Despite Good Intentions, Calorie Tracking Programs Reward All The Wrong Choices

free weight loss tracker

Recently, my mother was staying with me. And she’s been really trying to get her health on, which is awesome, and she was logging her calories and exercise into MyFitnessPal, one of many calorie tracking programs available for free on the internet. But, like a lot of people, she ran into some trouble: because she rarely eats at chain or fast food restaurants, and does most of her exercise out on her bike or walking around her neighborhood, she was constantly grappling to make the program work with her, and not against her.

Calorie tracking sites and software, like SparkPeople, MyFitnessPal, LoseIt!, and My Calorie Counter allow users to plan meals, enter what they’re eaten, as well as what activities they’ve done, how many calories they’ve burned, and even calculate the calories and other nutritional information in homemade recipes. Many often also come with a community component, points systems, or other internal motivational tools.

All of which is great for those who trying to get healthy, and can provide a super-valuable service for those who know a thing or two about exercise, eating, and generally being healthy. But for those who are truly new to finding health, they can be supremely over-simplified, and lead individuals toward poor choices, like fast food (which is easier to log), or less effective exercise. I’ve used several–SparkPeople and I have an on-again/off-again relationship, but mostly, I use the one that came with my FitBit, which isn’t too bad–but I always end up giving up on logging calories and fitness after a few weeks because it’s just too much work, and doesn’t seem to reward smart choices.


From the sign-up page at MyFitnessPal

Despite great intentions and loads of good information, many of these applications or websites make weight loss seem too black-and-white, focusing too much on calories in/calories out, which we know just isn’t enough. They also tend to reward eating processed foods, fast food, and food from chain restaurants, because that’s what information is available.

National chains like Applebee’s, and fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, have worked hard to make their nutritional information available–which is useful, but also means that, if you really want to be 100% sure of the contents of what you’re eating when you eat out, opting for a place like that is actually way easier than going to, say, the corner vegan bistro that uses mystical cashew butter and other hard-to-track ingredients.

The fact is, most small, local restaurants don’t make their nutritional information available because it is time-consuming to calculate and, to be honest, there isn’t much consumer demand for it. Even some national chains have complained about this. Additionally, for places where the menu rotates frequently, it would be pretty difficult to keep up. Thus, diners who are eating out and tracking their calories must either:

  • A.) Become the irritating person who calls the restaurant, asks for the ingredient list, inquires about portion size, and calculates it themselves, which sounds like the worst possible way to spend their time, or…
  • B.) Guestimate based on the pre-entered food products available, often ending in wildly inaccurate speculation.

It’s kind of a no-win situation.

For cooking at home, it’s a little easier, but still kind of a pain. On some apps and programs, you can build recipes and figure out the nutritional information of the portion sizes, which is a pretty cool use. I’ve definitely used it before to help make some of my recipes healthier. Unfortunately, it’s still pretty time-consuming–you have to enter in every ingredient and how much of it you used. And if the ingredient isn’t there, you can enter in the information from the nutritional label, which can take a very long time and make weight loss and health seem hard. And as soon as healthy eating seems hard, many Americans would rather not deal with it.


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    • Erynn

      I have found MyFitnessPal to be pretty good… if your device has internet access their food database is pretty extensive. They also allow for barcode scanning (if you have a camera) which makes inputting new stuff a lot easier.

      I mean none of these apps are without problems, but they’re better than nothing. And also having fast food available on them could help people make healthier choices when they’re out. No one wants to have to log that they ate a 1200 calorie meal from whatever chain and if they have that information at their fingertips they just might opt for something else. Or maybe not. I dunno.

      • Amy

        I completely agree with your last paragraph, which is contrary to what the author was saying. She’s saying people will be more likely to eat fast food because the calorie content is already recorded so it’s easier to click on and thus, only consume fast food… if someone is actually using MFP (etc.) daily, there’s no way in hell they’re going to want to eat fast food. It would make the whole effort worthless.

        I use MyFitnessPal every so often when I feel like I’m getting lazy and moving off course. More as a reminder to myself of the better ways I could be obtaining energy. As in, I would rather consume 300 calories by eating a gigantic bowl of veggies than by eating a small bag of potato chips.

    • Kelly (

      IMO, you have to take a little personal responsibility. Yeah, calories in/out programs are simplistic. And they “reward” running more than yoga, but only in the sense that they reflect your calorie burn and will show higher burns for activities that burn more. So if you want a higher burn, then that will be a “reward” for you. But you just have to be an adult and make your own choices and say “I realize that weight lifting doesn’t burn as many calories as Zumba, but I know it’s important to strength train, so I’m going to make the choice to do that today.” A fitness monitor is just a tool, not your boss. It isn’t going to bully you and say “run more today” – it will just reflect the choices you made and the goals you set for yourself, and you have to be confident in those choices and use the monitor for what it is – a tracking device you can use to reflect on your fitness/food choices as it records them.

      Likewise, take the 5-10 minutes to log homemade food. Even when I make a casserole or something slightly tricker to log than a simple “100 grams broccoli, .25 chicken breast” it still isn’t going to take more than 10 min a day. And you just have to take the responsibility to make the right choices and not go through the drive through simply because it will take 30 seconds less to log. And unless you’re eating out every single day, I don’t think it’s a huge deal to guess when you do treat yourself to the “corner vegan bistro.”

      I’m not trying to be super bitter here, I just think blaming fitness monitors/calorie trackers is putting any “blame” for mistakes on the machine, which is totally misplaced. Computers are tools. You have to use your own brain, and just use tools for what they are.

      • Lauren

        I agree with this so much. Plus, if you make the food items yourself, you know how much you are eating (I don’t always measure but I am lot more light handed with cheese now that I know what 1/4 cup is). So, if you actually do take the time to track it correctly, it really keeps you honest.

    • Lauren

      I love MFP, but I think it could be a trigger for those with an eating disorder, for example, if you finish the day with 400 calories (a ridiculously low amount of calories) it will say something like “If you ate like this every, you would be 114 pounds in 5 weeks” While I would love it if this were the case, eating 400 calories a day for 5 weeks would be miserable, but somehow I get a bit of motivation from that fact.

      • Briana Rognlin

        Yikes, that sounds all kinds of triggering. I’m all for keeping track of what you eat, but…I tend to think that if you’re eating the right things (mostly vegetables and lean protein), you shouldn’t have to calorie count. That said, I think I’m lucky in that I have a pretty good grasp of how to make those choices…a lot of people do really benefit from keeping closer track of calories for awhile to learn what they’re putting in their bodies.

    • Patricia

      I have to completely disagree with the notion that calorie trackers “reward” crappy fast-food eating. Quite the contrary, IMO. If you are keeping a daily log, you may well be watching not just calories, but things like nutrient balance, fiber, calcium, sat fat, etc. This doesn’t require extra effort….the programs already do it. This encourages users to take a realistic look at their overall diet, not just calories in, calories out.

      It’s very rewarding to look at a day’s “final tally” and see that your choices resulted in a healthy food day! Good fat/protein/carb balance….CHECK! Lots of fiber…CHECK! Met my calcium goal……CHECK!

      Compare that to a fast food day… meal comprised a huge chunk of the day’s calories, but even if you stayed within your calorie goal, everything else is thrown completely out of whack. Tons of fat, too few nutrients, a week’s worth of sodium! There’s nothing rewarding in that. Just the opposite.

      If your goal is to eat a healthier diet, tracking programs “train” you away from the bad choices that make it hard to meet your goals. You start to shun choices that sabotage your efforts (like fast food) and naturally lean toward the choices that pack lots of nutrition into your day.

      In the past, it would have taken enormous time & effort to track your diet this way and get this kind of immediate feedback. Now it’s on our smartphones, making it an enormously useful & powerful tool. :)

    • Jennifer

      If someone uses MFP or like sites/apps to justify eating nothing but junk, then they are missing the point. It’s not the website that is rewarding wrong choices, it’s the person.

      It doesn’t take a degree in nutrition to realize that a Big Mac is not as healthy as a salad with natural dressing, lots of veggies and some added lean protein. Honestly, if someone is justifying their poor food choices by saying, “Well, I’m under my calorie goal” then they are not focusing on getting healthy and that is not the fault of an internet tool.

    • Candice

      I find calorie counting is probably the thing that helps me the most, and ‘calories in – calories out’ is the most effective weight loss tool