Nutrition Apps 101
What would we do without apps?
For those of you who are old enough to remember the Palm Pilot (Google it if you don’t), it is incredible how far app technology has come. From the early days of the original monochrome daily scheduler of the Palm Pilot, these days there’s an app for everything – apps that help you track exercise, heart rate, sleep and food intake; apps that tell you when to rest, assist you with meditation, help you compete against others and monitor blood glucose levels. There’s even an app for those times you want to pretend you are at your favourite 90s rock concert – the imitation cigarette lighter app; this one’s my all-time personal favourite.
While there’s a lot of apps out there, the focus of this article is food-specific apps – looking at why they can be useful, weighing up the pros and cons of food diaries, comparing two common apps, namely the Easy Diet Diary and MyFitnessPal and providing you with some practical tips for use.
Why use a nutrition app?
Recording everything you eat in a diary or app can be a handy tool, if you are using that tool correctly: either for assessment, education or accountability.
Using your diary app to assess your energy consumption, and your macro and micronutrient intake can be extremely helpful to identify any deficiencies or surpluses in your diet that could be optimised. As a Dietitian, I appreciate an accurate account of what you are eating, as it allows me to provide you with guidance on energy or macronutrient targets, and to make appropriate changes to help you achieve your goals, improve health, recovery or get the most out of your training.
However, the old phrase, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ comes to mind. So, approach with caution. Firstly, when using these apps, be mindful not to set unreasonably low energy targets, which may result in diminished performance or rapid weight loss, both of which are unwanted effects. Avoid using predetermined app energy guides to calculate your energy targets because doing this may severely over or underestimate your individual requirements – there are significant differences in individual energy requirements and using a predetermined guide may not be reflective of your particular needs.
Moreover, be mindful that using apps to assess your current food intake is simply that, an assessment of what you’re currently doing. Avoid comparing yourself to population norms or your favourite triathlete, because we’re all different and have different needs. To put this in perspective, I have a young male triathlete who consumes 16000kJ per day without weight gain and a middle-aged female who consumes 7000kJ per day without weight loss. Both clients have vastly different intakes with different body composition outcomes.
I do find that apps can be fantastic in educating athletes on the energy content of their food, enabling athletes to pick better choices. By entering all the food (and drink) that you consume, you will likely learn a great deal about the energy content and macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein) in your diet. Furthermore, apps are great at highlighting the differences between similar foods, and even brands. A classic example being the humble muesli bar. The energy content may range from 450kJ to 800kJ in a similarly sized bar, with the macronutrients depending greatly on the nut vs. dried fruit content.
One of the reasons that dietitians suggest food diaries or apps is their ability to facilitate accountability. As we can’t be there looking over your shoulder all the time, we love to spy on you with apps – just kidding. For most people, apps are a fantastic tool to help monitor intake and keep track of how they are going. Does it work as a guilt trip? Sometimes, but I would suggest it is more a learning tool. The idea isn’t to guilt you into doing the right thing; instead, it’s about assisting you to realise the goals you have set.
Hot tips to get the most out of your app:
- Portions: apps require you to measure portions. If you are guessing portions, then you will likely underestimate sizes. This is the cornerstone of any dietitian’s nutrition plan: you need to know portion sizes by either measuring volumes (teaspoon, tablespoon, cup) or on the scales.
- Exclusions: if you forget to add the tomato sauce or olive oil each day then you will be underestimating. For example, 1tbs EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil’s new age acronym) has 680kJ, compared to 1Tbs low-fat Greek yoghurt at 78kJ – a big difference.
- Recipes: apps can be a little fiddly to record recipes. To ensure accuracy, you will need to put in all the ingredients you used. However, you can name the recipe, save it and then use it again.
- Body weight: while most apps can record body weight, for most people a bi-weekly weight (Mon and Fri) first thing in the morning after voiding the bladder is sufficient. Others might prefer to weigh every day, though if you are finding yourself obsessing over weighing yourself, stop.
Take home messages:
- Nutrition apps can be useful to assess, educate and assist in accountability
- Care must be taken in interpreting the data. It is helpful to compare you to you, not you to your friend or partner, or your favourite triathlete
- Choose an app that suits you
- Get the most out of your app; the key one being recording everything accurately
- Don’t obsess over the data
- If in doubt or unsure about your data or if you’re not sure that you’re achieving your goals, see a sports dietitian.
If you’re ready to jump into the world of food apps, head over the page for my comparison of two of the most popular apps on the market.