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food for thought

Should you use an app or food journal to track your food?

Many people enter the new year committed to improving their diet, often with the goal of losing weight. Tracking your food intake can be a useful tool to help you accomplish both.

The question, though, is how best to do it? Should you track using an old-fashioned food diary or a digital calorie-counting app?

Whether you choose to track digitally or use a food journal comes down to your goals and personal preference. Here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of each to help you decide what’s right for you.

The benefits of food tracking

Logging your food intake makes you keenly aware of what and how much you are eating. It highlights what you’re doing well at, as well as your dietary gaps.

A food tracker also provides accountability that helps keep you on plan. Having to write down (or input) your meals and snacks can deter, for example, reaching for seconds or snacking mindlessly.

Keeping tabs on your food intake can also provide insight into emotional eating patterns and overeating triggers.

And if you’re trying to lose weight, many studies have shown that consistently keeping a food journal is a significant predictor of weight loss success.

Pros and cons of food journaling

I advise my clients to keep an old-fashioned food diary for the first four weeks of their program. Some people find it helpful to keep it longer, while others revert to keeping track only on weekends, when eating habits are more likely to relax.

A food diary can be kept on paper, in a spreadsheet or as notes in your smart phone. It should include the time of day you eat, foods and beverages consumed and portion sizes. Portion sizes can be weighed and measured or eyeballed if accuracy is less important.

Don’t wait to record your food intake until the end of the day when you’re likely to have forgotten a few foods. A 2019 study published in the journal Obesity found that participants who achieved the greatest weight loss (at least 10 per cent) journaled three times a day throughout the program.

Another strategy: Keep your food diary one day in advance. Recording the meals and snacks you intend to eat tomorrow allows you to plan ahead, increasing the likelihood you’ll stick to your healthy eating intentions.

A major advantage of food journaling is that it allows you to focus on the big picture. You can notice, for example, how missing a snack or skipping protein in a meal, increases your hunger and cravings later in the day.

It can also help uncover foods or eating patterns that trigger symptoms such as reflux, bloating or gas.

And it provides space to document your hunger level prior to and after eating and emotions that may prompt you to eat.

It’s not always convenient to write everything down, however. And if you’re motivated by numbers – calories, grams of protein – a pen and paper food diary doesn’t provide that.

Pros and cons of digital food tracking apps

For the data-driven, calorie-counting apps provide daily feedback on intake of calories and macros (carbohydrates, protein, fat). You can also hone in on nutrients such as fibre, sodium, calcium, iron or potassium, which may be important to you.

These apps provide daily goals based on height and weight, or you can set your own targets for calories and macros. The ability to look back at past data can also be insightful.

Lose It!, MyFitnessPal, SparkPeople and Lifesum (which also focuses on healthy eating) are popular calorie-tracking apps, but there are many others.

Entering all foods into an app, especially multiple ingredients in a home-prepared meal, can be time-consuming and cumbersome, which eventually can prevent you from using it.

It’s also easy to become hyper-focused on numbers and pay less attention to making nutritious food choices.

If you like the convenience of an app, but don’t want a numbers-focused approach, consider one that intentionally omits calorie-counting. Foodility, for example, lets you log meals and exercise, upload photos and share content as a PDF.

Other apps focus on mindful eating without the dieting mentality, such as Ate Food Journal, Am I Hungry?, Peace with Food and Insight Timer.

Regardless of the tool you choose, tracking consistently – and reflecting on what you see – is key to behaviour change.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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