Apps for losing weight: how to track what you eat

While there are more dieting fads than days in a year, they generally boil down to two general recommendations: exercise more and eat less. Specifically, eat a certain amount of calories per day and use those calories wisely. Trying to shed a few extra pounds, I decided to try out a few apps to monitor my calorie intake. Use led to critique and a wish list for the calorie-counting app developers out there.

First, the good:

  1. Tracking is not so hard when you do it one meal at a time. Apps, by just being on your phone and with you at all times, are a great help.
  2. Most foods are available in the apps’ databases, though it seems many are added by users. This is good in that many foods are covered but bad in that there is no standard form. See below for more.
  3. All the apps were good at telling me how many calories to eat per day based on my current weight and goal.
  4. Exercise is easy to enter, even when not using a dedicated fitness wearable.

A few I’d like to see:

Instant Conversion Rice: one cup = 180 grams = 6.4 ounces = four servings

Instant Conversion
Rice: one cup = 180 grams = 6.4 ounces = four servings

  1. Instant amount conversion. It’s hard enough tracking food but estimating the amount eaten shouldn’t be that hard. In most apps I looked at foods could be quantified in one. and only one, of four formats:
    • Weight: the easiest to measure but sometimes the hardest to estimate, yet usually preferable to all other formats.
    • Volume: doable if you have measurement tools handy.
    • Quantity: very rarely did I see this unit and then only for foods like a slice of bread or whole fruit. I would have expected to see it in more food types such as raviolis, berries, and nuts, just to mention a few.
    • Serving size: this was useful only for processed foods and for when the wrapped product was on hand. Otherwise it was useless.
    • There is no excuse not to give at least weight, volume and either quantity or serving size for each and every food in the database. Let the user choose what format to use.
  2. Careful crowd-sourcing. It very understandable that apps allow users to add various foods and it’s generally a good thing, putting in a very wide variety of food in the database. However, it gets messy really quickly when standards for entering foods are not upheld and result in multiple entries for identical products. It also overwhelms the search capabilities when too many results pop up for specific searches. As limited information is provided in the result listing, the user is required to explore every returned result until they find the one that matches their food. To prevent this, standardize food information and names. Another way to help when organizing search results is to mark foods entered by reliable sources as such and display those results before crowd-sourced ones.
  3. More foods: Be proactive in getting industry and restaurant foods in the database as quickly as possible. Reward restaurant chains and food producers for entering their nutritional data into the app by featuring them more prominently and letting them add graphics to their foods.
  4. Allow users to save their recipes. Add it only to their personal food database, there’s no need to bother anyone else with their personal take on plum jam. Second, make recipes adjustable, to reflect the actual sugar used in the plum jam recipe each time it’s made.

Finally, it turns out that even some “close enough” tracking is helpful in that it can influence behavior. For example, I don’t like wearing fitness bands when working out and one of the apps gave me an estimate of how many calories I was burning doing a period of “standard” exercises such as walking and swimming. Sure, the calories burned for butterfly stroke per minute are probably higher than those burned by swimming the breaststroke for the same period of time, but tracking that is more difficult. The rough estimate given is good enough. Evidently, with me, any kind of tracking already improves my behavior. And that’s a good thing.

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