Calorie counter apps replacing diet plans

Calorie Counters

Story, photos and video by Chris Peters, NewsNetNebraska

Asenath Foster tried nearly everything she could think of to lose weight.

She tried Atkins, she tried low-carb diets, she even tried crash diets like hCG, a hormone found in pregnant women that burns stored fat to feed their growing child. Nothing worked.

Then she dumbed it down.

Foster adopted a simple method; She started counting calories with the aid of a smartphone.

No more measuring fats, carbs, or whatever. This was simple math. She was allowed so many calories per day, and she needed to stay under that ceiling.

In a year and a half, the trim 29-year-old has lost 40 pounds.

“I’ve done every diet, but this is the happiest I’ve been,” Foster said. “It has made me more conscious of the servings that I’m having. Sometimes I’ll look it up, and I’ll think ‘wow, I never knew this (food) was that bad.’”

Calorie counters are used by thousands of people, with the most popular iPhone app, MyFitnessPal, having more than 40,000 reviews and countless more users (Apple does not disclose download figures). Some people, like Foster, are using calorie counters as substitutes for other diet plans.

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The biggest benefit, Foster says, is the awareness of knowing exactly what you’re putting into your body.

Molly Hammond, a former calorie counter and current Weight Watchers member, disagrees.

Out to eat, out of luck

The 21-year-old used MyFitnessPal, but opted to stop using the app because she didn’t trust the nutritional information the app gave her. Most of the store-bought foods she entered into the app were correct, but she never found a reliable solution to eating out – many restaurant foods available in the app were entered by users, often as estimates or sheer guesses.

“A diet for me needs to be about losing pounds, that’s definitely my bottom line, but it also needs to be livable,” Hammond said. “Calorie counters … never allowed me to be fully comfortable with what I was eating or doing.

“Without the comfort I never found much success.”

Long-term sustainability as a diet

Regis Moreau, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s department of Nutrition and Health Sciences, said calorie counting overall is not a realistic diet plan.

“It’s pretty drastic and requires a lot of discipline,” Moreau said. “Not everybody can adhere to that in the long term. Adhering to a diet such as Atkins or some others could be a lot simpler.”

Moreau’s main concerns with calorie counting stem from eating too few calories and not taking in enough nutrients.

Micronutrients like many vitamins, minerals and fiber do not contribute calories, he said. As a result, they often go overlooked by people counting calories who normally focus on fats, carbohydrates and protein.

Screenshots of some of the most popular iPhone calorie counter apps.

Eating too little

The most dangerous pitfall of calorie counters comes when users don’t take in enough calories to survive, he said.

“Below 1700 (calories) it would be problematic,” Moreau said. “You would begin to lose essential structural components of the body – muscle, fat and bone.

“Muscle mass will be used fairly fast in starvation to make up for deficiency.”

Instead of focusing on the basic math of adding calories, Moreau suggests swapping one food for another. Avoid processed foods and calorie-dense foods, substituting fewer calorie-dense foods that are richer in micronutrients, like in-season fruits and vegetables.

Although it may inevitably join the list along with the other imperfect diet plans, Foster is sticking with her app. It’s working for her, which is something she can’t say about most of the other diets.

“I know I can’t log it every single day for the rest of my life,” Foster said. “But just being more aware of what I’m having, it helps.”

The most dangerous pitfall of calorie counters comes when users don’t take in enough calories to survive, he said.

“Below 1700 (calories) it would be problematic,” Moreau said. “You would begin to lose essential structural components of the body – muscle, fat and bone.

“Muscle mass will be used fairly fast in starvation to make up for deficiency.”

Instead of focusing on the basic math of adding calories, Moreau suggests swapping one food for another. Avoid processed foods and calorie-dense foods, substituting less calorie-dense foods that are richer in micronutrients, like in-season fruits and vegetables.

If it isn’t broke…

Although it may inevitably join the list along with the other imperfect diet plans, Foster is sticking with her app. It’s working for her, which is something she can’t say about most of the other diets.

“I know I can’t log it every single day for the rest of my life,” Foster said. “But just being more aware of what I’m having, it helps.”

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