Which calorie counter should you use?

Posted on April 18, 2011

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One of the first things to do when you are looking to lose weight is to start getting a handle on how many calories you are eating each day. There are a few ways to do this: keep a mental note throughout the day (horrible idea for most people), write things down on paper as the day goes on, use a calorie counter, etc.

Personally, I add things up in the notepad of my phone throughout the day. However, I never advocate this as so few people know off the top of their head that a slice of bread is 110 calories, an egg is 70, a glass of whole milk is 160 while a glass of skim is 80, etc. So I normally recommend most people use a calorie counter.

Which one should you use though?

Now there are a crapload of these things around the web and on phones so I’m going to talk about three that seem to be the biggest / the ones I’ve used the most. Those three are Fitday.com, Livestrong.com, and MyFitnessPal.com. I’m going to do a brief comparison in the areas of each one’s search function (ease of use and size of food database), the site’s ease of use, and “Other” features.

It’s worth mentioning that my personal experience is greatest with Fitday, MyFitnessPal, and Livestrong, in that order. Fitday I have used in the past extensively, MyFitnessPal my clients use a great deal, and Livestrong I have only briefly used and perused due to me reading about the size of its database and the amount of users it has.

Search function

Livestrong wins out of the three here. The search function is similar to google in that it brings up foods as you type them and also presents most of the nutritional info about that food (and similar ones) in the live search as well. This is the only site that does this and it’s really pretty cool.

Also, while the numbers seem to jump around if you look at the sites enough, it appears Livestrong has the biggest database of foods. Its database is 300,000 foods greater than MyFitnessPal, which I suspect is due to the site having a greater amount of users (users can submit foods).

I didn’t notice much difference when searching for foods between the two though. After a million foods (Livestrong claims to have nearly 1.3 million with MyFitnesPal almost at 900,000) in your database I’m guessing you aren’t going to eat a whole lot that you can’t find.

This is in contrast to Fitday where you really can’t find brands e.g. a “Chipotle burrito” but rather have to search for individual ingredients. Honestly, this is probably a deal breaker already as the speed at which people can track their calories is a HUGE factor in getting people to actually track their calories. That is, if tracking calories takes any more than 5 minutes a day I have found that people will not continue to do it. Having to search for a bunch of individual ingredients as opposed to having to find the meal is a pain in the ass.

Overall ease of use

This is a wash between MyFitnessPal and Livestrong.

Both sites have easy to navigate websites but MyFitnessPal edges things out in one way. Often times people eat pretty similar day in, day out. With MyFitnessPal you can simply copy what you had for breakfast yesterday into today’s food log. Now you can do something similar with Livestrong by creating a “meal” and then click that meal if you eat often, but it’s just not quite as user friendly. Again, the less time a person has to use the site, and the quicker they can become accustomed to the site, the better.

Livestrong makes up for this shortcoming with its great search function though.

MyFitnessPal has a great app as well. My favorite part of the app is the first thing you see (and this is true on the site as well) is a bar representing how many calories you have already eaten today within a bigger bar of how many calories you have left to eat. I like the visualization aspect here.

I haven’t used Livestrong’s app, nor do I have any clients who have used it, so I can’t speak on that.

Fitday loses out here due to the site being somewhat cluttered, kind of old looking (the site hasn’t been updated much since I first started using it in 2007), the fonts used are rather small, and the site doesn’t have an app for android phones.

Other features

Livestrong loses here due to the fact that if you want to use some of the other services, like make your own custom guidelines or see nutrient goals e.g. grams of protein per day, you have to upgrade to the paid version. I suppose in one respect this might be a positive thing because if people pay for the service they are probably more likely to use it. But if we are comparing the amount of features each site has, Livestrong has the least.

This is also where MyFitnessPal really shines. The site has this community feel. It is practically like a facebook account but geared strictly towards diet and exercise. For example, you go out and exercise for 45 minutes; when you fill out this information the site will post it as a status update where your friends can see it and make comments.

Now, just like facebook, you can make this information private, and you don’t have to have any friends, but I think doing so is a great idea as social support has been found to be one of the biggest differences between those who lose weight, and keep it off, and those who don’t. That is, having social support increases your chances of success.

I’ve actually started using the site as another way to keep my clients on track with their dietary goals. One reason people hire a trainer is for the accountability factor. When someone knows they have someone waiting on them they are much more likely to come to the gym. The same thing is true with their eating i.e. if they know someone can see what they are eating everyday, they are more likely to stick to what they should be doing.

So if it isn’t apparent so far my favorite site that I have come across for calorie counting is MyFitnessPal. Being able to construct your own specific guidelines and the facebook/community feel tilts things in its favor.

If you are simply looking for a tool to just look up foods when curious how many calories are then Livestrong seems to be the strongest of the three.

One last note: all of the sites have terribly low protein recommendations. Whether dieting, maintaining, or gaining weight, protein intake should always be at a minimum of 1 gram per pound of body weight. When dieting this recommendation is actually probably even low but in my experience, for the average person looking to lose weight, just getting them to 1 gram per pound of body weight constitutes some major dietary changes so I start off with that and go from there.

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Posted in: Losing weight