Learn why tracking calories can be harmful in your journey towards better health.
Tracking Calories and Food Journals - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
If you’re trying to lose weight, chances are you’ve tried tracking calories with a food journal or a smartphone app. These tools can help with short-term weight loss, but focusing on only your caloric intake doesn’t guarantee long-term success — and can actually do more harm than good. It may be an unwelcome surprise to learn that calorie counters and food tracking apps encourage behavior that can trigger eating disorders and even lower your self-esteem.
The good news is that there are more constructive ways to help you achieve a healthier mindset and lifestyle.
Does Tracking Your Food Lead to Weight Loss?
Keeping tabs on what you’re eating can help you lose weight in the short-term, and a 2008 study has shown that keeping a food diary can as much as double your weight loss. But this comes at the cost of time: The most successful participants in one study of an online behavioral weight control intervention spent more than 23 minutes per day logging their intake during the first month. That might not sound like much, but that commitment of logging caloric intake, day after day, simply isn’t sustainable for many users.
Most people lose patience and give up, yet this function of food logging is at the core of most weight loss apps, such as Noom, MyFitnessPal, and LoseIt. These apps offer other features that allow users to set their own goals alongside meal planning, grocery lists, and time management tools — plus notifications to help keep users on track. But research suggests that using these apps is so time-consuming that most people are not able to stick with it: A 2012 study of food journaling apps found that, out of 190,000 downloads of The Eatery app, fewer than 3% were “active users” who used the app for more than a week.
Does food logging really work if most people give up?
Even if you dig deep for the personal fortitude to consistently log your food every day and for every meal over an extended time, calorie tracking isn’t as simple as it might sound. A big reason is that these tools aren’t always so precise; for instance, the US Food and Drug Administration allows up to a 20-percent margin of error on nutrition labels. That’s a wide and problematic range when you’re trying to nail down your caloric intake. Was that bagel 300 calories, or was it 240 or even 360? Plus, calorie trackers often don’t take into account the nutritional value of the foods that make up those calories — factors that can have an immense impact on your health — nor can they accommodate important health details that vary from one person to the next, like metabolism and blood sugar levels.
The bottom line is that while some research supports the use of food logging for weight loss, calorie counting is ultimately an unsustainable burden. Furthermore, this practice and the associated apps may not be giving you the information you expect. The net result is that calorie counting might not be the superpower so many health influencers would have you believe.
The Big Trap of Food Tracking
Food tracking may sound like a great idea, and many apps build in attractive features like connecting with friends and community forums to provide support and build a positive feedback loop. But the potential downsides are significant. For one, it’s easy to get so focused on the calorie count that you end up disconnected from your body’s hunger cues and nutritional needs.
"When you’re relying on a socially focused app, you can end up comparing your progress with other people’s successes and failures, which could land serious blows to your self-esteem."
The toll on your mental health has to be taken into account as well. When you’re relying on a socially focused app, you can end up comparing your progress with other people’s successes and failures, which could land serious blows to your self-esteem. Plus, constantly crunching the numbers on caloric intake can suck all the joy out of eating. Some apps are more difficult to use when you’re cooking at home or eating at a non-chain restaurant: While online tools make it easy to pull calorie counts from chain restaurant websites, there can be little or no caloric guidance when you’re preparing your own meals. Predictably, this can encourage users to choose pre-packaged or fast food because those options are easier to log. And there’s often a social stigma to logging calorie intake when you’re out with friends.
For people who are truly trying to get healthier, frustrations like these make it tempting, and easy, to just quit altogether. “If food journaling is going to bring a bad connotation into [the] weight management journey, [people] likely are not going to have long term success,” says Licensed Dietician Nutritionist, Morgan DiMeo of Movin’ Nutrition. “Weight management is not one shoe fits all, but rather [must be] customized to each individual to bring out the most success possible.” These smartphone apps also have the very real potential to trigger or even worsen eating disorders by encouraging rigid thinking. A 2017 study found that college students who regularly used calorie-counting apps also demonstrated disordered eating. Fixating on calories can put you into a restrictive mindset, where you’re focused on what you “can” and “can’t” eat, where foods become “good” or “bad,” and where feelings of deprivation can lead to obsessive thinking, cravings, and even binge eating.
A healthy body needs balanced meals of nutrient-dense foods, but calorie tracking can promote the false belief that as long as you keep your caloric intake below a given threshold, it doesn’t matter what you eat. If you’re focused on nothing but the number of calories, you’re more likely to reach for “diet foods” that simply cannot satisfy true hunger or provide your body what it needs for long-term health.
What to do Instead?
Tracking calories may offer a sense of control, but it’s little more than an illusion. When it comes to body weight, other factors — like genetics and health conditions — are beyond your conscious influence. And you can end up paying for that feeling of control with the narrow fixation of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If calorie counters cannot guarantee sustained weight loss and pose a long-term risk to both your physical and mental health, what can you do instead?
The good news is that your health depends on more than just your weight, and you don’t have to count calories to build a healthier body.
Here are some strategies for shaping long-term health:
1. Learn how to balance your meals for optimal nutrition and choose an amount that feels good to your body.
2. Let go of the diet mindset: You don’t have to count calories or restrict foods to be healthy.
3. Give intuitive eating a try: Learn to recognize and honor your body’s signals for hunger, activity, and rest instead of relying on external cues. Find your own rhythm.
4. Choose foods that both energize and satisfy you.
5. Practice self-compassion: Don’t blame yourself for diet “failures,” when dieting isn’t sustainable to begin with.
Try Using a Mood Journal
Also consider using a mood journal — like the one we are creating for our Bea Better Eating App to be launched this summer — as a healthier approach. The purpose of a mood journal is simple and straightforward: to become better attuned to your own body and its cues so you can “rewire” your brain to get out of old mindsets and to normalize healthier eating habits.
"The purpose of a mood journal is simple and straightforward: to become better attuned to your own body and its cues so you can “rewire” your brain to get out of old mindsets and to normalize healthier eating habits."
A mood journal offers space for observing the connections between what you’re eating and how you’re feeling. It can help you spot any patterns of emotional eating, learn to recognize what hunger and fullness really feel like, and encourage your best intuitive eating behaviors. You can use your mood journal to record how hungry you are before and after you eat. Do you get a stomach ache after having a particular snack? Try a different snack and observe what happens. Your mood journal might help you notice a heavy consumption of processed foods and help you make small adjustments to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables instead. You can use your journal daily, weekly, or whatever rhythm feels right to you. An added benefit of a mood/food journal is tracking hydration, and even supporting you as you develop new habits to accommodate food allergies or medical conditions.
One thing your journal should not be, however, is a typical calorie counter. It’s important to make an honest assessment of whether your journal is a stressful “dieting crutch” or a constructive tool for real change. If you are dealing with an eating disorder, however, smartphone apps like Recovery Record are available to help with recovery and may be used simultaneously with therapy.
No matter what tool you’re considering, it pays to think critically about what type of system or app will provide the best support for your circumstances and needs. Once you’ve started using something new, be sure to pay attention to how you feel about it, be on the look-out for problematic behaviors — like preoccupation with counting calories — and gauge how the tool makes you feel about yourself. Give yourself permission to stick with what’s working, and jettison anything that isn’t.