Want to Track Every Single Calorie You Eat? Of Course There's an App for That

But does dieting with the help of your smartphone actually work?

Are Smartphone Apps the Best Way to Count Calories?

(Photo: Carolyn Lagattuta/Getty Images)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A new review of calorie-counting apps by Kit Eaton over at The New York Times caught my eye. Not because I’m really looking to start counting calories anytime soon, but I’m always open to new ways to use my iPhone and thus better justify what feels like the relatively obscene amount of money I fork over to Verizon to use it every month.

As with most techie advances, these apps seem pretty cool at first. The newfangled development here is the use of your phone to scan a product’s bar code and upload nutritional data to your phone, so every morning when you eat your regular bowl of Cheerios, say, the calorie count is readily available.

Eaton seems fairly enthused about Calorie Counter & Diet Tracker from MyFitnessPal (“pal” here fostering a sort of Her-like illusion of having a bestie who also happens to be a nutritionist–fitness trainer). That app is free on iOS and Android.

“The interface is simple, though not especially elegant, and it can feel a bit clinical,” however, Eaton complains.

“Similar but simpler” and with “a friendlier interface," Eaton writes, is Calorie Counter PRO by MyNetDiary, an app that’s $4 on Android and iOS.

No doubt, Americans could use some help understanding just how much they eat, especially because we tend to eat so much. A pair of studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2006 found eaters of large meals tended to underestimate the number of calories by an average of between 22 and 38 percent. More recently, a paper published last year in the journal BMJ found diners at a number of fast-food restaurants underestimated the amount of calories in their meals by an average of 175 calories—and a quarter of participants underestimated calorie content by at least 500 calories.

Unlike our faulty estimations, these calorie counter apps come with an air of scientific accuracy and authority—and therein lies the rub. They may seem more sensible than, say, a late-night splurge on one of those exercise contraptions hawked by bronzed gym bods on round-the-clock infomercials, but just like that Soloflex or Bowflex or Ab-O-Nator, they only work if you use them—and use them correctly. And that’s notoriously hard to do.

As proof, nutritionist Susan Bowerman recounted this tragicomic experience of a client a couple years ago: “He brought in a ‘perfect’ food diary,” she writes. “He followed his meal plan to the letter, and every calorie (or so he thought) was accounted for.” Yet he wasn’t losing weight. As they talked, Bowerman noticed him popping a couple of breath mints. “I just had to ask—exactly how many mints was he eating every day?” Answer: five to six rolls, or 300 mindless calories.

Bowerman goes on to tick off a number of other perfectly ordinary instances where you might find yourself unwittingly consuming more calories than you think—just the sort of “nibbles” that aren’t likely to make it into your smartphone app:

• Free sample of a burrito at the grocery store: 100 calories

• Crusts cut off while making son’s PB&J: 75 calories

• Six steak frites eaten absentmindedly from a friend’s plate over lunch: 120 calories

• Three bites of dough while baking chocolate chip cookies: 150 calories 

• Few bites of leftover chow mein, eaten while standing up at the sink: 90 calories

Going back then to Eaton’s app review in the Times, at first it seemed strange that he included what is probably one of the weirdest diet apps out there: Eatly.

Here’s how it works: No tedious calorie counting, no graphs and bar charts showing your ratio of calorie consumption to expenditure. Instead, you just upload a photo of what you’re eating, and Eatly’s community of users (presumably most having no bona fide nutrition training whatsoever) rate your meal, from “Very Healthy” to “It’s OK” to “Not Healthy.” Think of it as diet by public shaming.

I hopped on. There was a pic of tomato soup with fried goat cheese balls in someone’s not-too-tidy kitchen (um, “not healthy”?), then a Styrofoam bowl of what looked like watery gruel but was labeled “oatmeal” (“very healthy,” I guess, if completely unappetizing). A single persimmon, then cashew chicken stir-fry, then a photo of a stubble-cheeked young guy sleeping simply labeled “Boys” (my rating: “it’s OK”).

At first it all seems utterly absurd, but hey, it may end up working just as well as trying to bar code–scan every morsel you eat.

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