How do you set your weight loss goals into motion and embark on a new plan? AICR’s New American Plate (NAP) Challenge, a 12-week weight loss program, is kicking off now, so I thought this was the perfect time to talk about my first recommendation to any new patient I see seeking weight loss: food records.
Accountability is a key component to behavior change, and is particularly effective for weight loss. Maintaining a healthy body weight will help reduce your cancer risk, and now’s the perfect time to use all your resources that can make this journey a bit easier.
Have you ever noticed you’re more likely to go to a gym class if you’ve committed to go with your friend? Or that you are less likely to overspend at the grocery store when you have a list?
Keeping a food record is one of the best forms of personal accountability. Once you start to learn about your own patterns and triggers to eating, you can identify areas to modify that will help you achieve your weight loss goals. There are many online programs and phone apps that make it easy to track your food intake and learn more about which foods and meals prove the best nutrition. Now the question is, how do you choose the best app?
Things to look for:
- User-friendly. Make sure signing in and tracking your foods is simple and can be done quickly. If the app is complicated from the start, it may not be the best one for you.
- Free. Many great apps have no cost, so I recommend starting with something free (you can always pay for an upgrade later for additional features once you are comfortable with a program).
- Variety. Look for a food tracker that has a large database of foods, including store brands and chain restaurants – many of them do.
- More than just calories. Make sure the tracker can tell you more than just calories – e.g. saturated fat, fiber, protein, and sodium.
- Quick features. Can you save yesterday’s meal, quick add calories for a food you can’t find but know the calories, or enter and save an elaborate recipe you make frequently? Several apps allow this, making tracking simpler.
- Scanner. Some apps allow you to scan packaged foods, which many people find very easy to use and time-saving (my personal tip: when possible, avoid foods that have a label/bar code).
Things to watch out for:
- User-entered foods. Even though apps with a large database are helpful, if any user can enter foods, they may not be accurate. If it sounds too good to be true, question that entry and search for a few other similar option to compare.
- Exercise calories. Most apps tell you that you can eat more calories when you’ve exercised. This often doesn’t amount to the expected weight loss, since calories burned from exercise are so variable. Exercise is important, just don’t compensate by consuming more after a work-out!
- Ads. Many of the free programs have advertisements – don’t let yourself get distracted by the ads that are often weight-related (and inaccurate) that might pop-up on your side bar.
- Portion sizes. Most people tend to underestimate portions. Measure/weigh your foods, and remember it never hurts to round up/overestimate your portion.
At the end of the day, the fact that you are tracking your intake and taking the step to improve your health through The NAP Challenge means you are on the right track. This challenge will also guide you to track your intake in an online journal to get you started.
What features do you look for in a weight loss app?
Sonja Goedkoop, MSPH, RD, is a clinical dietitian at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. She has a passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle and reducing obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity. You can follow her @SonjaGoedkoopRD on twitter.