By Ashley TenBrink, Recent Arizona State University Nutrition Student
10 inches! I had to re-measure my waist, my thighs, and my hips just to be sure because I couldn’t believe it! In total, I had lost 10 inches in ten days.
Contrast this excitement to my disappointment ten days earlier when, after four weeks of nutritious eating, the scale wouldn’t budge and I had no changes to my body composition.
This was crazy! What was the key difference?
In both time periods, I ate whole foods that were un-processed or minimally processed. In both time periods, I had focused on a balance of proteins, carbs, and fats. In both time periods, I had exercised consistently. What was the difference?
I realized the answer- tracking.
Yes, tracking what I ate made a definite difference in the results I achieved through my nutrition efforts. For the ten day course, I used the MyFitnessPal app to record everything I ate.
The results speak for themselves in my situation, but I wanted to dig a little deeper into the phenomenon behind this app. Was there scientific evidence to back-up my results and confirm the usefulness of MyFitnessPal? Did my weight-loss and physique changes correspond with the intentions of the app developers?
I would like to share my research and observations with you in the following review.
What is MyFitnessPal?
MyFitnessPal (MFP) was created to assist users in improving their diet, increasing physical activity, and accomplishing overall weight loss.
According to the MyFitnessPal app’s description, the self-stated purpose is: “Lose weight with MyFitnessPal, the fastest and easiest-to-use calorie counter for iOS. With the largest food database by far (over 5,000,000 foods) and amazingly fast and easy food and exercise entry, we’ll help you take those extra pounds off! And it’s FREE! There is no better diet app – period.”
According to the MFP app developers, the behavioral and health outcomes that should be influenced by this app are:
- Weight loss
- Increased physical activity (walking steps and additional exercise)
- Stronger sense of community and connection to other fitness enthusiasts
- Improved goals and understanding of calories and nutrients
- Increased motivation
Digging a little deeper into the MFP product description, the developers claim that:
- Diet and exercise tracking should be able to be accomplished in less than 5 minutes a day.
- The step tracker is also built in to track steps and “overall calorie burn.
- Nutrition tracking includes “all major nutrients: calories, fat, protein, carbs, sugar, fiber, cholesterol and more.”
Based on the description details provided, the implied behavior change techniques of MyFitnessPal include:
- Social reward (the ability to share daily food diary and accomplished goals with peers).
- Self-reward (the app enables individuals to see their weight-loss progress in a chart that spans days and weeks.)
- Behavior substitution (daily tracking and personal accountability encourages individuals to make healthier choices.)
- Habit formation (the app encourages daily physical activity through prompts and the opportunity to log exercise.)
- Feedback (the app can be set to provide goals and compares progress to them, both in daily nutrition logging and in an individuals progress in body composition.)
- Self-monitoring of behavior through daily tracking to encourage mindfulness and help weight-loss efforts.
- Commitment (the app sends out a reminder when you miss a day.)
- Goal setting (can be programmed by user or set up automatically by app.)
- Review behavioral and outcome goals (tracking enables.
- Social support general (community is built into the app with the possibility of creating a network of peers).
The MyFitnessPal app contains a built-in database of an estimated 5 million foods and the ability to recognize 4 million barcodes from food items. For these items, it is expected that the nutrient information provided includes: calories, fat, protein, carbs, sugar, fiber, cholesterol and more.
The home screen of the app, when a user first opens it, also reveals the most recent MyFitnessPal blog posts. These articles focus on the areas of nutrition and fitness. Examples include recipes, macro and micro-nutrient explanations, user testimonials and personal stories, fundamentals to advanced exercises, and weight loss strategies.
Does MyFitnessPal produce the outcomes it promises to deliver?
I strongly felt that it would be important to have scientific evidence to confirm or deny the claims made by MFP. I dug into PubMed for my answers.
In 2015, the journal Telemedicine and e-Health published, “A Study to Determine the Most Popular Lifestyle Smartphone Applications and Willingness of the Public to Share Their Personal Data for Health Research” which compared select smartphone lifestyle apps and wearable fitness-tracking devices. The goal of the study was to seek data and research insights that would assist with the prevention and treatment of chronic disease and obesity. More specifically, the study utilized a survey to explore patterns of behavioral tracking using the smartphone lifestyle apps. 
Methods used in this study included a cross-sectional Web-based survey that was conducted within a university setting. The survey was comprised of 35-items that asked participants “about their self-tracking patterns; use of lifestyle apps and wearable devices; how their self-tracked health data could be useful to them; and any restrictions they would impose on sharing personal data.” After being tabulated, the responses were analyzed for trends. Results demonstrated by 101 participants revealed: “On average, 3.1 (standard deviation [SD] ±1.9) health and fitness apps were installed by current app users (n = 85), with MyFitnessPal, MapMyRun, Nike+, and Fitbit being most popular. Most participants were willing to share their personal health data for research (77%). Those who did not normally share their health-tracking data were more likely than sharers to be concerned about privacy (odds ratio [OR] = 5.93; 95% confidence interval [95% CI] = 2.09–16.78), as were those not identifying with the quantified-self movement compared with those who were (OR = 5.04; 95% CI = 1.64–15.50).” 
The majority of participants were willing to share their personal data, allowing public health research to be conducted, that could assist in targeted personalized program and intervention development. It was evident from this study that an opportunity exists for partnerships between researchers and commercial app developers to improve public health research and practice. 
A study published in the journal Biocomputing analyzed people seeking to improve their health and lose weight. The study examined app users who publicly share their logged calorie intake and energy expenditure data. The study examined public food diaries of more than 4,000 long-term active MyFitnessPal users to study the characteristics of a both successful and unsuccessful diets. The scientists used a machine learning model to predict repeatedly if app users would be over or under self-set daily calorie goals. With this information the scientists then examined which features contributed to the model’s prediction. 
Results were both expected and unexpected. As expected, users who inputted such entries as “McDonalds” or the category “dessert” were usually over the calorie goal. Unexpected results showed that a difference between selecting pork and poultry also determined dieting success. Users who used the “quick added calories” app functionality also over-shot their calorie goals. This study also suggests that there is potential for further investigation into interactions between consumed foods, such as “mixing protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods”. 
Based on these studies, it is my opinion that the MyFitnessPal app does support several of the target outcomes that it implies to influence. Scientific evidence suggests that MyFitnessPal users who track their daily food intake, demonstrate consistency, modify their unhealthy habits, and utilize community accountability are successful in obtaining their daily caloric and overall weight loss goals. However, according to the study in the journal of Biocomputing mentioned above, ease of app use is no indication that a user will be successful in losing weight or meeting caloric goals, as implied by the app developers. Also, the developers explicitly stated that there was “no better diet app- period”, however, this claim is an overestimation not backed by scientific data. Based on the journal Telemedicine and e-Health, MyFitnessPal is one of four popular apps that also included: MapMyRun, Nike+, and Fitbit.
Is the content within MyFitnessPal accurate?
The MyFitnessPal app contains a large database of foods for users to search through and select from when tracking their diet daily. Many of these food selections are acquired directly from food labels through barcode scanning capability. These items are reputable and accurate. Other food selections offer USDA nutrient information. These items do match the USDA nutrition database. However, there are other foods that have been input by users, which are lacking various macro- and micro-nutrient values, or contain information that does not correspond with reputable sources such as the USDA or NIH website. Therefore, it is up to the app user to select the appropriate option. For all the foods that I personally researched and compared there was at least one option that did correspond with reputable sources.
Overall, I believe that MyFitnessPal is a valuable tool for individuals who are seeking to lose weight. The app is user-friendly and can be operated quickly, although this alone is no guarantee of weight loss success. The tracking function, for daily diet and energy expenditure, has been shown to be valuable for user awareness and habit reformation. The goal setting features and app reminders assist with accountability and progress motivation. However, it is ultimately up to the user to make wide food choices in order to lose weight successfully.
Is MyFitnessPal easy to use?
Overall the app is easy to navigate. The main menu and submenus are very clear. It is easy to access and update the daily food diary. When inputting food, meals are segmented for categorization. The bar scanner and search bar for food are at the top of the input screen. All the nutrient data is displayed when the food is selected. The amount of the food can quickly be adjusted and many options (grams, ounces, milliliter, tablespoons, cup, etc.) are available. Goals can be viewed and updated through a link on the main menu. An overview of calorie goal – food intake + exercise and the total calories remaining are set at the top of the food diary page.
It is my opinion that having a diversity of choices, options, and features may make the MyFitnessPal app difficult upon first use and there may be a learning curve for new users. However, if a user spends time exploring the app they could quickly become familiar with the features and accessibility in a short time.
How do other users rate the app?
At the time of this writing, the average rating for the current version of this app is 4.5 stars on the iTunes app store.
The average rating for all versions of this app is 4.5 stars on the iTunes app store.
There are over 460 review ratings for the current version of this app on the iTunes app store.
There are over 504,500 review ratings for all versions of this app on the iTunes app store.
Based on reviews, I believe that the majority of MyFitnessPal users find the app to be beneficial in at least one, if not multiple ways. These include tracking capabilities, barcode scan function, and accountability, to name a few. It has contributed to assisting in the weight loss efforts of many users. However, technical glitches are present, help is not easily provided and this all contributes to user dissatisfaction. Users are also unhappy about recent updates that made once “free” features now available only through a subscription fee.
Username Bourdagekc gave MyFitnessPal a 5-star rating and said:
“I found out about this app while reading the book, Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle. This app allows me to enter every food or drink I consume. I can enter the food by name or scan the barcode. I have not yet found a barcode that it does not recognize, including prepared deli items from grocery stores. Also, you are able to not only change the amount of servings but also how you are measuring the food. For example, you can measure your portions by grams or ounces or cups etc. You can also look at restaurants in the area and many of the menu items are there. If not, you can request to get the menu added. I love how I can easily track my calories and the percentage of my calories that are fat, carbs, or proteins. This app has helped me learn a lot about healthy eating and portion size. Love it!”
Another 5-star review from username Arniekim said:
“Started tracking and thought I was eating within my means and quickly found out this is not the truth. It has helped me stay accountable to my goal and I love the feature where it tells you what you would weigh in five weeks if every day was like today. It is a great way to motivate! Love that I can cheer my friends on as well. Would love some suggestions of lower calorie options when going to a restaurant – maybe put I. Restaurant and show low-calorie options…? Or when you put in something from a restaurant it can suggest another low-calorie option and learn what you like and don’t – just some suggestions.”
Username Goosemonkey99 rated MyFitnessPal at 1 star and said:
“No longer are your macro goals shown in your totals based on what macros you set. The app freezes and my calorie goals were reset. Now you have to pay 50 dollars. I deleted app moved on to another one.”
Username Yisroalone rated 1 star and said:
“While the concept of the app is great, when adding foods it sometimes says ‘offline’ and there’s no way to search and add a food that you have eaten. Really frustrating!”
My Overall Assessment of MyFitnessPal
I personally would recommend the MyFitnessPal app to others. I have used it for the past three years and it has made a significant impact on my weight loss and weight management efforts. I think the users who would most benefit most from this app are individuals who are willing to focus time and attention on their nutrition, who desire a greater understanding of the macro- and micro-nutrients that their food choices contain, and who are able to overcome a learning curve and willing to work through small technical glitches in order to have the greater reward of the app’s positive benefits.
The MyFitnessPal app makes claims that are larger than what it can fulfill or what is currently backed by scientific evidence, such as stating it is the “best” app available. However, it is still a useful app, that has been ranked though scientific studies as one of the leading apps of its kind. A majority of the food options contained within the food search query do accurately correspond with those provided by the USDA and other credible sources (such as food manufacturers). There is also scientific evidence from studies to suggest that weight loss is achievable for users when the app is used as intended (with conscious, wise food selections and input consistency).
- Chen Juliana, Bauman Adrian, and Allman-Farinelli Margaret. Telemedicine and e-Health. March 2016, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/tmj.2015.0159.
Ingmar Weber and Palakorn Achananuparp (2016) Insights From Machine-Learned Diet Success Prediction. Biocomputing 2016