Food-tracking apps’ pros, cons on how well they help people develop healthy eating habits

Some zero in on calorie-counting over healthier eating and improving other habits. They might do little to teach healthy eating skills, like meal-planning and preparation.

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Some smartphone apps can determine the calories in food simply by snapping a photo of the items.

Some smartphone apps can determine the calories in food simply by snapping a photo of the items.

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Food-tracking apps have ballooned in popularity.

One of the most popular features of nutrition-focused digital apps is the ability to record the food you eat and quickly view nutritional information. Dietary guidance and sharing of recipes can be just a few taps away. Physical activity and sleep also can be tracked to help with health and weight-loss goals.

Some things to know about food-tracking apps:

Pros

Food apps are convenient, affordable and increasingly easy to use.

“The top two strengths of these apps include accountability and awareness of eating habits,” says Caroline Susie, a Dallas registered dietitian.

Since behavioral change can be hard to implement and maintain, Susie says one useful tool to support dietary changes is having help to hold you accountable for your dietary choices.

Tracking your food also can bring a whole new level of awareness and mindfulness to how you eat.

“Using apps for purposes like photo food journaling is an easy way to bring awareness to hunger and fullness, time of meals, portion sizes and more,” Susie says. “It’s a visual way for my clients and me to identify any patterns that need to be addressed.”

Seeing what you eat and getting feedback simultaneously can be a powerful tool for change, she says. There can be a disconnect between what we are actually eating compared to what we think we are eating.

Research is finding that, for many people, digital nutrition and lifestyle-oriented programs can aid in improving eating habits and contribute to weight loss. A meta-analysis published in the journal Obesity Reviews found that app-based mobile interventions can improve nutrition behaviors and health outcomes, including having positive effects on obesity.

Some meal-tracking apps require you to manually input the food items you plan to eat, and the app’s logarithm calculates the calorie count.

Some meal-tracking apps require you to manually input the food items you plan to eat, and the app’s logarithm calculates the calorie count.

stock.adobe.com

A recent research review in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that digital nutrition interventions including apps that target parents as users can improve nutrition-related outcomes in children and parents. These positive outcomes might largely be attributed to the food-logging apps helping users make informed choices and bringing to light areas for improvement.

“Food-tracking apps can also be helpful to pinpoint potential food tolerances and allergies along with their associated symptoms,” Susie says.

Some apps have helpful features, such as barcode scanners, meal planners, workout trackers, dietitian support and the ability to enter and save recipes.

Cons

“These apps can be hyper-focused on calories and macronutrients while missing the bigger nutrition and health picture,” Susie says.

Some apps zero in on calorie-counting over healthier eating and improving other habits. They might do little to teach overall healthy eating skills, like meal-planning and preparation.

Susie says some people will find the apps tedious to use every day.

“It takes time to enter a recipe or find the exact food you are consuming, which, after a while, can lead to reduced compliance,” she says.

Many apps rely on user-generated food data that isn’t scrutinized for accuracy.

“This means the nutritional information of the food database itself can be inaccurate,” Susie says.

Susie also says, “These apps can be extremely triggering and problematic if someone becomes obsessive about tracking.”

Bottom line

The apps can help people feel motivated, accountable and disciplined. But they have limitations. Consider your goals and which features are most important to you.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by nutrition experts.

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