Are Food Tracker Apps the Devil They’re Made Out To Be?

(DougCookRD.com)

Diet and fitness apps are plentiful indeed. Many people are using them to track their calories and activity as part of their wellness efforts but these apps have come under fire with claims that they are essentially the devil incarnate; leading people into temptation with an unhealthy preoccupation with eating.

Do these apps have any value?

 

Tracking what I ate and exercise too

I decided to do this because I was curious to see just how many calories, fiber, sugars, key amino acids, and vitamins and minerals I was consuming from my usual intake. I wasn’t going into this to modify anything; just wanted to get a sense of my baseline, a snapshot of where I was especially with respect to my intake of vitamins and minerals.

Personally, I use supplements and routinely use supplements in my practice since loads of research shows that people in general, including Canadians, regularly miss the mark when it comes to getting the minimum recommended intake of vitamin and minerals on a daily so I was curious to see what was going on with  myself.

My app of choice

I chose to give Cronometer a try (note, I have no affiliation with this app and this is not a sponsored post). Like all of these apps, I had to enter my age, height, weight, gender, and estimated activity level. The app helps to qualify and quantify different activity levels, i.e. ‘moderate’ was defined as “moving frequently through the day (construction work, stocking shelves, cleaning, etc..)”, that sounded like me. I am in relatively sedentary job; a fair bit of sitting while I chart on patients and while I don’t do something as intense as construction, I walk everywhere, up and down stairs between floors in the hospital, from one place to another. The patient care areas that I cover are quite spread out over the hospital campus. I was also asked about my weight management goal: to lose, maintain or gain weight. Me? To maintain my current weight thank you very much.

This app used one of a handful of equations (Mifflin St Jeor) used in clinical practice to estimate BMR or basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy needed just to keep my body running) which came out to 1614 calories per day; add on the extra calories (807) estimated to meet my ‘moderate’ activity level and I got a reasonable, and expected, ballpark figure of 2421 calories per day.

So what’s the big deal

Some feel that the equations for weight loss are too simplistic. Based on the outdated idea that since a pound, or 454 g, of fat has 3500 calories, all that’s needed is to cut 500 calories per day in order to lose a pound of fat per week. Of course weight loss isn’t that straightforward; the body will not politely follow orders and drop fat in a linear fashion but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in using these numbers to guide the process.

This concept of calories in, and calories out, is also applied to a feature of the app that automatically deducts calories burned from exercise to give you your ‘net calories’. For example, I’m expected to need about 2400 calories per day and if I eat 1800 calories by mid-afternoon, exercise and burn 400 calories, then my ‘net calories’ will read 1400 calories suggesting I need another 1000 calories to break even since my goal is to maintain my current weight.

Do I hang my hat on that number and freak out if I only manage to eat 800 calories according to the app? Of course not but if I kept this up and only ate half of the ‘predicted’ 1000 calories needed, I would lose weight. The goal is not to measure and count calories down to two decimal points – if that’s happening, then sorry folks, you’ve miss the point.

The thing is, if you want to lose weight or gain weight, you need to start somewhere. If someone was honest about recording what they ate and drank, and they wanted to lose weight, a 500 calorie deficit is a reasonable place to start. Modest weight loss will occur and depending one’s energy level, how one feels etc, the calories could be tweaked to accommodate an individual precisely because these apps offer an estimate of energy requirements AND were never meant to be followed ‘to the letter of the law’.

News flash, the body can only lose weight by being in some kind of calorie deficit. Yes calories are treated differently depending on the food source (broccoli vs. licorice), yes, there could be other health issues or medications that affect how the body partitions energy (does the energy get burned or stored as fat), but by and large, a consistent, modest caloric deficit will result in weight loss.

News flash part deux, strategies like emphasizing bulky, lower calorie vegetables such as the ‘space on your plate’, the Zone Diet (which is similar to the ‘space on your place’), or any diet for that matter, or any weight loss program like Weigh Watchers are exploiting the very fact that a calorie deficit is needed. Food tracking apps are no different

But what about all that disordered eating?

Another criticism about these apps is that they will create disordered eating and disordered relationships with food, maybe. It’s true if a person is Type A, thrives on control, is impulsive or is numbers and data driven, then he or she could become a slave to the app; rather than the app serving them, they serve the app. True enough.

The irony of course is that in the nutrition world, we already do this and have been doing this long before I got into the game. We preach patient/client education, we tell people to read labels, ingredient lists and nutrition facts tables so that they can make informed decisions when it comes to one of the most basic human activities: eating. We ask people to do food journals, not only for the purposes of a nutritional assessment but as an ongoing activity, to help create awareness around their choices. We exploit the known fact that journaling (tracking) results in behavior change simply by the Hawthorne effect or “the alteration of behavior by the subjects of a study due to their awareness of being observed”, yes this even happens when we ‘self observe’. And for the love of God, dDon’t forget about calorie counts on menus either.

Tracking is already happening folks.

 

Food tracking apps can be helpful

When people ask me for meal plans, I grimace (at least in my mind) because they suck; no one follows them and people don’t eat that way AND no one knows where they’ll be a week from Thursday so a meal plan with a predetermined selection isn’t helpful. We eat somewhat spontaneously, maybe knowing what we might eat 1 or 2 meals out but for the most part we wing it. An meal tracking app is a great way to navigate one’s goals out in the real world keeping in mind they’re a GUIDE, not something to hang your hat on. We’re talking ‘estimates’ so everyone needs to stand back and take a deep breath.

I’d argue that these apps can be a great tool for most people with a little guidance on the part of the practitioner. Even tracking a few days a week can help to create and maintain awareness, mindfulness and the like. For this reason, I will recommend them, and Cronometer in particular; it looks good, is easy to use and has a lot of great features which can be tailored to the individual.

People need to be able to navigate the real world and with the guidance of a nutrition practitioner, apps can empower people to do just that.

On a side note, the app did confirm what I suspected and what is supported by countless studies and surveys; without supplements, I, like many people, routinely missed the mark with minerals. Vitamins tended to be easier to get but even with a 2400 to 2600 calories per day junk food-free diet (yes even taking into account a reasonable margin of variance for the nutrient content of the entered food items), I was missing out on optimal amounts of iodine, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A (the real stuff, retinol/retinal not beta or alpha carotene) and vitamin D, as well as, choline, and the amino acid glycine (a recent phenomenon of the modern diet). I was blown away by my fiber intake though! Averaging between 50 and 60 g per day! And to think I’m an omnivore, not vegetarian AND barely a fart to suggest I eat like a herbivore. I must have a kick-ass microbiota profile to handle that fiber load if I’m going to toot (pun intended), my own horn.

 

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