Food tracker apps are on everyone’s smart device. MyFitnessPal Calorie Counter has over 50 million downloads! The USDA SuperTracker has over 27 million users. LoseIt, SparkPeople, FatSecret- there are dozens of food diary apps that allow you to record what and when you are eating. The question isn’t ‘Are you using one?’ but ‘Which one are you using?’ And maybe more importantly, are these tools really useful?
MyFitnessPal claims to that it’s “members have lost over 200 million pounds.” WOW. It sounds like a miracle working tool, at least for weight loss.
When considering the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, is logging every bite really a good thing? Could it be doing more harm than good?
Some research shows that keeping food records is a predictor of more success with weight loss. Although other small studies like this one and this one beg to differ. While we do know that weight loss can reduce risk of some comorbidities like heart disease and diabetes, a healthy weight is not a predictor of good health. It’s about so many factors like the foods we eat, the behaviors we choose, the way we move, how we manage stress, the truth (or lies) we tell ourselves, the way we rest and so much more.
Is a food tracker going to transform your health? Let’s discuss the pros and cons of a food tracker app so that you can determine if it is right for you.
FOOD TRACKER- HELP OR HINDRANCE?
1. It can cause you to think about and consider a food choice before you take a bite.
Mindless eating is prevalent- we do it all the time, without realizing. Nibbling while cooking, the last few bites from your child’s plate, a handful of nuts while you are bagging them up for weekday snacks, a handful of granola while you wait for the coffee to brew… Mindless eating happens. When you commit to tracking what you eat, it makes you think twice before taking a bite.
2. It allows you to analyze your own food choices to assess and tweak your eating plan and patterns.
Do you eat a bulk of your calories after 6pm? Are you eating 350 calorie snacks? Did you forget to drink water yesterday? When you insert the foods, beverages and quantities you are eating, it gives you a “big picture” that allows you to quickly assess your diet and food behaviors. Most individuals don’t need a healthcare professional to point out that there is no breakfast 4 out of 7 days a week OR that they aren’t eating fish for omega-3 fatty acids OR that they didn’t get a veggie at dinner- you can assess on your own when it is right in front of you. You can analyze your choices and slowly make realistic tweaks to your eating patterns to improve your health.
3. It provides general awareness of nutrients in food.
All popular food trackers allow you to assess much more than calories. They show protein, carbs, fat, sugar, saturated fat, fiber and more. Many programs also display micronutrients like potassium and iron. This allows you to see how balanced your meals are each day and over the course of a week. It also allows you to target certain nutrients for health conditions you are trying to address. For example, you can keep track of fiber if you are using lifestyle factors to address cholesterol. A pregnant woman who is anemic might want to keep track of protein and iron.
4. It is a targeted way to focus on your health.
We all know that when we have a goal, it is necessary to have tools to help us focus and refocus because life is full of distractions. A food tracker can help you do this. Each day you are coming back to the same place to check, think through and stay motivated.
1. It can actually remove a level of mindfulness because the goal is to hit target numbers NOT listen to your body.
What if you are hungrier one day? We might be compelled to restrict if we don’t have any calories left to consume per the tracker recommendations. What if you have calories left but you are not really hungry? This gives you permission to eat when your body isn’t requiring energy.
2. It’s not sustainable long term.
Nobody can commit to tracking all of their meals over a lifetime. That is simply unrealistic. Therefore, this tool is not a sustainable long term habit and may promote a “diet mentality,” an approach that can be turned on/off depending on whether we are being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A healthy lifestyle includes healthy boundaries with foods and the ability to say ‘no’ and the ability to enjoy treats. We don’t turn on/off a healthy lifestyle- it’s just how we live.
3. We might avoid certain healthy foods that are difficult to add into the food tracker.
Combination foods that include a variety of ingredients are more grueling to add to the food log. They either require one to tediously add every single ingredient (assuming you know how much was in the food OR that you are able to guestimate accurately) OR they require you to insert a recipe into the app and then identify your portion you ate in the food log. Either way, both are time consuming.
Some apps don’t allow you to add recipes and you have to login on your desktop to do this. Complicated foods might cause one to neglect to add the food. Choosing someone else’s recipe instead may or may not be close to what you actually consumed. Guestimation galore!
People who are measuring or weighing their foods are going to be the most accurate with their portions for the food log, but the practice of weighing and measuring is not available when you are eating out or at someone’s home. Weighing and measuring foods is also a “sticky” behavior that may cause us to neglect our own internal cues for hunger and satiety.
4. We can become hyper-focused on numbers (calories, carbs, fiber, sugar, etc) over eating a wide variety of healthy, whole foods.
Even if chicken, brown rice and broccoli is a nutrient dense, ‘balanced’ meal, eating it every day is boring and causes us to miss out on a variety of other delicious foods and beneficial nutrients. We can get stuck on getting the numbers ‘right’ and miss out on a flavorful, delicious foods. The chocolate cake on date night will cause your sugar grams to elevate, but does that mean you shouldn’t enjoy date night with your spouse? Awareness is good. Becoming hyper-focused is not.
NOT WITHOUT ERROR
Some food tracker apps include a large food database with food options added by individuals. There is a lot of room for human error with these programs… in addition to our own error in adding/removing foods and identifying portions.
A FEW OTHER THOUGHTS…
Food tracking apps can trigger old ways of thinking and behaving, especially for those with a history of an eating disorder. But even past dieters can find themselves playing the “game” and working the numbers. It’s important to know yourself and your tendencies. If you have a personality that can easily get fixated on the numbers- calories, carbs, sugar, etc- you would be wise to leave well enough alone. There are so many ways to go about setting up healthy behaviors that will help you live a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. And, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is probably the best place to start.
If logging what you eat invites feelings of guilt or shame, it’s not for you.
For many, using a food tracker app is an easy, useful approach to minimizing mindless eating and taking responsibility for what we put in out mouth. It is a tool that can help us focus, figure out nutrient gaps and observe unbalanced meals or days. However, it can also cause us to hyper-focus on calories or other nutrients and drown out our own body’s signals. A food tracker will likely be useful for a short period of time, when beginning to make some behavior changes for your health OR as a means of getting back on track to refocus. It will provide awareness, but in the long run, could be detrimental to your health disconnecting you from your ability to make intuitive food decisions that are right for your body.
Remember, your choices are your own. You don’t have to conform to anyone’s definition of “healthy.” Make food, movement and lifestyle decisions that are right for you and align with your own values.
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