Words by Kristen Phillips
One topic that comes up a lot with athletes is how to manage nutrition. It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot through the years, and the recent rediscovery of My Fitness Pal has made a noticeable difference. It has essentially enabled me to be more aware of what I eat, and with that, become my own nutritionist. It’s all too easy to eat empty calories or overestimate what a serving size should be. It has been helpful to have a way to keep myself honest. MFP is one of several free online diet journals but it seems to be the most popular. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Becoming (and staying) accountable
It’s important to have a goal when starting out. This could be to manage your weight or help ensure you’re meeting macronutrient goals (fat, protein, carbohydrates). Having a goal will make logging feel like less work at first. Then, all you need to do is take the time before or after meals to input what you eat. If you plan a menu during the week, it’s possible to log breakfast, lunch, and snacks before you even leave the house in the morning. This makes it simple to keep up with the rest of the day (and can make it easier to ignore snacks in the break room). Try not to let too much time go by between entries because it’s easy to forget or leave something out.
Portions, nutrition info, and serving sizes
My Fitness Pal is only as useful as it is accurate. With a digital kitchen scale and a set of measuring cups, you can take the guesswork out of everything you eat at home. The nice thing about MFP is that it learns what you eat, so logging gets easier the more you do it. It also groups food you commonly eat together, so it’s easy to select the components from your favorite meals all at once. When you scan barcodes it automatically inputs the default serving size, which you can often modify if needed. You can also get nutrition information from their database and reference the USDA Food Composition Database. Many restaurants are now providing this info as well, and chains like Chipotle and CAVA have great online calorie calculators.
Gather accurate kcal data
Same as you measure and weigh food, it’s important that you’re accurately recording calories burned during workouts. For cyclists, there is no better tool for this than your power meter. The calories your cycling computer reports when using a power meter are +/- 5% accurate. If you don’t have a power meter, wearing your heart rate monitor will get you in the 10-20% range. Make sure your height, weight, and age information is correct. And if nothing else you can use MFP’s calorie estimator which will assign a calorie value based on averages for your chosen activity.
Link with your favorite training apps
The integration of My Fitness Pal with training apps is a really useful feature. MFP will sync with Training Peaks, Garmin Connect, Strava, Fitbit, and the steps taken with your iPhone to make logging exercise calories easy. If you use Training Peaks, this is especially beneficial because TP will total your calories eaten for the week along with the energy you burned, allowing you to assess weekly weight loss progress alongside your training. As a side note, you can create a “Workout” category in MFP to keep a record of the calories consumed during your rides. This can be really useful in determining optimal nutrition for your long, hard days on the bike when used in conjunction with your ride data.
Eating a more balanced diet
Along with calories, My Fitness Pal can help balance your nutrition. You can customize nutrient percentages to help meet specific goals. I’ve found MFP to be a great asset in helping me meet protein goals as a vegetarian. It can also help you track sugar consumption along with vitamins and minerals. When you’re not sure what to eat for dinner, you can glance at the totals for the day and find out what your body needs.
It’s true that the better you eat the better you feel, and using a food diary like My Fitness Pal provides a good way to constantly improve this area of your life. Although I resisted the idea of food logging at first, consistency has paid off and it is now simple and routine. It’s easy to let nutrition go off the rails, but even when that happens, I still log it just to keep a record. Simply becoming more aware of habits can be change-inducing in itself, and improving nutrition is always going to bring great results.