My Fitness Pal review: Can it help you lose weight?
I tried My Fitness Pal for six months—here’s what happened
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We all deal with the onset of middle age in various ways. Some of us buy sports cars. Others embark on an Eat, Pray, Love-inspired journey of self-discovery. I decided to finally lose some damn weight. My goal was simple: Drop around 60 pounds by eating less and exercising more.
In order to achieve this, I turned to the uber-popular calorie tracker, My Fitness Pal, to keep me honest. After using the health app regularly for about six months, I’m reveling in a slightly more svelte figure and have cultivated some healthier food and nutrition habits that I wouldn’t have otherwise. But will it work for you? That depends on several factors.
What is My Fitness Pal?
My Fitness Pal is a health and fitness app that helps users track their daily caloric intake and level of physical activity for free. It offers a robust database of food to help make logging easier. In addition, the app has a social media component that allows users to connect and measure their progress with friends and exercise buddies.
With an upgrade to Premium for $20 per month or $80 per year, My Fitness Pal provides a handy “scan the barcode” function to quickly add nearly any packaged food you find at the grocery store (formerly a free feature), as well as meal plans and fitness routines. Premium users may customize their daily calorie goals and macronutrient goals for intake of protein, fats, and carbs and have the option to set specific goals for each meal.
At its core, My Fitness Pal is no different from keeping a food diary or logging calories in a notebook. What it does well, however, is streamline the tracking process.
How does My Fitness Pal work?
My Fitness Pal is accessible via a web browser at myfitnesspal.com or as an Android or iPhone app. When you sign up, the program requires an email address, your country, and zip code. It runs through a few questions to determine how to help you achieve your goals. For example, it asks if your goal is to lose, gain, or maintain your current weight, your baseline activity level, and other factors that help determine your calorie requirements, such as weight, height, age, and sex.
The app recommends selecting the sex you were assigned at birth to ensure an accurate metabolic equation. However, because hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can have an effect on metabolism over time, the app suggests that those taking gender-affirming medications consult their doctor to choose the correct category for their specific circumstances.
The app also asks for your goal weight and your weekly weight-loss (or weight-gain) goal. From there, it adjusts to ensure that your target weight and timeframe are healthy. It rejects a weight loss target its algorithm regards as underweight and the maximum it suggests you lose each week is two pounds. Your daily targets for calories and macronutrients (aka carbs, protein, and fat) are set automatically by the app from there. As someone who knows next to nothing about nutrition, I appreciated this approach as it removed the guesswork from the equation.
Once you set up your account, you can start logging food to count calories and track your progress. The first thing you see each time you open the app is a comprehensive dashboard which tracks your daily calorie intake, as well as macronutrients in the foods you eat. Your current weight is listed at the bottom of the dashboard, along with daily exercise progress. Finally, along the very bottom, the app has a section to add your own recipes and frequently eaten meals and links to the other app pages (Diary, Newsfeed, Plans, and Settings).
Though it’s mainly known as a food diary, My Fitness Pal offers support for fitness goals as well. You’re encouraged to log exercise, and the app by default will “credit” you with the calories burned during your activities. The free version of the app also provides a few pre-set workout routines if you need some inspiration. If you paired the app with a Fitbit or Garmin fitness tracker, the dashboard will also display your exercise data pulled from your device, such as steps taken daily, as well as additional forms of exercise such as strength training or yoga.
What I like about My Fitness Pal
The massive food database simplifies the calorie-tracking process
Arguably, the biggest appeal of My Fitness Pal is its versatile and exhaustive food tracking capabilities. I was surprised by how easy it was to count calories with the app. It added another item to my daily routine but rarely felt like a chore. My Fitness Pal claims that the app’s database contains over 14 million foods. In addition to generic items like spaghetti and apples, the app contains calorie information for a multitude of well-known food brands and even meals at major chain restaurants.
Scanning a food’s barcode is the easiest way to enter items into your meal log, which My Fitness Pal recently made a Premium feature behind the paywall. This will, in most cases, add all macronutrient information as well—all you need to do is say how much of it you ate. In my experience, My Fitness Pal has managed to recognize all but one of the many items I have scanned.
You may also perform a keyword search for the food item, from which you’ll be presented with a massive list of possible options. Once you've selected your food or the food that most closely matches what you ate, you can set the number of servings and the serving size. You also have the option to save regular meals and even upload the recipes of favorite dishes, which is particularly helpful if you adhere to a specific diet or are a creature of habit.
The app interface is uncluttered and streamlined
The My Fitness Pal dashboard is comprehensive, relatively uncluttered, and easy to use. There’s a lot of nutritional data contained on the dashboard, and the app does a good job of making it accessible with a few swipes and taps.
The interface is unobtrusive and lets users access the app's main feature, calorie counting, straight away. You can add food and drinks directly from the dashboard as soon as you log in which is a godsend for impatient dieters like me. (The app received a major visual overhaul a few months ago, which generally seems to have improved the overall experience.)
What I don’t like about My Fitness Pal
The food database can be overwhelming
The app's greatest asset, the massive user-generated list of food items, is also its most flawed. Any item with a green check mark has been verified as correct by the team at My Fitness Pal, but other user-curated items are occasionally incorrect.
For example, when I searched for my favorite and relatively niche brand of energy bar, I found I could either use the existing entry, which sets a serving size as 1 gram (about 0.035 ounces), or create my own entry and set the parameters to something more realistic.
This can be frustrating to dieters like me who are looking to do as little work as possible when logging their daily foods and drinks. I personally tend to avoid packaged foods, so finding items that match the ingredients in each of my meals, as well as accurate portion sizes, calories, and macronutrients, is often an exercise in frustration.
The most useful feature is locked behind the Premium paywall
When My Fitness Pal first launched and for years, the ability to scan the barcodes of prepackaged foods and automatically add nutrition data was included in the free version of the app.
Unfortunately, in August 2022, My Fitness Pal announced that starting October 1, 2022, the barcode scanning function would only be available to Premium subscribers. It’s still possible to search for and add pre-packaged foods to the database, but the loss of the scanner feature is a major blow to the free tier's appeal.
The focus on counting calories may be a trigger for some
While I appreciated the way My Fitness Pal put calorie counting front and center, this approach may be off-putting or even harmful to others. Calorie counting can be triggering for some, particularly those dealing with eating disorders.
Fortunately, there are other nutrition apps that shy away from the clinical, data-driven nature of My Fitness Pal in favor of a more holistic and mindful approach. Apps like Noom still act as calorie counters but focus more on positive reinforcement and habit forming. Alternatively, there are several nutrition apps that avoid calorie counting entirely, such as You Ate, Cara Cara, and See How You Eat. Finally, Recovery Record is a nutrition service designed specifically for those with eating disorders.
How does the free version of My Fitness Pal compare with the Premium version?
Those on the free tier can log meals and workouts to track their calories in and out. Free users can also connect with friends and track their activity by connecting their preferred fitness apps such as Garmin or Fitbit. They may also interact with other users through the app’s social networking feed.
The Premium subscription comes with several perks, including the ability to add pre-packaged foods with the barcode scanner and a customizable dashboard. Premium subscribers also have access to additional nutritional details of all of their food. The Premium tier allows users to customize macronutrient goals so they can focus on a protein-rich or low-carb diet, for example. In addition, Premium users gain access to various guided nutrition and fitness plans and paying for it removes the many ads from the app.
Does My Fitness Pal work?
Losing weight or getting fit are personal journeys and are dependent on so many physical, psychological, and even economic factors, so it would be irresponsible of me to say whether the app works or not. That said, it worked for me.
While I attempted to use My Fitness Pal several times in the past, my most recent stint has helped me lose around 20 pounds in just over six months. However, because I found success with the app doesn't mean others’ experiences with My Fitness Pal will be the same. I appreciated the lack of handholding, but your level of success will depend on your own motivation to use the app as well as your fitness and weight loss goals and how they match up with the services the app provides.
I was focused primarily on creating a calorie deficit; in that regard, the app has been indispensable. By nailing the fundamentals of counting calories and tracking activity, My Fitness Pal has allowed me to lose weight without getting bogged down in too much granular detail, overwhelming meal plans, or exercise routines.
I can credit much of my success to how simple the app is to use. In the past, I’ve found tracking calories and logging meals on pen and paper or in my phone’s note-taking app to be unbearably tedious, and I think that is a significant reason why My Fitness Pal worked for me. It took this activity that I genuinely hate and made it so easy that I didn’t mind doing it multiple times per day. The streamlined interface and tiny bits of positive reinforcement are just a bonus.
The app succeeds when it focuses on counting calories and tracking activity. It falters when it tries to suggest meals and exercise plans. There are better apps for that purpose, such as Noom. And while the social media aspect might be positive reinforcement for some, I felt it was unnecessary.
Is My Fitness Pal (or My Fitness Pal Premium) worth it?
Yes, if you’re interested in a simple way to count calories
If, like me, you just want to make sure you are eating less than you are burning and don’t mind the occasional ad, the regular free tier is more than adequate. But if you want the most streamlined and user-friendly calorie counting process possible, then the Premium version of My Fitness Pal may be worth the upgrade.
Still, whether it’s worth the extra cost depends on what you value. I didn’t use the barcode scanner as much as I expected, but I can see how this feature could be the main draw for most people. It’s convenient, quick, and generally foolproof. I’m not going to speculate on what motivated My Fitness Pal to move the scanner behind the paywall, but it certainly made me less inclined to recommend the free version of the app.
Being in the early stages of my weight-loss journey, my main challenge is refraining from binge eating and keeping within my calorie limit, so the additional layer of tracking macronutrients isn’t something I’m currently focused on. However, I can see how they would be useful for more seasoned fitness buffs interested in granular nutritional data. I also had little interest in following a guided meal plan in the first place but was still surprised to see how few were available. Granted, this feature isn’t My Fitness Pal Premium’s primary selling point, but I expected more variety.
If you’d like to try Premium yourself, there’s a two-week trial period, but you’ll need to provide your credit card details up front, and you’ll need to cancel the subscription yourself before the two-week period ends if you want to avoid paying for it. If you cancel your subscription after it gets going, you will retain your Premium benefits until the next billing cycle.
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