The Dangers of Calorie Tracking Apps

Calorie tracking apps are hugely popular, and for the most part, this is a good thing. Having an awareness around what you eat and what is in your food is key to understanding mindful choices. If you think foods like avocado and nuts are healthy, you would be right, but what is a portion if you have never weighed it out, or read the packet and measured that serving out?

You’ve then got no baseline of an appropriate portion for your needs, and thus can’t make an informed decision that will not only affect your health, but your weight.

When I work with someone we go through a period of tracking calorie intake or at least tracking food to some degree (I teach 4 methods of diet tracking which we teach in our online nutrition course the BTN Foundation Academy), so there is a long term awareness of what’s in food, and how to make future decisions on dietary intake.

This is key in weight maintenance, which everyone wants, usually after weight loss, first and foremost.

But, there are issues here, and part of this is down to the apps that people are using and the journey the app takes you on. Take My Fitness Pal for example, there seems to be a default setting that any low weight female entering their details into myfitnesspal gets the output and recommendation to eat 1200 calories, which isn’t a lot of food for anyone. But, in saying that, it might be a legitimate calorie level for some to need to eat to lose weight.

iPhone Myfitnesspal App

Apple IPhone using the Myfitnesspal app

Either way, for some reason in the dieting world, 1200 calories for a woman whether myfitnesspal has been used or not here, seems to be a magic diet number that gets thrown around a lot.

The danger here is if it’s not correct, and that person should indeed be eating more, even when weight loss is the goal.

Because the user goes through a process that seems scientific, there is a certain amount of trust with the outcome. That user thinks that 1200 calories is their level to eat at for weight loss and thus they try and follow that.

What if the calorie level they actually need to eat at to lose weight sustainably is 1600 calories. Eating at 1200 calories when your bodies maintenance intake might be around 2000 is going to be really tough. It might be ok for 2-3 weeks, then the body is going to start to slow down, feel a little too sore after exercise, result in low mood, affect your sleep, and you’ll generally feel crap.

Because dieting has never been fun, for anyone, we then start to associate these symptoms as normal. “Ah I’m on a diet, I’m meant to feel tired and grumpy and not enjoy it, hopefully I can stay motivated and push through”.

You will feel like that if you go too extreme, and this is the problem. We need to have the skills to be able to auto-correct if things are not going right.

As I sit and write this blog right now I’m on a diet. A slow one, I’m losing around 1lb of fat per week, which is sustainable for me, if I go any quicker my performance drops, and as a rugby player that isn’t good, I don’t want to feel weak and tired or low in mood and energy, so I want to take it slow and maintain my performance as I diet.

Be reflective, be honest, look at the facts...

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Losing fat fast isn’t an issue, but be 100% aware that things will suffer to a greater degree, you can’t underfeed the body dramatically long term and expect it to perform optimally, it’s just an impossible scenario. The body has a certain need, don’t give it that and expect it to react and throw a tantrum, aka feeling like crap.

Now because this environment is not sustainable we get issues, and looking back at our starting point the app caused this issue, but the problem is we don’t know how to change course and apply some tweaks. You might be trying to follow a diet of 1200 calories per day while being relatively active, running around after your kids and trying to fit in an exercise class. So let’s paint a picture:

65kg female, fairly active daily with kids and work, hits an exercise class for one hour

I calculate her maintenance calorie level at around 2300-2400, using a 1.3 multiplier for her daily activity and 500 calories burnt during her high intensity exercise class.

If this person eats 1200 calories a day, which MANY women are trying to do, it’s going to end in disaster. And this is where as a coach we get the response “but I only eat 1200 calories per day”. Which might be true, for 3-5 days of the week, but what about the other days?

And do you know what, it’s not that persons fault here, because physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, that person’s body will be crying out for food. This is the reason the food that person ends up eating is cake, or biscuits or crisps or chocolate or any other hyper palatable hyper caloric food. The body has got to a point where it is fed up of under eating, it’s low on energy and mood, and your body literally tells you, eat some calorie dense food, NOW. And you do, you break, you have the slice of cake, or maybe more and just say “back on it again tomorrow”.

How can you tell when the body has under eaten?

English fried breakfast

Traditional English fried breakfast

Ever had a day where you have exercised loads or done a lot more than usual, and thus under eaten compared to your energy expenditure, and you wake up the next day ravished, this is the day you could murder a full English breakfast or a hearty salmon and eggs with all the trimmings, your body is literally telling you “dude we really under ate yesterday, time to fuel up in case that happens again”.

And where did this cascade of events start? At myfitnesspal and us entering our data.

So what’s the fix?

Listening, watching, trying, tweaking, and responding with the appropriate changes.

If someone starts a diet and after a few weeks you are noticing fast weight loss, but we are also getting lowered mood, lowered energy, feeling lethargic etc, then you know you’re going too fast. And while you might be relishing this fast weight loss, there is only so long it can last, trust me. The last place we want to get to is the situation where you are yo-yoing back and forth from trying to stick to 1200 calories most days, but can’t some days, all because your body just ends up screaming at you for cake.

With your body and your health, pay close attention, at all times. You’ll be getting the feedback on what to change, if you are willing to listen. There are not many people that need to diet on 1200 calories, plus I would much rather see someone eat a load more (while still dieting) and exercising more, why? Because exercise and an increased activity level is good for you, and most of us don’t move enough day to day.

As I’ve always said, eat as much as humanly possible while on a diet, it will be more enjoyable, and more sustainable.

So if you’re trying to stick to 1200 calories because my fitness pal told you too, and you can’t, it just always ends up going to s**t, re-assess the severity of your starting point as it’s only leading to a negative outcome long term trying to stick to an extreme 1200 calories.

Be reflective, be honest, look at the facts, the outcomes and the patterns, and tweak accordingly. There is nothing worse long term than an extreme diet, sure they are fine short term, but long term the only spell disaster and are 99% of the time unsustainable, you’ll break mentally, emotionally, or physiologically, and you’ll be face first in cake.

If you do want to really nail all these skills and learn the ins and outs of body weight maintenance and the 4 levels we teach, and far more, check out our online nutrition course starting soon.