Tracking calories can feel like a chore. Although food tracking apps have made the task much easier than the pen-and-paper alternative, manually inputting every bite, slurp and sip into a smartphone may still feel like an unwelcome intrusion into mealtimes.
Eager to turn the tedium of meal-tracking into a sweet profit, a slew of startups quickly descended on the market with their own range of calorie-counting gadgets. There’s Spün, the smart spoon and app that promises to automatically detect how many calories you’re eating in each mouthful, while the “smart cup” Vessyl garnered breathless headlines upon its release before promptly ending up in the startup graveyard without ever reaching the hands of consumers.
But perhaps the app-based calorie counter isn’t in need of replacement. According to a new paper published in the scientific journal Obesity, people only need to spend 14.6 minutes a day monitoring their calorie intake in order to stick to a healthy weight.
The study’s authors found that it was the frequency someone monitored their intake that led to successful weight loss, not the amount of time spent inputting or the level of detail recorded. This is key because one of the major reasons people find calorie counting so hard is that they see it as a major time sink.
The study involved 142 people who were asked to log their daily food intake over a period of six months – detailing calories, fat, portion sizes and preparation methods. The most successful participants, those who lost 10 per cent of their body weight, were those who were consistent in their reports, logging in three or more times a day.
By the end of the program they were spending just under 15 minutes logging their activity. This confirmed the conclusions of earlier studies, said Jean Harvey, chair of the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at the University of Vermont and the lead author of the study. “We were not surprised by the finding that frequent reporters did better, yet we have never been able to verify that before,” she said.
The lack of time that participants needed to spend logging their diet, however, did surprise the researchers: “There were a few earlier studies that found that dietary details are not that important yet we were still a bit surprised that the time it takes to record “enough” to be successful was so small,” said Harvey.
The study emphasises that the obesity crisis in America remains severe. Nearly 40 per cent of American adults were obese in 2015-16, up from 34 per cent in 2007-08, and obesity accounts for 18 per cent of deaths among Americans ages 40 to 85. In England, the numbers are lower, yet still serious: 26 per cent of adults were classified as obese in 2016, a 15 per cent increase from 1993.
Calorie apps are, in essence, just digital extensions in a long history of diet monitoring techniques aimed at rectifying this crisis. Their key advantage, however, is that they make this monitoring easier: they do the math and organise your data for you. Previous results, Harvey explains, had to rely on participants “self-reporting” how long and how many times a day they spent monitoring their diet.
“In the current study, we were using our own web-based program and could look at exactly how frequently our participants were accessing the website and how long they were spending recording their food intake,” said Harvey. “Therefore, we were able to analyze specifics about this very important, yet very distasteful behavior that we thought might be helpful to others.”
An the results show that even the act of logging itself is helpful: “Dietary self-monitoring is painful yet it is one of the most consistent predictors of weight loss success,” said Harvey. Dieters have long been distilling this ethos into the catchy phrase “write it when you bite it” – something that, thanks to Harvey’s study, is now backed up by tangible data. “When we asked them to write down all their foods, we could never say how long it would take. Now we can,” she says.
In the study, LoseIt, Calorie King and Myfitnesspal are cited as good examples of apps those interested in losing weight might try. There are also more experimental options for those who wish to push the calorie-tracking envelope. Scio, by Consumer Physics, supposedly lets you scan an object and find out its chemical makeup, letting you pick the most nutrient rich banana in a bunch, for instance.
The sheer number of options these apps offer the potential dieter – Loseit lets you track weight, body fat, sleep, hydration, daily exercise, body measurements, and nutrients – may be attractive or off-putting depending on your personality. Whatever your personal preferences, Harvey agrees that the results of the study do seem to heavily support the use of these apps, although she sees it not as a vindication of technology, but of sticking to healthy habits. “It probably doesn’t matter how you record your diet if you are interested in changing your behavior. But you need to do it. And do it more than once a day.”
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