December 1, 2021

The Best Paid Diet App (and the Best Free Alternatives)

Table of Contents Calculating calorie needs based on your intake and weight shouldn’t be revolutionary,…

MacroFactor's dashboard screen, calorie expenditure graph, and weight graph

Screenshot: Beth Skwarecki, MacroFactor

MacroFactor is a weight-tracking and food-tracking app that does what I previously did with three different free apps. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what those apps are and how to set them up, if you’d like to save yourself $11.99 per month, but I’ve gotta say: MacroFactor is surprisingly good at its job, and it does two things that don’t really exist in other diet apps.

The first is technological: MacroFactor does a calorie burn calculation that every food-tracking app should be able to do, but for whatever reason, they usually don’t. (Probably because they’re so preoccupied with counting up your exercise calories, which as we’ve noted before, doesn’t usually end up being accurate.)

The second is psychological: MacroFactor presents its numbers in a way that is factual and judgment-neutral. You ate this many calories. You burned this many calories. No talk of being “off track,” no incessant notifications about whether or not you’re meeting your goals. The information is just there. You can use it however you like.

Calculating calorie needs based on your intake and weight shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is

There is a number of calories that your body burns on an average day. It’s commonly called TDEE, for total daily energy expenditure. You’ll lose weight if you consistently eat less than this number, and you’ll gain weight if you consistently eat more. There are a bunch of details and caveats, if you want to really get into it, but that’s the basic idea behind calorie counting.

(For a primer, check our weight-loss-minus-the-bullshit post here. Gaining weight works the same way except you’ll be adding calories instead of subtracting them.)

Ultimately, the way you find your TDEE is by paying attention to how your weight changes over time. If you’re eating 3,000 calories a day, and your weight stays stable, then your TDEE must be 3,000. If you’re eating 2,500 calories a day, and you’re losing a pound a week, that also indicates that your TDEE is 3,000, because that’s the number you must be burning.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the world is full of apps that track your food calories and apps that track your weight, but almost zero that do this basic calculation relating the two. Until recently, the most reliable way to figure out your TDEE from your weight was to use something like this Reddit-famous spreadsheet, or to make adjustments manually. In other words, if you want to lose weight but the scale isn’t moving, subtract a few hundred more calories and see how that goes.

There’s an app called TDEE Tracker that does what the spreadsheet does, but it reads the data from your food-tracking app and your weight-tracking app, automating the process somewhat. Click on a given week, and you’ll see your average weight that week and your calculated average TDEE for that week.

There are diet coaching apps like Carbon and RP (both paid) that change their recommendations based on your weight, but those have their own quirks that I never really enjoyed. Carbon has you grade yourself on how “compliant” you were to the specific macros it prescribed, and RP never calculates anything with calories at all. Both of these apps expect you to eat exactly what they tell you if you want to be properly coached. And as a rebel, I say: fuck that.

I hate when an app judges me

To me, an app or gadget is a tool that I use for my own purposes. I don’t appreciate getting dinged for breaking a streak (maybe I needed a rest day, OK, Apple Watch?) and I definitely don’t want to see “oh no you went over your fat calories for the day” when I am just trying to live my goddamn life, MyFitnessPal!

For the past few years, I’ve been keeping an eye on my weight because I compete in weight-class sports, and I track my nutrition—sometimes, not always—to make sure my weight and body composition (muscle versus fat) are going in whatever direction makes sense for my goals at a given time. But I’m also just a human being eating food because that’s a thing we humans do. I don’t need nudges and frowny faces when I’m just trying to record the fact that I’m eating a burrito with 36 grams of protein.

The free answer to this problem is to use Cronometer instead of something like MyFitnessPal. In Cronometer, you can turn off your macro targets so that you’re never “exceeding” your allotment of fat or carbs. (You used to be able to turn off the calorie target entirely, although that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.) I can just log my food and the numbers are what they are.

The low-tech equivalent, by the way, is to just take a look at the calories of things you’re eating (on the label if it has a label, or by googling, say, “chicken breast nutrition”). When I got sick of all the apps, I went through a phase of just keeping a note on my phone with the protein and calories of each thing I ate, and I’d add up the total at the end of the day. Works just as well.

But these days? I use MacroFactor, of course. The app shows you each day of the week as a column of rectangles. If you go over your target for calories or for a given macro, you just see that your rectangle for that day is slightly taller than its shadow. If you go under, your rectangle is shorter than its shadow. That’s it. At the end of the week, there’s a check-in where it tells you it’s raising your target by 52 calories, or whatever. There’s no “omg you went over” siren, and no third degree about how closely you followed the instructions.

Weight has its ups and downs

One of the frustrating things about trying to change your weight is that it doesn’t always change right away. Day-to-day fluctuations are to be expected: I know I tend to be heavier the morning after a salty, carby restaurant meal, and I always weigh in light after a night I’ve been drinking, thanks to alcohol’s mildly dehydrating properties.

There’s a tiny part of my brain that freaks out if the scale ticks up a half a pound and doesn’t come back down right away, even though I’ve seen these ups and downs a million times before. My previous solution to this was to use Happy Scale, an app that focuses on the trend line instead of your latest scale weight. If you’re heavier this week than last week, on average, then you’re probably gaining.

MacroFactor? Yep, it does exactly this when calculating your TDEE. Daily ups and downs don’t mean that you’re having sharp fluctuations in your TDEE or in the actual amount of fat and muscle and organs and bones that you have. Sometimes the trend line can seem slow to react to real changes; that’s the tradeoff you make. Overall, I’m happy with how it handles the trend.

Put this all together

So here’s how it looks from day to day. I track my food in MacroFactor, and I weigh myself every morning (after using the bathroom, before eating anything) on a smart scale that automatically updates my phone. When I check the app, I can see how many calories I’ve eaten that day, and in smaller text it tells me my calorie target. Every week, there’s a “check-in” where the app adjusts my calorie target for the coming week (usually a very small tweak, like this week you’ll have 43 calories less).

Unlike other diet-coaching apps, you can choose to ignore the recommendation and eat what you want, and the calculations will keep working on the basis of what you actually ate, not just what you were supposed to eat.

I spent this summer deliberately gaining weight so I could put on muscle (using the RP app for some of that time, and homebrew calorie tracking for the rest). Luckily, MacroFactor launched right when it was time to lose some of the weight I had gained. I just hit my goal this morning, and I’ll probably do a maintenance phase next.

It’s been fascinating to watch my estimated calorie expenditure change over these past two months or so. I can see my TDEE increase around the time I did a ten-mile run (it was a one-day thing, but the app picked it up as a gradual increase that week instead of a sudden spike). Then there was a decrease in the week or two after that when I didn’t run at all (race day was over and I enjoyed my recovery), and then an uptick again when I started doing a little cardio on the bike every morning. The overall trend has been downward, which makes sense on a diet: Our bodies can adjust calorie expenditure to save energy in ways we don’t always notice. I won’t be surprised if my TDEE bumps up a little when I’m back in maintenance mode.

The free alternatives

So what can you do if you’re curious about this approach but want another option besides this particular app? If you’ve been reading carefully, you already know the answer. To recreate this functionality, you need three apps:

  1. Cronometer to track your food (tweak your settings as needed for your mental health)
  2. Happy Scale (iOS) or Libra (Android) to smooth the trend line of your weight loss/gain/maintenance
  3. TDEE Tracker (iOS), Adaptive TDEE Calculator (Android), or the TDEE Spreadsheet, to estimate your calorie burn based on your daily weight changes

Track your food in Cronometer, and either enter your weight every day into the weight-tracking app or let your smart scale enter it automatically. Check the TDEE app weekly, and adjust your calorie target in Cronometer to match (500 calories below your calculated TDEE would be a typical target for a one-pound-a-week weight loss, for example).

https://lifehacker.com/the-best-paid-diet-app-and-the-best-free-alternatives-1848043085