A lot of people think ramping up exercise is the key to losing weight or building muscle. While exercise is an important part of the process, 80% of your results will come from nutrition. So at some point, you need to take a detailed look at what you’re eating. One of the best ways to do this is by keeping a food diary for a few weeks. It takes a little effort up front but the payoff is worth it.
MyFitnessPal is one of the most popular calorie-counting apps at the moment. It has the largest food database and it’s free to use. This post will give you the steps you need to get set up and tracking.
Step 1 - Create a Free Account
To get started, set up a free MyFitnessPal account. You can sign up with your email or a Facebook login. You’ll be asked to fill in basic information and your goal (e.g, weight loss). It’ll then recommend a daily caloric intake to help you work towards your goal.
I’ve found that the MyFitnessPal calorie recommendations aren’t very accurate. So, I suggest manually calculating your calories. To learn how to do this, check out this post.
Step 2 - Set Goals
Once your account is set up, you’ll want to set your goals. If you haven’t already looked at my post on calculating your calories for weight loss, you can check it out here. In MyFitnessPal, go to ‘My Home’ then ‘Goals’. You’ll want to edit your nutritional goals to:
- Set the number of calories to eat for weight loss or weight gain.
- Set the percentages of carbs, fat, and protein that you’ll eat to make up your total calories.
But how do you know what percentages of carbs, fat, and protein you should be eating? Let’s take a look.
Step 3 - Set Macronutrients Ratios
We all have a specific ratio of carbs, protein, and fat that we feel and perform best on. This will vary from person to person. So use the below guidelines as a starting point, but don’t get caught up in the numbers. Keep it simple and test out changes to see which ratios work best for you.
- Ectomorph body types (think tall and thin) do better on a higher carb intake. If you fit into this category, try starting with a macronutrient ratio of 55% carbs, 25% protein, and 20% fat.
- Mesomorph body types (think typical athletic build with medium sized bone structure) do well with a more mixed ratio like 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat.
- Endomorphs (think bigger builds with more muscle and fat mass) do better on a lower carb intake around 25% carbs, 35% protein, and 40% fat.
Here’s what the different body types look like:
Step 4 - Diary Settings
You’ll want to make some changes to your diary settings to customise what’s shown. In MyFitnessPal, go to ‘My Home’ then ‘Settings’ then ‘Diary Settings’. From here you can:
- Change the nutrients tracked. For example, in addition to tracking carbs, protein, and fat, you could track fibre or sodium.
- Change the meal names and number of meals shown (if you make changes, it’ll change past entries). For example, if you eat a mid-morning snack, add that as one of your meal labels. You can have up to six meal labels.
- You can also get a link to share your diary with a coach or trainer.
Step 5 - Start Tracking Your Food
MyFitnessPal has a huge food database, but a lot of the info is entered by users and may not be correct. Because MyFitnessPal saves the food you eat regularly under the ‘Frequent’ tab, make sure the nutritional data is correct. If you do this, you’ll know it’s accurate going forward. Here’s how you can check the nutritional data:
- MyFitnessPal has ‘verified foods’ that are marked with a green tick. These are foods that MyFitnessPal thinks has the correct information entered. They may not always be spot on, but I’ve found them to be accurate. Use verified foods when possible.
- If you can’t find a verified option, the first time you add food, check it against a government database.
When you start out tracking, you’ll spend a lot of time entering foods, meals, and cross-checking nutritional data. But after a few days, you’ll have a lot of information saved. Then it’s as simple as selecting food from your personal database.
Step 6 - Get Portion Sizes Right
MyFitnessPal is only as good as the info you put in. Don’t eyeball portion sizes. Spend the extra time measuring with cups or weighing food. You only need to do this the first time around, assuming you eat the same amount each day. Once you’ve entered in the correct portion size, the information will be saved.
Some foods change in weight when cooked. For example, there’s a big difference between the calories of one cup of uncooked rice versus one cup of cooked rice. I’d suggest sticking with portion sizes of cooked foods to keep entries accurate. Don’t worry about vegetables, as they’re low in calories, so the difference is negligible.
MyFitnessPal or other calorie counting websites will have nutritional data for cooked or uncooked foods. Make sure you select the right info.
Step 7 - Save Regular Meals
Most of us eat the same meals regularly. MyFitnessPal allows you to save foods as meals. Say you eat a chicken sandwich for lunch most days. You would enter the individual ingredients into your food diary, then select ‘Quick Tools’ and ‘Remember Meal’. Your meal is now saved and can be added to your food diary with one click.
Step 8 - Add Your Recipes
If you have meals you eat often, you’ll want to add them. In MyFitnessPal, go to ‘Food’ then ‘Recipes’. You can add individual ingredients directly into MyFitnessPal to build a recipe manually. But the easiest way is the auto-import function for online recipes. You enter a link to a recipe you’re using and MyFitnessPal will import the ingredients list. You can review or make changes before saving it.
You can also use a website like Calorie Count to calculate the nutritional data of a recipe. Then you can enter this in MyFitnessPal under ‘Recipes’ or as a ‘My Food’ item.
The ‘Recipes’ and ‘My Food’ options are similar. When you enter recipes, you can see the individual ingredients. When you enter ‘My Foods’ you’ll only see the nutritional data you added.
Step 9 - Pre-Log Meals
When you start out, log your meals in the most convenient way. But your end goal is to work towards pre-logging your meals for the day. I like to do this while I’m having breakfast. On weekdays, this is easy as I eat the same thing. For the most part, I add everything in on Sunday night for Monday. Then every morning, I just copy the info over and make any adjustments for each day of the week.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) test drive tracking your food in MyFitnessPal. Start by just tracking one meal and build up from there. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
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