategies I’d employ if I wanted to be healthier. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of buying fat free or sugar free products or cutting out nutritious foods like avocado, olive oil or nuts just to hit a macro target. You end up on a restricted, micronutrient poor diet that is less enjoyable as well as potentially less healthy.
What did I learn? I may be less glug-happy with olive oil on salad and I’ll evaluate some of my portion sizes, particularly when it comes to cheese and yoghurt. But I’m not going to eliminate any foods because I enjoy a tasty and varied diet and I value my mental wellbeing as much as my physical health.
The moral of this exercise is that macronutrient tracking can be useful in the short term in highlighting where you can tweak your diet to make it healthier but it can also be very misleading and, if used long term by those who already have a disordered relationship with food or body image, it can potentially lead to dangerous levels of anxiety, food restriction and over-exercise.