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Online food calculators: yea or nay?

A food journal can be one of the most effective tools for weight loss and weight maintenance. Some studies go as far as claiming that by simply tracking what you eat, you could double your weight loss. For convenience, many people turn to their smart phones or computers to keep track of food consumption. While Internet food journals can be convenient, there are a few things to be cautious of.

Before I go into the pitfalls of online food journals, be aware that food journaling is not going to be a healthy habit for everyone. If you have a past history of, or currently have an eating disorder, or tend to get obsessive with tracking and measuring to the point where you stop listening to your body or measure your success by your ability to stick to a certain number of points or calories, tracking food is likely not helpful.  My goal is to help my clients have a natural, and healthy relationship with food, and when used correctly, a food journal can help. I recommend using a food journal to build awareness of eating habits, patterns, and to learn which foods feel the best in your body.  

Now that we’re on the same page, here are a few of the pitfalls of using online food journals. 

1. Understand that the recommendation for food is a rough estimate. Most online food journals start with a basic calculation. Enter your current weigh, age, sex, level of activity, and the calculator will tell you how many calories you should consume, and how many grams of protein, fat and carbohydrates. While this may be a good starting point for some, remember that a basic calculator can only provide a rough estimate. Do not get too caught up on meeting the exact recommendations. An online calculator does not know how hard you push yourself in your workouts, or any other factors, such as hormones and metabolic rate, that will factor into your specific needs.

2. Remember that ‘calories in and calories out’ are only one part of the equation. While the amount of calories you consume will affect your body composition, the quality of calories also matter. The quality of nutrients will impact how the body uses the calories.  For example, a protein and fibre rich meal will increase your feeling of satiety, and will not be stored in the body when compared to a sugary treat. Choose on nutrient rich foods over processed, low calorie substitutes.

3. You’re probably not burning quite as much as the app says you are. Recently a client, who was using My Fitness Pal as a food journal, came to me excitedly about being able to consume an additional 1700 calories that day because he went for a bike ride. While you do need to eat more when you workout more, many online calculators grossly overestimate the actual amount of energy used for a workout. You may want to enter your exercise a way to keep track of your workouts, but do not use the calories burned to dictate how much you eat that day. In fact, I highly recommend not tracking exercise as ‘calories burned’ anyway. 

4. Remember that other users often enter the nutrition information. Much of the nutritional information provided by web based food journals are user entered. This means, that someone created a food in the database, and entered the nutritional information. While much of the data is correct, it’s wise to double check when something seems off.

So, yea or nay to online food journals?  When used in moderation, food journals can be a great way to change eating habits, simply by becoming aware of what you’re eating. Online food journals can be a convenient choice, and it can be fun to be a bit ‘techy’ and to learn more about the food that you’re eating.  But exercise caution- especially you have the tendency to go into ‘diet mode’.   To avoid all the pitfalls of online food journals, and to minimize any obsessive tendencies, I recommend a written food mood journal.  Simple jot down the time you ate, approximately what you ate, and a few notes about the situation, your feelings and why you ate.  Use it to build awareness, free of any moral judgement.