Imagine this: You got up early to hit the track for your speed workout session for the week. The workout is a success -- you're feeling great as you warm up, you hit your goal pace for your reps, your cool down is smooth, and you feel strong at the finish.
You fuel properly before your run. You committed to staying hydrated during the run. You ate a good meal afterwards - nourishing, comforting, satiating. The rest of the day you eat when you're hungry (and what you're hungry for!), and you stop eating when you're full. You eat whole foods like brown rice (🍚 carbs!), fish (🐟 protein!), roasted vegetables (🌶color!), fruit (🥭carbs! color!), avocado (🥑 healthy fat!) and chocolate (🍫yum!).
Later that day, your fitness tracker/ calorie counting app alerts you that you ate too much salt and went over your calorie goal for the day... and you feel awful.
These apps (like MyFitnessPal, CalorieKing, or even your watch's app) can be great tools. They can estimate how many calories you need and break it down into the proper amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to help keep you on track.
These apps can be motivating. They can be fun! They can provide insight into patterns and trends in your eating that you might not have noticed otherwise.
But they're just tools -- that's all. You can use them the way they're intended, or you can use them in harmful ways.
They can also be wrong.
The problem with calorie counting apps is that they're just guesses. They may give you an educated guess, sure, but at the end of the day... it is still just a guess.
Here are some of the things that your fitness tracking apps can get wrong - or just doesn't know:
📲 How hungry you feel right now.
Apps can teach you to ignore your hunger. One of the biggest things the apps miss is your hunger level. Check in with your hunger level. Are you hungry? Neutral? Full? Are you a more extreme version of hungry or full? Are you not eating because your app says you ate enough? Are you eating because you still have calories left?!
Rate your hunger on a level from 1 to 10, with 1 being famished and 10 being so stuffed you want to go into a food coma. 5 is neutral - you're not thinking about food. If you're physically hungry (3 is the optimal hunger level... once you hit a 2, you're #hangry and 1 has gone too far), you need to eat! And that is true even if you're over your calorie "limit" for the day.
If you don't eat when you're physically hungry, you're not only depriving your body of the nutrients that it needs, you're also setting it up to have cravings and potentially overeat later.
📲 That you ran over 2 hours this morning, and you need to eat more today to replenish your energy and recover.
Yes, the app might "know" that you exercised and might increase your calorie goal because of that... but it doesn't really know what you need. You might be extra hungry, and that's your body's way of saying it needs extra fuel to replenish what you lost. You probably should eat more carbohydrates today, so that you can re-stock your muscles with all the glycogen that you used up on your run.
📲 What foods you're craving for nourishment.
Today you're craving dark meat? Maybe your iron stores are getting low. Craving potato chips? Maybe you need extra salt today.
Listen to your body's cravings and needs. If you're physically hungry (see above), then eat something. Your body knows what it needs in order to feel satisfied and fuel your runs and your life. Most of the time you're likely going to want something healthy... and it is okay if sometimes it wants a piece of chocolate 🍫
📲 That you sweat a TON and you need more salt to help you rehydrate.
Salt is the primary electrolyte lost in sweat, and we can lose a lot of it! While the average person doesn't need more than about 2000 mg of sodium in a day, you might lose that much (or more!) on a sweaty long run in humid conditions.
Without replenishing that sodium that you lost, you're not going to be able to rehydrate properly... water that you do drink can just go right through you. So it is probably best to just ignore their sodium guidelines. If you're worried about your blood pressure or heart health, then discuss with a dietitian or your physician.
So replenish your sodium losses with salty foods - pretzels🥨, soups🍜, pickles🥒, cheese🧀.
📲 That you ate more yesterday, so you're feeling less hungry today. (or vice versa!)
Your app likely gives you a calorie goal. Maybe you try to hit that goal every day. The problem is, your body doesn't necessarily need the same amount of calories every single day! And your body has an ability to get what it needs.
So the app might yell at you for eating over your calorie goal when you're physically hungry, but your body needed the nourishment! If you eat, you shouldn't feel guilty about that. Your app doesn't know what you need -- but you do, if you're in tune with your body.
On the other hand, you might reach for extra food at the end of the day even though you're not hungry, just because you have calories left. Apps can teach you to ignore your hunger.
📲 That it is your birthday and you want to eat cake.
Eat the cake 🎂
📲 That you are stressed and tired, which is affecting your appetite.
Stress can make some people want to eat more (usually they're reaching for comfort foods - they tend to be higher in carbs, fat, and/or salt). Stress makes some people completely lose their appetite and not even realize that they are hungry and need to eat. So again... pay attention to your body. If you're hungry, eat. If you haven't eaten in several hours... eat.
If you're tired, you're likely dealing with increased hunger and cravings thanks to your hormone levels. The best treatment for this is adequate rest. Still, make sure you're eating a balanced diet - don't eat only mac + cheese, but don't skip dinner either.
📲 That you're carb loading for your upcoming half marathon.
When you're prepping for a race, you need ~65% (or more!) of your calories to come from carbohydrates. Half of your plate should be filled with carbohydrate-rich foods! Because you're eating more carbs, you'll have less room for protein and fat.
All of a sudden your app is mad because you didn't hit your macro goals but it doesn't know what you need right now, and it doesn't know that this is a temporary thing that you're doing so that you can race your ass off🍑and get that PR.
And none of these things even account for the inaccuracies inherent in these apps!
People input the calorie data wrong. You estimated the serving size, so your recorded intake is wrong. The nutrition label was actually 10% off (yes, it can happen). Your watch over or underestimated how many calories you burned in your workout. Your metabolic rate is actually higher or lower than what the app estimates it to be.
The point is, the app should not rule your life.
As I said, these apps can be great tools. But they can be harmful too. Use them wisely. If they are causing you more mental anguish and stress than peace of mind, then put them down for a while - delete them from your phone or deactivate your account if you need to!
If you need some help figuring out what to eat without an app... or if you want help putting the app down and learning to trust your body, then I can help. I work with runners 1-on-1 to fuel their bodies better so that they can run better, run faster, run easier... and feel great! Schedule a runner's nutrition strategy session today.