Lifelogging: is it worth the effort?

Barry Collins spends a month logging everything about his life using a variety of apps and gadgets. Did he learn anything worthwhile? Here’s how he tracked his eating habits

Tracking your diet

When it comes to tracking what you’re shovelling down your throat on a daily basis, there are more services to choose from than flavours of Pot Noodle, but MyFitnessPal is emerging as the Facebook of the health scene, hungrily devouring rival apps to become an all-encompassing portal for tracking diet and exercise.

MyFitnessPal lets you log your diet through its website or via its mobile apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry. You’re encouraged to log in via Facebook, which left me fearful that MyFitnessPal would start automatically posting vindictive updates to my friends – “Barry just smashed through his daily calorie target with a bacon double cheeseburger and fries, the fat idiot.”

Mercifully, it has thus far refrained from divulging my refuelling habits, and signing in through Facebook makes it easier to connect MyFitnessPal to other exercise apps.

Barry just smashed through his daily calorie target with a bacon double cheeseburger and fries, the fat idiot

The scale of MyFitnessPal’s food database is extraordinary. It claims to have nutritional details of more than three million different items. You don’t just have “lasagne” for tea. Oh, no. You have to pick from Marks & Spencer’s Beef Lasagne, Weight Watchers’ Chicken, Tomato & Spinach Lasagne, Pizza Express’ Lasagna Classica or dozens of other options. It sounds intimidating, but its search engine is super-efficient – you can even scan food items’ barcodes using the mobile app, although that didn’t work on my Android phone – and when the difference between one brand of lasagne and another can be 1,000 calories per serving, the granularity of that database is what sets MyFitnessPal apart.

Indeed, it puts it a country mile ahead of the other diet-tracking app that I used for this experiment: the swish-looking Health & Fitness app built into Windows 8.1. Its food database is shallower than Piers Morgan: it’s never heard of Wetherspoons and lacks an entry for roast lamb with trimmings.

If you eat something it doesn’t recognise, you have to enter it manually – somehow discerning the calorie, fat and protein count of a ham and pickle sandwich for yourself – or find the nearest equivalent. Con-sequently, despite entering the same food diary into both apps, they often disagreed wildly on the number of calories I’ve consumed, sometimes by thousands of calories a day, although my instinct was to trust the more comprehensive database of the former.

calories chart

Both apps set you a daily calorie target, based on your current weight and how much you want to lose, and deduct any food you consume from that daily target – leading to some pretty grim scenarios come evening time, when you realise that club sandwich at lunch means you’re now faced with the unenviable choice of either chewing nothing more calorific than your fingernails or sailing past your daily target. You can see how people might be tempted to skip meals.

MyFitnessPal pulls ahead again with its fitness app integration. If you connect MyFitnessPal to an exercise monitor, such as Fitbit, it’s possible to get more calorie credits in the bank. Walking eight miles around London one day was enough to earn me back 1,081 calories, cancelling out the six pints (hic) of Guinness I used to slake my thirst on the walk/pub crawl.

MyFitnessPal even uses real-time data from Fitbit to predict how many calories you might claw back by the end of the day, so you can see whether you’re likely to have enough credit left to justify dessert, for example. Clever as it is, I’d suggest that feature isn’t always productive: I rewarded myself with a calorie-laden treat after exercise far more often than I went for a jog round the block to wipe out a surplus in the calorie column.

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