Food tracking is the act of recording your meals throughout the day. It can include noting what you ate, how much you ate, at what times you ate, and other relevant details about your consumption throughout the day. Food logs have been shown to have a large effect on successful weight loss. In fact, one study showed that more frequent food logging contributed directly to greater weight loss.1
Keeping a record of food choices provides accountability in a number of ways:
- It helps you identify poor eating patterns. (Step one of changing habits!)
- It provides an additional level of responsibility for the choices you are making.
- It gives a tangible record of nutritional intake–providing greater insight and the ability to adjust meals accordingly throughout the day.
In the past, food logging amounted to carrying a small notebook around and manually writing down what you ate. When I first began tracking my food, I did just this. I carried a little 89 cent notebook wherever I went, wrote down what I was eating and roughly how much in each sitting, and then looked up the nutrition facts on Google when I got home in the evenings. You could say it was a bit of a hassle.
Fortunately, now there are many free apps available that allow you to track eating right from your smartphone. MyFitnessPal is the most popular (and my favorite). With any of these apps, once you make the decision to begin tracking your eating there will be a learning curve to using the software and establishing good food tracking habits. In this article, I’m sharing with you some best practices for using the MyFitnessPal app. Many of these tips will apply to all food tracking software.
Best Practices For Accurate Food Logs
Searching For Foods Within The App
Many foods in MyFitnessPal are user-entered, which means the accuracy of these items can vary. Here are some helpful suggestions for picking choices that are as accurate as possible:
Whenever possible use the barcode scanner.
This, point-and-capture, feature allows you to use your phone’s camera to scan the barcode of a food item. This feature will make your life easier because the correct option will automatically appear from the database and is likely to be the most accurate.
If there is no barcode, search using brand names.
When searching the online database, it is important to be as specific as possible. For example, if you eat at Olive Garden, then search “Olive Garden Chicken Alfredo”. Many chain restaurants have all or most of their menu items in the database. Another, healthier example would be bananas. I recommend searching “Dole banana” instead of just “banana” for a more accurate search result. Many database items now come with a green checkmark. This indicates the nutrition information of that item has been verified by the MyFitnessPal team as accurate.
If neither a barcode scan nor brand name search apply, then a more general search may be necessary.
For example, if I order Jamaican jerk chicken from some small, local restaurant in Ann Arbor, then it’s not likely to be in MyFitnessPal’s database. Instead, I’d have to complete a general search for “Jamaican Jerk chicken.”
With general searches you will find that you get an overwhelming amount of answers with all kinds of different information (some accurate, some not). If you are faced with this situation, then I recommend choosing the option with the most detailed nutritional information for that food. If you click on the food it will show you the nutrition information (fat, carbs, protein, sodium, etc.). You will find some have this filled in completely while others have much of this information left blank. Choose the option with the most detailed (or complete) nutrition information. More than likely it’s a user-entered item, but they probably take it more seriously than if many of the fields are left blank.
Use The Recipe Feature For Homemade Meals
If you’re making something homemade, I strongly encourage you to use the recipe feature within the MyFitnessPal app. This feature allows you to enter the total amount of all ingredients used (logging each ingredient individually), and will then ask you to enter the total number of servings for the entire recipe. MyFitnessPal will do the math to automatically give you the nutrition information for each serving of the recipe you created.
If it’s not a “recipe” per se, but rather a conglomerate of different foods, then I’d always suggest logging these foods separately. For example, if I make spaghetti with meat and vegetables, I would enter:
- Spaghetti noodles(barcode scan)
- Chicken breast (brand search or barcode scan)
- Tomatoes (brand or general search)
- Broccoli (brand or general search)
- Onions (brand or general search)
- Bell peppers (brand or general search)
- Tomato sauce (barcode scan or brand search)
This seems like a hassle (because it is), but with the MyFitnessPal “meal” feature you only have to do it once. You will be able to save all of these items as a “meal” for later use.
Log Meals Throughout The Day
Logging foods as you eat them will help keep your food log as accurate and informative as possible. We think about a lot of things throughout the day, and if we wait until the end of the day we forget about things we have eaten or how much we have eaten. This helps to ensure you will always be accurate, and will help establish a new habit of food logging. Once you have a little bit of practice, and a history of previous logs, this will only take about 30 seconds to 1 minute to complete.
Be Mindful of Portion Sizes
Most people underestimate the amount of calories they’re eating. I recommend using measuring cups, or even food scales if you need too. Portions are important, and this all comes back to the accuracy of your food logs. Additionally, measuring your food will, over time, provide you with a new skill: identifying accurate serving sizes. The typical portion sizes of most foods has become incredibly inflated over the past few decades, sometimes by as much as 500%!2 Knowing or at least having a good idea of what a serving of meat looks like goes a long way, especially when you’re eating out.
Utilize The Metrics-Tracking Features
MyFitnessPal has a variety of metric-tracking tools that allow you to evaluate how well you hit your nutrition goals throughout the day. The pie chart, in particular, is a very useful tool that can help you:
1. Keep track of your macronutrient percentages.
The specific macronutrient percentages you’re aiming for will be set by your coach or some other nutrition guide. Each time you log a food, these numbers are automatically updated and reflected in a pie chart showing the caloric distribution between protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
If you get into the habit of checking the pie chart after each meal, then you can plan and adjust your eating choices to correct for early missteps. For example, if I get through breakfast and lunch and realize I only have 15% protein, but 40% fat (and my goals are 30% for both), then I know I need to increase my protein and decrease my fat intake for the rest of the day.
2. Identify bad eating habits.
The metric-tracking features can also help you identify bad eating habits. If you notice the majority of your day’s calories happen late at night, then you can establish that you have trouble with cravings in the evening. Knowing this is an important first step to figuring out why, and then being able to change these eating patterns to better support your goals.
Be Honest With Yourself
Whether your food log is filled with healthy foods or fast foods, I encourage you to log everything, and to be as honest as possible. The goal of the logs is to identify bad eating habits so that you can begin to change them. In order to do this, you and your coach need to know exactly what you are eating and when you are eating it.
Another benefit of food logs is that they force you to take greater responsibility for your food choices. You will likely find that you begin to rethink some of your choices when they’re staring back at you and you no longer have the luxury of forgetting what you ate. However, this requires honesty about what you’re actually doing.
A Great Way To Support Weight Loss
One thing is clear: food logs work. By following these best practices you can improve the accuracy of your logs and increase the likelihood that you will see success in your weight loss journey.
To help overcome the learning curve of using the MyFitnessPal app, I’ve created a free online tutorial course to teach you everything you need to know to master the software and start seeing results fast.
Click below to enroll in this free course now and start seeing the pounds melt away!