GIGO: Misadventures with calorie counting and food databases

In my last post, I wrote about my frustration with a slowdown in my fat loss. I am less concerned about the weight loss than I am about fat loss, but I couldn’t help but be a little frustrated that I am seeing a slowdown of progress more than I expected. I knew well enough what to expect, and my progress was confounding given my honesty and diligence. ¬†I have been mindful, so being a geek at heart, I decided to look more critically at the data. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as we who work with data like to say.

I have been recording my food intake quite faithfully with MyFitnessPal. I previously wrote about the reasons I liked MyFitnessPal are for their decent food database and good social component. MyFitnessPal’s large food database is built in part by the people who use them. When you enter a new food in MyFitnessPal, you can choose to share this information with others. This is why you tend to find a lot of food listed in MyFitnessPal; however, one also need to be careful and verify the information, as I have learned the hard way.

Since I started walking a lot, I developed a new habit of strolling my baby to Safeway and purchasing my grocery in small amounts and carrying them home by foot under the stroller. I go to Safeway maybe two or three times a week for fresh produce instead of the once a week when I used to do my grocery shopping driving a car. Sometimes, maybe twice a week, I would go there during lunch after my baby wakes up from her morning nap, buy a sandwich from their Signature Cafe deli, and eat it before I do my grocery shopping (as I like to do my grocery shopping on a full tummy). I had made what I thought were good choices, but once I had MyFitnessPal, I actually chose different sandwiches because of the information provided there.

I actually asked the folks at Safeway Signature Cafe back in mid-February if they have nutritional information, but they said that they did not so I consulted with MyFitnessPal and trusted the information there for my order. I asked where I might find the information on nutritional information and I was told to look at the website or call customer service. I decided to dig deeper and see if that data was accurate. In the back of my mind I had always wondered how the data from MyFitnessPal was obtained, since it was not easily obtained by my own efforts and did not appear to be published anywhere.

After the failed attempt at the store, I called Safeway Corporate headquarters… I got the run-around. One person pointed me to their website, which did not have such information, so I called another. The next person told me that she would send me the information via mail. I waited for nearly 2 weeks and it did not come. The next person I spoke with transfered me to someone in Corporate Brands, who told me that I would have to give her the specific sandwich I want information on and she might call me back. I asked if she can email me or mail it to me, she said no. She offered to help me file a complaint and I told her I would like to file a complaint about how this information is so hard to find and should be published on their website. I gave her my number, she called later and left a voicemail with no information but left a number to call, which was customer service once again… The next customer service representative told me that Corporate Brands is an internal department and cannot give out their phone number, and that he also cannot email this information to me but he will research this for me. To his credit, he did call back and was able to read to me the calorie information on a couple of sandwiches, which did not match up with what I saw in MyFitnessPal.

I was not satisfied with the little information that I got. Yes, now I know that the information on MyFitnessPal is probably wrong, but I wanted more so I was not going to stop there (People who know me knows how tenacious I am about things that matter to me). From there, I took my inquiry to social media. I tweeted Safeway, but I got no response. Then I posted the question on Safeway’s Facebook page, to which I got no answer but was told that store manager should have this information. I had tried this before but thought, maybe I will try it again… So I walked down to Safeway with my baby and asked to speak with the store manager. This time I spoke with a different store manager, and while he was not able to find the information while I was there (which was what happened the first time), he did take down my name and phone number and promised to call me once he locates it. He told me he used to work in the deli and he has seen such information available before and I felt like he knew what he was talking about, more than any other person I spoke with. The store manager called me back an hour later and told me he located the information and he was able to email it to me — Hooray!!

The information I received was a bit shocking to me because I found out that the discrepancy between the information on MyFitnessPal for the Safeway Signature Cafe sandwiches were not so minor. For example, there were 3 sandwiches I liked that I looked up:

Tuscan Chicken Sandwich, which was listed on MyFitnessPal as 890 calories (which was my previous favorite until seeing that on MyFitnessPal), is actually 1040 calories (17% more).

California Dreamin’, which is your basic cold turkey sandwich, was listed on MyFitnessPal as 398 calories, turned out to be 900 calories (126% more).

Italian Turkey, which is a hot turkey sandwich on Focaccia bread was listed on MyFitenssPal as 411 calories, turned out to be 1120 calories (172% more).

Keep in mind that these sandwiches were regular size, not the large. Large is what most people I stand in line with order, and the calories listed for those are twice as the regular sandwich. These sandwiches all have more calories than the dinner I eat! If not for the fact that I undercount my exercise calories and keep good track of what I ate everyday, I might have gained a lot more instead of having a slow fat loss!

Do I blame MyFitnessPal? No. They provide a good tool, and while I have no idea why there was such a large discrepancy in the data (possible due to user error or change in the actual recipes), I will not stop using it as a tool. What I will do is to be more vigilant about what I eat. This experience has taught me that you can’t really trust the calorie counts THAT much when you don’t prepare the foods yourself. Some percentage of restaurants are understating their calories¬†somewhat, and calories are estimates and not exact by nature. People also have a tendency to overestimate their calorie burns through exercise, which makes honest food journaling even more important. If I had not been honest about my journaling it would be very hard for me to go back and look at what might have not been working for me.

I probably will be going back to making my own lunch to eat for quite a while, with the occasional social outing as exception. And I will be using the data that I gathered to correct the MyFitnessPal entries so hopefully other people are not messing up their efforts!

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