Every New Year’s Eve, many of us resolve to finally clean up our diets or lose weight…but are back to our old ways by March. Maybe the best way to keep good habits alive is to combine them with an existing habit: in my case, compulsive smartphone use. I recently test-drove three free diet-tracking apps so that I can hit the ground running on January 1.
I downloaded Lose It! after seeing this incredible infographic about a man who maintained a 100-lb weight loss with the app. Because it’s the middle of the winter holiday season, I set my weight goal to “maintain.” Once I select my goal, I’m given a daily calorie allotment and log my breakfast on the train ride to work.
How does the LoseIt! app work?
Most food diary and weight-loss apps work in the same way: you search for the foods you eat and enter them into a daily log. Entering foods with Lose It! is easy and precise, and includes the nutritional profile for each ingredient — which I consider to be as important as the caloric load. But maybe I’ve been favoring nutrient density a little too much.
When I log my smoothie ingredients, I’m shocked by how many calories I rack up even before I get to the chia seeds. By the time I’m done, my smoothie takes up a whopping quarter of my daily caloric allowance — and I hadn’t even gotten to my oatmeal, which brings me to nearly half.
After I enter each meal, Lose It! lets me know how many calories I have left for the day. It also keeps a pie chart showing my fat, carbohydrate, and protein intake. I see that my carb intake is getting high, so I plan a high-protein dinner to balance that out.
LoseIt! App Pros & Cons
Pros: Cheerful interface with cute food icons. I didn’t feel judged when I went over my calorie limit.
Cons: While the app recognizes a variety of brand-name foods, it’s difficult to enter homemade ones. This was helpful when entering my Wegman’s chunky organic peanut butter, but less so when it came to my homemade lentil stew. I had to log each ingredient separately, which took time.
My Fitness Pal
My Fitness Pal (MFP) is a weight loss and diet app that allows you to log your calorie intake, as well as manage your diet and exercise plans. It has been around for ten years, and I was curious to see how it’s been updated. I tried to use MFP years ago, but lacked the motivation to make it a habit (I also had the metabolism of a 25-year-old). MFP is now completely new and easier to use, though I get a smaller daily calorie budget for weight maintenance than I did with Lose It! (It’s good to remember that the weight loss and diet goals generated by these apps are just suggestions and don’t replace advice from a health care professional).
How does My Fitness Pal work?
The food-logging process for My Fitness Pal is similar to Lose It!, but I’m happy to see that this app offers more nutritional information (vitamins and minerals) for each ingredient. But it’s still a challenge to accurately log homemade choices. For example, I packed roasted chicken and mashed sweet potatoes for lunch. To accurately record the chicken, I need its weight, and though I’m tempted to improvise in the mail room, I don’t have a food scale at my desk. I hit a similar snag with the mashed potatoes: my husband made them, so I have no idea what’s in them (and judging by how delicious they are, I choose not to find out).
My Fitness Pal App Pros & Cons
Pros: I received encouraging notifications as I logged meals: “This food is high in calcium!” and “You reached your fiber goal for today!” I was also warned when approaching my maximum sugar or carb allowance. Another plus is that the free version of MFP lets you track the amount of water you drink.
Cons: As with Lose It!, I don’t feel like I’m getting accurate calorie counts when I enter homemade foods. I imagine that logging restaurant meals would be just as difficult.
By day three of searching for the best diet-tracking app, I still hadn’t found the one that truly fit my mostly home-cooked diet. Although prepared and processed foods have consistent nutritional profiles that are easy to log, homemade meals are generally lower in fat and calories. I needed to find an app that focuses on whole foods.
How does Wholesome work?
Wholesome certainly wins for most beautiful app. The home screen is a color-coded photographic list of whole foods, starting with fruits and vegetables. Scrolling down, I also find grains, dairy, and meats, plus two heart-healthy diet categories: Asian and Mediterranean. There are no packaged or processed options.
Nutrition geeks will love the macro- and micro-nutrient profile for each food. And the daily nutrient percentages automatically update when you enter the amount of each food that you eat. These daily allowances can be customized if your health care provider suggests that you up your intake of a certain nutrient, say iron if you’re anemic or folic acid if you’re pregnant. At the end of the day, I get a summarized visual of the foods I ate. From that alone, I see that I need more greens. I can also switch to the Nutrition Tracker view for a bar graph of the nutrients I consumed that day.
Wholesome is a good app to get compulsive about. Though it counts calories, Wholesome is not a weight-loss app. In fact, there are no weight goals to enter. But there’s evidence that adding whole foods to your diet can help you reach a healthy weight. Plus, who doesn’t like scrolling through pretty pictures of food?
Wholesome App Pros & Cons
Pros: Fun to use. Puts the focus on getting a variety of nutrients into your diet through whole foods.
Cons: No weight loss motivation, if that’s what you’re looking for. You also won’t get a full daily calorie or nutrient count if you eat or drink something that isn’t on the list.
Weight Loss & Diet App Findings and Tips:
- Logging foods is the most tedious part of using a food diary app. In fact, I skipped snacks just to avoid having to log them (maybe that’s a good thing). The good news is that most food diary apps let you save frequently-used foods and recipes.
- With many weight loss apps you can enter exercise to subtract calories from your daily tally.
- I suggest starting with a small goal: to maintain your current weight. Starting small helps you ease into the app without any pressure. You can always change your goal weight later, once you’ve formed a habit.
But what if your New Year’s resolution is to take a smartphone diet? One: I applaud you, and two: you’re in luck: Writing down what you eat is just as effective in cleaning up your daily diet.
The inclusion of the above links does not imply endorsement.
You may also be interested in this diet and exercise blog post: