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Resolved To Lose Weight? We Gave Food-Tracking Apps A Try

Jan 1, 2018
Originally published on January 3, 2018 12:13 pm

Exercise is great for your health. But if you're looking to lose weight in the new year, you should know this: How much you eat ultimately matters more than how much you work out.

Like a lot of Americans, I've got some extra pounds to shed. So about two months ago, I started tracking everything I eat using an app called Lose It! It's one of several apps out there — like MyFitnessPal and MyPlate – designed to help you watch your diet. When I eat something, I can look up how many calories it contains in the app. If my food isn't listed, I add it myself.

Research shows that logging what you eat can be one powerful strategy for weight loss, says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity medicine clinician and an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Basically, logging becomes a food budget — and he says it's not that different from creating an actual financial budget.

"How many people out there have done this exercise from a money perspective and realized, 'Holy crap! I'm spending that much at Starbucks!' I think that similarly we might say that about the calories we're spending at Starbucks," Freedhoff says.

He says knowing how many calories you're consuming "may help in your decision-making in regard to what you can and can't afford or want" to eat. "But it also has benefits to behavior change. Every time you use a food diary, you're reminding yourself of all those behaviors you're hoping to change — and that, in turn, is a powerful way to encourage and sustain behavior change."

Freedhoff has his patients keep food diaries. And he says his patients who use apps are more likely to keep up with the logging than those who rely on pen and paper. It makes sense: Most of us are glued to our smartphones all the time anyway.

I use my app to track my weight and my exercise, too. After logging one 30-minute cross-training session with my fitness trainer, the app added an extra 340 calories to my daily food allowance. That sounds good in theory, but as registered dietitian Abby Langer notes, there is a limit to how much energy we can actually expend through physical activity – only up to 30 percent of what we eat (unless you're a pro athlete or have a job with similarly intense physical demands). And some people burn far less than that, perhaps as little as 10 percent, according to some research.

"So people who think that they can spend all day in the gym and just sort of negate all the food that they've eaten in terms of calories — that's just not how your body works," Langer notes. Keeping this in mind, I try not to eat most of the "bonus" calories my app gives me every time I work out.

On the other hand, Langer says some people can become dangerously fixated on counting calories.

"There are some people who are predisposed to becoming obsessed with tracking the calories and just all the numbers and number crunching," she says, adding, "If you have a predisposition or a history of an eating disorder, I would recommend staying very far away from these apps because it really can be triggering for people."

That said, as long as you take it with a grain of salt, tracking your meals in general can be really helpful for some people. Freedhoff points to one study from 2008 that found dieters who kept food records doubled their chances of success.

The data on food tracking apps so far is mixed. For example, a 2015 study found that young adults (ages 18 to 35) who used a smartphone app to track their calories, weight and exercise lost no more weight than people who simply got handouts on healthy eating and exercise.

Another study, from 2014, found that merely introducing a weight loss app to obese patients did not help them lose weight. But in that study, the person who used the app the most also lost the most weight — 29 pounds. The researchers concluded: "In the hands of a patient who is truly ready to self-monitor calories ... [apps] may be a useful tool for losing weight."

That has certainly been my experience. I've been extremely disciplined about using my app since November. And while the average American puts on about a pound during the onslaught of cookies and cakes that mark the winter holidays, I actually lost 6 pounds.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. We all know exercise is great for your health. But if you are looking to lose weight, you should know this. Your diet ultimately matters more than how much you work out. NPR's Maria Godoy looks at some apps that can help you keep track of what you eat.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Like a lot of Americans, I've got some extra pounds to shed. So about two months ago, I started tracking everything I eat using an app called Lose It. It's one of several out there, like My Fitness Pal and My Plate. When I eat something, I can look up how many calories it contains. If it's not listed, I add it myself, like when I add creamer to my coffee.

All right. It says 35 calories per tablespoon. I use two tablespoons. So that is 70 calories.

Research shows that logging what you eat can be a powerful tool for weight loss. Basically, it's your food budget. And it's not that different from creating an actual budget.

YONI FREEDHOFF: You know, how many people out there have done this exercise from a money perspective realized, holy (expletive)? I'm spending that much at Starbucks. I think that similarly we might say that about the calories we're spending at Starbucks.

GODOY: That's Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a weight loss expert in Ottawa. He has his patients keep food diaries. And he says patients that use apps are more likely to keep up with the logging. It makes sense. Most of us are glued to our smartphones all the time anyway. I use my app to track my exercise, too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three, two, one.

GODOY: I think you made this extra hard today.

Thirty minutes of cross training adds an extra 340 calories to my daily food allowance. It sounds good, but there's a limit to how much food we can actually burn off through exercise.

ABBY LANGER: Yeah. Your body does not work like that.

GODOY: That's Abby Langer, a registered dietitian.

LANGER: People who think that they can spend all day in the gym and just sort of negate all the food that they've eaten in terms of calories, that's just not how your body works.

GODOY: Because you can only burn off up to 30 percent of the calories we eat. And some people burn less. Another big concern - she says some people can become dangerously fixated on counting calories.

LANGER: There are some people who are predisposed to becoming obsessed with tracking the calories and just all the numbers and number crunching.

GODOY: She says anyone who's ever had an eating disorder should not use these apps. And they shouldn't be relied on alone. One study of young adults showed those who use weight loss apps lost the same amount of weight as those who didn't. Still, as long as you take it with a grain of salt, tracking your meals can be really helpful for some people. It has been for me. While the average American puts on about a pound during the winter holidays, I actually lost six. Maria Godoy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "SOME DIE YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.