Food tracking, there’s an app for that!

Using technology can help people to better visualize their diet and caloric balance.

We are now a little over three weeks into the new year and although one in three Americans makes a New Year’s resolution pertaining to a healthier lifestyle, after just one week, already 25 percent of those resolutions have been left behind. By six months, those still working toward meeting their resolution goals drops to 50 percent. There are many reasons for this downward trend, but mostly, it’s because sticking to a resolution is hard work. Being healthy is a lifestyle, not just a 10-week plan and it can be difficult to self-motivate longterm. For those of you that are technology oriented, Michigan State University Extension suggests exploring how a food tracking app might be helpful in reaching your health goals this year and beyond.

First, what is a food-tracking app?  It is a program that allows the user to input the foods they have eaten throughout the day and gives output data related to calories consumed and other dietary data like sodium intake, the amount of sugar consumed, etc. Some apps also allow users to input exercise data and personal body type data. The level of detail depends on the app. A simple keyword search on a popular download site yielded almost 100 diet tracking apps, many of which are free. Choosing the right app for you, however, can be painstaking. Because I don’t have a smartphone or tablet, I took a simpler route and reviewed two different free web-based food tracking sites. No matter what method you choose, these tools have their pros and cons but overall they were incredibly helpful in giving a visual of calories in/calories out and how much (or how little) food we should be consuming in a day.

Just like almost anything else on the web, the first thing you must do is sign-up. Both sites asked for similar information including gender, age, height, weight and weight goal. I noticed the first major difference immediately after entering this information. One site calculated my daily caloric need as 1600 calories (standard USDA recommendation for average American female) and one calculated it to be 1365 calories per day, which was possibly calculated based on my measurements and my weight goal (which was to maintain my current weight). A 365-calorie difference for some is not a big deal, but for those that really want to lose weight, an accurate calculation of caloric need is important. Which one is right? I’m not sure, but I feel more comfortable personally with the one based on my measurements, not the average American.

Both sites have a pretty good catalog of searchable food items in their database, although one was easier to use because the food items popped up as they were typed as opposed to taking you to a different screen to select foods. The food entry part of these apps is the most time consuming, but obviously the most important. The apps and sites work best when you’re eating manufactured foods, eating simple things like “apple,” or when eating at popular restaurants. It gets tricky, and sometimes downright annoying when you do a lot of home cooking. For example, one day I made a squash, apple, and lentil soup from scratch. Whenever I ate it and wanted to enter it into the food tracker my mind was boggled about how exactly to do that accurately. I would have to guesstimate how much of each ingredient was in each serving and enter those items separately. In the end, I decided to search for the most similar manufactured item and entered that, even though I knew my version was healthier. I was willing to sacrifice the calories for simplicity.

After entering food for the day, both the sites I used allowed for a physical activity entry. Both sites produced nearly identical data for all the activities I did and the options are pretty endless. You can get credit for anything from baton twirling, playing with your children, walking on crutches, shoveling snow or coal, kissing or the javelin throw…and of course, all the typical things like running, biking and swimming. Although the different sites gave similar data for each activity, I did find that compared to the measurement on my own treadmill, they seemed a little low. For example, 70 minutes of running at a particular speed yielded 450 calories spent according to trackers, but my treadmill said I burned 900 calories. That is in undeniably huge difference, which would require further research to reconcile.

Overall, I enjoyed using the food tracking sites and will probably continue to use them on a limited basis. The most useful part for me was that I could see just how much every little thing I consumed chewed into my daily caloric need. Many times I think we say to ourselves, “oh it’s just one little slice of cheese,” or “it was just a handful of chips,” but actually seeing my calorie gauge increase with each entry really painted a clear picture of what I was consuming and ultimately, how much I needed to burn off shoveling snow. I could also see if I was consuming more than the daily recommended amounts of sugar, sodium and fat, which is also very useful information when thinking about overall diet and health.

Although there is not yet any specific data showing that food-tracking apps help people meet their health and nutrition goals, if you are better at visual learning or like data-based information, tracking your daily food and activity using an app could be helpful to you.

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