More than counting calories: a few ideas for diet apps

What’s the number one New Year’s resolution? According to the US government the top resolution Americans make is to lose weight.

Wait, there’s an app for that! More than one, actually, but the one I have been using for a few months now is Lose It, the free version. It does a good job at helping me log what I eat and helps me keep track of what I have eaten. I stress the “what I have eaten” because Lose It and the other diet apps are really good at showing me the past and not as good at helping me plan the future. Before I continue: Lose It has a premium version which allows users to set goals, track better, plan ahead, and challenge and compete with your fellow dieters. But again, Lose It and the other diet apps are good at helping me track what I’ve eaten and that’s a positive. Tracking is often a very insightful way to see what’s bringing up that calorie count (the day I found out just how many calories were in a brioche was a sad day.)

Just for the sake of research, and for keeping you, dear readers, informed, I took a look at the top diets as ranked by US News. They base the ranking on weight loss, difficulty to follow and effectiveness for different dietary needs. When taking a closer look at specific diets it seems that all have a certain set of rules that the dieters must follow.

Take, for example, the DASH diet, the best overall diet according to US News: “The DASH diet emphasizes vegetables, fruit and low-fat dairy foods — and moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts” says the Mayo Clinic, inventor of this particular diet. Specifically, the diet calls for:

  • Calories: 2,000 a day
  • Grains: 6 to 8 servings a day
  • Vegetables: 4 to 5 servings a day
  • Fruits: 4 to 5 servings a day
  • Dairy: 2 to 3 servings a day
  • Lean meat, poultry and fish: 6 or fewer servings a day
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes: 4 to 5 servings a week
  • Fats and oils: 2 to 3 servings a day
  • Sweets: 5 or fewer a week
Cauliflower: a food trend for 2015 that satifsies that cruciferous vegetable requirement,

Cauliflower: a food trend for 2015 that satisfies that cruciferous vegetable requirement.

The plan also goes on to list what kind of foods satisfy each category. This diet isn’t unique in these kind of requirements: very specific, with set amounts of different food groups and with different options in each category. It’s not impossible to eat according to this diet but it does require planning ahead of time and attention to everything eaten during it.

Now, going back to the dieting apps. What I’d like them to do is help users do that planning for a specific diet plan and then help users follow it. How?

  1. Always say how many calories of the allocated amount (in this case 2,000 per day) are left. Most apps already do this.
  2. For the recommended daily amounts, help users keep track of what they have eaten and, like calories, tell them what they have left. Analyze the food they have eaten into recommended servings according to the diet. This can be useful towards the end of the day, say dinner, when users can see that they’ve eaten all their grains and dairy but still have a serving of vegetables, fruits and meats to eat.
  3. Suggest possible foods to eat, not just categories. Has the user eaten their leafy greens? Their cruciferous vegetables? The Mayo DASH diet page is good at giving options, just suggest a few for each meal.
  4. For the recommended weekly amounts, do the same.
  5. Help with cheating. Everyone cheats every once in a while and has two slices of pizza during a meal when the recommended food was poached fish. Instead of showing a red mark of shame, show what to eat in the next meal or day to balance those carbs, dairy and calories.
  6. Help with shopping. Put together shopping lists based on the consumption of foods eaten according to the plan from the previous weeks along with suggestions for new foods that meet the diet’s requirements.
  7. Let dieters change plans often. The DASH diet not working for you? Try the TLC.

For me, the best part of an improved weight loss app would be this daily balance of the different food groups. What haven’t I eaten? What have I eaten too much of? What can I eat that still fits my calorie count and nutritional needs? Don’t just tell me I have 500 calories available for dinner, tell me how to best use them. Now, let’s see if I can maintain this diet throughout January.


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