Calorie-Counting Apps: Useful or Useless?

A dietetic intern’s review of the nutrition smartphone app Calorie Mama

“There’s an app for everything!” In today’s world, health and nutrition smartphone applications have been gaining popularity for their convenience and ease to store information and track health, nutrition, and fitness goals. Usage of health and fitness apps has grown by over 330% in the last few years and their popularity continues to grow. This growing demand has allowed new apps to be developed using the latest smartphone technology.

Are you intrigued to know what’s out there in the seemingly endless world of apps you can access from the tiny powerful computer that fits inside your pocket?  As a future dietitian in an increasingly technological world, I certainly was interested to see what’s available in the realm of food and nutrition that smartphone users can utilize in order to reach their health goals.  Nutrition apps are primarily designed to help users lose weight by counting calories. Users manually log the foods they eat daily using the app’s database of foods. One calorie-counting app, My Fitness Pal, dominates the pack with over 11.7 million users, but I was in search for something new and innovative. What I came to find was an app called Calorie Mama.

I figured this app is just like the other calorie-counting app, but Calorie Mama has a unique twist. The app uses photo recognition and image classification technology to identify the foods that users include in their photos. So, instead of just Instagramming your foods for your friends to see on social media to like and comment on, you can snap a photo of your food and get the nutrient value of your foods in a few seconds. Being an avid foodie and nutrition advocate, I decided to put this app to the test myself. I put together a video of my experience using the app to track my meals, drinks, and snacks for a week and then I came to a few conclusions after using the app for a week. Check it out here.

Now I wanted to take some time to get into the nuances of the app related to its accuracy because I bet you are thinking: can the app really recognize all of the food in your photo such as the dressing on a salad? The short answer – not exactly. The long answer – Once you take a photo of your food, the app will provide you with a list of suggestions of foods included in the photo. From there, you need to select the right food and enter the serving size of food that you eat. With more complicated meals such as sandwiches, salads, and burritos, the app gives you a “sandwich/salad/burrito builder” option and you can select the foods included in your meal. You may also need to add foods that the app doesn’t recognize or see, such as the tomatoes hiding under the spinach leaves in your salad or the Italian dressing you drizzled on top. Unfortunately, the app isn’t thatsmart.

Being the true nutrition nerd that I am, I also took some time to compare Calorie Mama’s database of foods to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food database to make sure that the app’s calorie and nutrient values were correct. I found that the app was spot-on with many basic foods, such a toast and eggs, as long as the user takes the time to log the correct food and portion size. However, the app’s database is limited with some foods and provides you with only one option. For example, when I snapped a photo of my morning latte, the only option I was given was “latte” with a certain calorie amount. The app didn’t take into account what type of milk (whole, skim, soy, etc.) or sugar was included, which greatly affects the amount of calories and nutrients that are in that specific latte drink. In sum, there is room for improvement in the accuracy of this app, but it can certainly provide an estimate of calories and nutrients that you are consuming on any given day.

Overall, I think Calorie Mama is a fun and easy-to-use app that eliminates some of the time it takes to manually find and add all of the foods that users eat. As mentioned in the video, behavior is goal-oriented and motivated by self-reflection, goal setting, and receiving feedback. New research shows that smartphone apps can be effective tools for weight loss through self-monitoring when users are participating in structured weight loss programs. If you would like to make any changes to your diet, it is best to consult your trusted Registered Dietitian or other healthcare provider to see if calorie counting is the right option for you. All in all, calorie-counting apps can be a handy tool to keep in your pocket.

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