Tracking Food, There’s an App for That
We are now into the fifth week of 2016 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 long-term. For those of you that are technology oriented, explore 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. No matter what app 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. Sites often ask for similar information including gender, age, height, weight and weight goal. The differences between apps appear after entering this information. For example, when comparing two sites, one site calculated 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 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.
Many sites have a pretty good catalog of searchable food items in their database, although some may be 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 you make a squash, apple, and lentil soup from scratch. Whenever these foods were eaten, the apps wanted to enter it into the food tracker and the challenge is how to do that accurately. Often it is necessary guesstimate how much of each ingredient was in each serving and enter those items separately.
After entering food for the day, both the sites used allowed for a physical activity entry. Both sites produced nearly identical data for all the activities completed and the options are pretty endless. You can get credit for anything from playing with your children, shoveling snow and of course, all the typical things like running, biking and swimming. Although the different sites gave similar data for each activity.
A helpful option is being able to see just how much every little thing consumed chewed into my daily caloric need. Many times we say to ourselves, “oh it’s just one little slice of cheese,” or “it was just a handful of chips,” but actually seeing the calorie gauge increase with each entry really painted a clear picture of what is being consumed and ultimately, how much exercise was need to burn off calories..
You can also see if you are 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.
This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit http://www.msue.msu.edu.