Recently, my mother was staying with me. And she’s been really trying to get her health on, which is awesome, and she was logging her calories and exercise into MyFitnessPal, one of many calorie tracking programs available for free on the internet. But, like a lot of people, she ran into some trouble: because she rarely eats at chain or fast food restaurants, and does most of her exercise out on her bike or walking around her neighborhood, she was constantly grappling to make the program work with her, and not against her.
Calorie tracking sites and software, like SparkPeople, MyFitnessPal, LoseIt!, and My Calorie Counter allow users to plan meals, enter what they’re eaten, as well as what activities they’ve done, how many calories they’ve burned, and even calculate the calories and other nutritional information in homemade recipes. Many often also come with a community component, points systems, or other internal motivational tools.
All of which is great for those who trying to get healthy, and can provide a super-valuable service for those who know a thing or two about exercise, eating, and generally being healthy. But for those who are truly new to finding health, they can be supremely over-simplified, and lead individuals toward poor choices, like fast food (which is easier to log), or less effective exercise. I’ve used several–SparkPeople and I have an on-again/off-again relationship, but mostly, I use the one that came with my FitBit, which isn’t too bad–but I always end up giving up on logging calories and fitness after a few weeks because it’s just too much work, and doesn’t seem to reward smart choices.
Despite great intentions and loads of good information, many of these applications or websites make weight loss seem too black-and-white, focusing too much on calories in/calories out, which we know just isn’t enough. They also tend to reward eating processed foods, fast food, and food from chain restaurants, because that’s what information is available.
National chains like Applebee’s, and fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, have worked hard to make their nutritional information available–which is useful, but also means that, if you really want to be 100% sure of the contents of what you’re eating when you eat out, opting for a place like that is actually way easier than going to, say, the corner vegan bistro that uses mystical cashew butter and other hard-to-track ingredients.
The fact is, most small, local restaurants don’t make their nutritional information available because it is time-consuming to calculate and, to be honest, there isn’t much consumer demand for it. Even some national chains have complained about this. Additionally, for places where the menu rotates frequently, it would be pretty difficult to keep up. Thus, diners who are eating out and tracking their calories must either:
- A.) Become the irritating person who calls the restaurant, asks for the ingredient list, inquires about portion size, and calculates it themselves, which sounds like the worst possible way to spend their time, or…
- B.) Guestimate based on the pre-entered food products available, often ending in wildly inaccurate speculation.
It’s kind of a no-win situation.
For cooking at home, it’s a little easier, but still kind of a pain. On some apps and programs, you can build recipes and figure out the nutritional information of the portion sizes, which is a pretty cool use. I’ve definitely used it before to help make some of my recipes healthier. Unfortunately, it’s still pretty time-consuming–you have to enter in every ingredient and how much of it you used. And if the ingredient isn’t there, you can enter in the information from the nutritional label, which can take a very long time and make weight loss and health seem hard. And as soon as healthy eating seems hard, many Americans would rather not deal with it.