Updated: Sep 11
These are my two cents on calorie/nutrient trackers and their pros and cons.
With the advent of smartphone apps, calorie tracking has never been easier, but it might come with a cost. There’s been much debate over whether or not people should be using nutrition trackers to see how their dietary habits measure up against guidelines and recommendations. Some people track calories and macronutrients to facilitate weight loss, while others track micronutrients for health. Although trackers can be awesome tools that help paint a clear picture of your nutrition, we know that it can also trigger disordered eating. What does the science say about tracking food intake.
First of all, most people start tracking with the best intentions in mind. They embark on a health journey looking to improve their quality of life and want to know where they stand so they can figure out where to improve. Knowledge is power, right? What if I told you that trackers can be great tools that can assist in improving health, but could potentially be double edged swords for certain people. Although they’re scientifically engineered to promote self-regulation, and notifications and positive reinforcement can definitely help users stay on track, they do have the power to trigger abnormal eating behaviours. A specific study showed that up to 35% of dieters ending up developing disordered eating. Have you ever skipped a meal, or ignored hunger cues because your tracker said your calorie intake was too close to your daily requirements? When you think about food, do you see the nourishment it offers, or do you see calories. Do you count macros or micros? Are you concerned with the actual health promoting benefits of what you eat, or more worried about its energy density?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder, like anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Signs and symptoms of disordered eating may include, but are not limited to:
Frequent dieting, anxiety associated with specific foods or meal skipping
Chronic weight fluctuations
Rigid rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise
Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating
Preoccupation with food, weight and body image that negatively impacts quality of life
A feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits
Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to "make up for bad foods" consumed
By definition, most people who have disordered eating patterns often minimize it, justify it or don’t even realize these behaviours towards food are potentially controlling their life, even affecting their physical and mental healths. Humans evolved while eating intuitively, listening to their hunger cues and eating a plant-predominant diet, low in calorie density and high in fiber. Food processing has removed fiber and the water naturally found in food, has concentrated calories in smaller portions and has made food highly palatable, to a point where even Mother Nature can‘t compete. In the modern age, « eating intuitively » is equivalent to getting 70% of calories from processed foods, and cutting life expectancy by up to 8 years, not to mention adding even more years of disability and dependence on the medical system. Nutrition trackers were initially designed to protect us from ourselves, since we don’t eat like Mother Nature intended anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I use tracking occasionally and it did play a very important role in my plant-based transition. I did become a little obsessed with hitting the RDA of every single micronutrient available though. As soon as it had served its purpose, I stopped using it, seeing that I was starting to develop signs of disordered eating myself.
The risk of having negative effects from tracking is increased in those who already have a history of calorie counting, or frequent dieting.
Rigid thinking patterns concerning food may be further reinforced by those using smartphone apps to track food and nutrient intake. This has been confirmed in multiple studies looking specifically at people with a history of eating disorders who were asked to use a calorie tracker. What are your goals when you track calories?
The most important thing is that these trackers aren‘t out to “get us”. It seems that some people do have past medical histories or personality traits that would make them at higher risk for potentially perpetuating or further damaging their relationships with food. Cassin and Ranson (2005) identified the following traits associated with eating disorders: obsessive-compulsiveness, impulsivity, sensation-seeking, narcissism, sociotropy, autonomy, and perfectionism. Before you blindly start to count calories or track them on your smartphone, keep in mind that it could come with a cost.
If you believe you may suffer from disordered eating, please consult with a healthcare professional. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy have been shown to help people suffering from this condition. Our young children are growing up with these apps, and it’s very important that parents be made aware of their potential downfalls. If you notice unsusual dietary patterns in your children, talk about it to your healthcare provider.
Which apps to consider?
Firstly, I am not affiliated in any way with these apps. I will be offering my personal opinion and describing my personal experience on how to choose a good tracker if ever you decide to do so.
When looking at certain trackers, start by determining your goals. Some offer calorie counting through macronutrient tracking, while others will go into more detail and even track micronutrients. Free versions of these apps are great for data entry, while some paid versions will even offer notifications and tips of how to improve your diet and achieve your goals. Look for apps that have the latest tech to scan bar codes, and those that remember your previous days so you can copy and paste foods you eat regularly. Some apps are able to only enter single ingredients while others are even able to intake full recipes from restaurants.
My favourite app is Cronometer. I love it since it helps to not only track calories and macros, but also micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
By looking at trends or averages over time, you’re able to self-regulate by adjusting certain foods or even considering supplementation. The only thing I dislike about this app is the certain intake ranges that seem to be a little excessive for my personal needs. The app suggests that I consume more than 150 g of protein per day, which is well over 2 g/kg of lean body weight. I’ve written many blogs on protein and there’s even a section on my website dedicated purely to this.
Paid versions can be useful for people who want more hands-on assistance. Paid apps will often be able to look at your weight goals, and analyze your food log to make personalized recommendations about what to add or to reduce. Some even have integrated meals plans. It can analyze trends and even tell you if it’s time to make changes or it will congratulate you when your diet is on point.
Basically, nutrition trackers can be super helpful and I love using Cronometer. I did have such a dramatic improvement in my health, that I maybe even dealt with a little orthorexia, which is described as an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food. Once I was happy with my average nutrient intakes, I stopped logging, knowing that I do consider myself at risk for disordered eating. I’ve been a lifelong perfectionist and did see how nutrition did bring out my obsessive traits. Use trackers if they help you, but make sure to check-in with yourself at regular intervals, in order to prevent disordered eating patterns.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!
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Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱
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Cassin, S. E., & von Ranson, K. M. (2005). Personality and eating disorders: a decade in review. Clinical psychology review, 25(7), 895-916.
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