There are an estimated 40,000 health, fitness, and medical apps. They range from references to calculators to diaries to tracker apps, such as diabetes managers and heart rate monitors. Choosing the right app is highly dependent on what your goals are and what your lifestyle is like. Keeping consistent with entering data and understanding the information produced by the apps all impact how a dietitian might make a recommendations to clients.
From an initial assessment perspective, these apps can be helpful to get an idea of where people are starting to build a diet plan. For some people, they do not know where their intake lies, letting tracking from time to time act as gauge for setting goals and making adjustments to their diets. They also serve the purpose of helping people overcome plateaus to see where there could be areas for improvement. Other benefits and uses of tracking apps include:
Are they really all that?
There are many benefits and uses for tracking as seen above but when all is said and done, it is definitely not for everyone and may pose some draw backs. For starters, it can be a very tedious and time consuming task to record what is taken in, adding extra stress to an already hectic schedule. For most it is not real life to get fixated on everything that is consumed. The reality is life happens with family celebrations, nights out and sick days when chicken noodle soup and crackers become someone’s best friends.
The Calorie Counting Game
Many apps utilize the age old theory of calories in, calories out. They are formatted to make users believe that to lose weight, calories must be reduced (either eat less or burn more), to gain weight, calories must be added, and to maintain weight, calories kept constant. The truth of the matter is this is not completely true or simple. Yes, calories absolutely count. And, yes when someone loses weight, they generally have expended more than they consumed but there is a major misunderstanding about calories, body weight, fat loss, and health.
The main part of this equation that these apps oversimplify is the calories out, only taking into consideration the calories used during activities. They are unable to take into account individual variations for resting energy expenditure, the energy used to handle basic, day-to-day physiological functions and maintenance of health and lean mass, or the thermic effect of food, the energy used to digest food and process nutrients. Someone could drop energy intake and maintain their resting metabolic rate while burning the same amount of energy digesting food (even though they’re eating less of it) and working out. Our bodies have an amazing ability to handle a surplus of calories consumed on occasion without putting on mass. So when these apps show that little red alert stating a person is over their daily calorie allowance and predicts a specific amount of weight gain, this could create negative feelings unnecessarily. These apps may create problems related to restrictive dietary rules, including the development of obsessive behaviours towards food. The same issues may be seen with calorie counting in general, where individuals may feel guilt or stress over goals, and even avoid social gatherings to prevent overages in caloric intake from occurring. Natural hunger and satiety cues should not be overlooked or forgotten in favour of eating by numbers.
Others may focus solely on hitting calorie and macro targets from whatever foods they want, ignoring the importance of micronutrient rich foods from fruit and vegetables. The principles should remain the same; get plenty of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods in the diet. Focus on food quality and caloric intake, not just one.
It should be noted that not all apps are created equally. Some are more user friendly, while others contain only verified, accurate statistics on food. When all this is said and done, evidence that smartphone applications actually work to promote healthy behaviors in users is scant. The usefulness can vary greatly depending on the user, it is completely individual dependent. Using these apps still pose the benefits to help some people stay on track with monitoring intake never being simpler. Whether or not you choose to use an app, the primary focus should be on building better habits and consistency with eating good quality food first.
Alysha Coughler, MHSc (c), RD (c), PTS
Dietetic Intern at Evolved Sport and Nutrition
There's no Barrier that you can not Overcome