Calorie tracking with Apps

The best way to track your calorie intake is with an App on your phone and there are two which we recommend: MyFitness Pal and Nutracheck.

I’ve used both Apps and found Pros can Cons with each, but here’s a quick run down of each one, to help you choose.

MyFitness Pal Pros:

  • Basic version is free
  • Very large database of foods you can search
  • Links with many third-party fitness apps, including Fitbit, Garmin, Polar & Strava
  • Very established and more likely to have more unusual items in the database.

Cons:

  • The best features require a premium subscription ($49.99 a year)
  • Very American-centric, many of the measurements will be in Ounces, quarts, etc.
  • Free version is plagued with ads
  • Not always very easy to use
  • Text interface
  • Estimates of calories burned in exercise seem too high.

NutraCheck Pros:

  • British product so database very focused on UK foods
  • Most items have photos, so easy to make sure you have selected the correct thing
  • Quite intuitive to use
  • Can select several different diet plans, from low-carb, to high-protein, to low-fat.
  • Shows your five a-day of fruit & veg
  • Easy-to-understand graphical interface

Cons:

  • After a 7-day trial, you will need to buy a subscription. However, this is as little as £2 a month
  • Only links with a few fitness Apps, such as FitBit & Garmin & Google (no Polar, which makes me sad!)
  • Estimates of calories burned in exercise seem too high.

Both apps support barcode-scanning, simply use your phone’s camera to scan a barcode and choose your serving size, This makes adding items really simple. Both apps also enable you to create meals & recipes, so you don’t have to keep adding them in each time. I find Nutracheck much easier to use on this front and in fact, when you create a recipe, such as a Green Curry, it will even suggest ingredients for you, which is a real time-saver.

I used MyFitnessPal for about six years, before switching to Nutracheck in 2020. I personally prefer Nutracheck, I feel the interface is more logical and easier to understand. There are a large number of options you can play with to track your Macros, or set a specific type of diet plan and the photos of products not only looks better, it makes fining the correct item much easier. I’d suggest trialling it for a week and seeing how you get on. There is currently an offer on the year plan, of £23.99 instead of 29.99, but I think that even £29.99 is a good price for what you get.

How do you use a Calorie Tracker?

If you’ve never used a calorie tracker before, then they all tend to work in a similar manner. Firstly you will need to enter details such as your age, weight, height and sex. This will be used to calculate your BMI (Body Mass Index). Next you will be asked about your activity level. This is where most people get things wrong. In MyFitnessPal you will be asked to choose from several levels, such as sedentary, inactive, active, etc. The majority of people will choose a level higher than they actually are, so be honest with yourself.

Nutracheck takes a slightly different approach. It asks about your daily activity level and your exercise activity level. For this I choose the lowest level for daily and then a higher level for activity, because when I’m not teaching classes, I’m often sat down at my computer, so not burning extra calories.

Unless you have a very active job, where you are constantly moving, you need to choose a low level of daily activity. You might not think you’re sedentary, but if your job has you sitting down for long periods of time, then I’m afraid you are!

Choosing the right activity level is important, because it will be used to calculate your daily calorie allowance. If you’re in any doubt about the figure given to you you by the App, please just ask as and we’ll do a calculation to double-check for you. Personally, I find MyFitnessPal is over-aggressive and will give you too small a calorie allowance. Nutracheck seems to be closer to the mark.

You will also need to decide how much weight you want to lose per week and have a goal weight in mind. A sensible amount of weight to lose is 1lb a week (that’s 0.45kg). It might not seem a lot, but to lose 1lb a week, you need to be in a calorie deficit (i.e. expend more calories than you eat) of 500 calories a day. If you try and go for 2lbs a week (0.9kg) you will need to have a 1,000 calorie deficit a day.

That’s huge and for most people, completely unsustainable. You may be able to stick with it for a few weeks, but it will be extremely hard, plus there’s a chance that you actually put your body into starvation mode, whereby your metabolism changes and makes weight-loss even harder.

Slow and steady wins the race here. 1lb a week, is just under a stone in 3 months (or nearly six kilos!). Keep it up for a year and that’s over 3 and a half stone or 23.6 kilos.

Once you have your daily calorie allowance, it’s time to start tracking. I’d suggest allocating about 1/4 of your calories to each of your three main meals and having that last quarter for snacks, but be flexible. Some people like a big breakfast and a light lunch and big dinner. Others might prefer a small breakfast and have more snacks during the day. Go with what suits you, just stay within your calorie target.

Foods can either be entered manually, with a search, or you can scan barcodes. Make sure you weigh your portions, and be honest. Try not to guess. Weighing might seem like a pain at first, but you’ll soon get used to it and when every calorie counts, the difference between 10g of chocolate and 20g of chocolate can be a deal breaker!

Exercise can be added manually, or you can often link a fitness tracker to your App. Exercise calories are a thorny subject. We tend to under-estimate what we eat and over-estimate the calories we expend in exercise. Calorie tracking by wearable fitness devices is also inaccurate. You can only get a true level of calories burned, in a lab, so really, any fitness app is giving you a best-guess. Unless you are doing hours of exercise a day, try and avoid eating extra calories, because you’ve “earned them”. You probably didn’t actually earn as many as you think! I’ll cover this in more detail in another post in the next few days.

The most important part of calorie tracking is consistency. Track everything, every single day and so long as you are being honest, weighing your foods and not awarding yourself excessive exercise calories, you will see results very quickly. Keep with it and you will succeed.

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