The Smartphone Diet
App for Android and iPhone (free)
I went to an afternoon party at a neighbor’s house a few weeks ago. I am trying to lose weight, so I made the healthiest choices I could without abstaining entirely: a couple of glasses of wine and some guacamole on veggies. When I got home, I spoke a few words into the FitClick: Talk-to-Track app on my smartphone and was surprised to learn that I had just consumed more than 800 calories! Okay, not a huge deal. I ate a smaller dinner than usual and went to bed happy with my choices.
The end of that story—finishing my day feeling good about what I had eaten—is rather new for me. Dieting usually brings me hunger, stress and frustration; painful struggles of willpower as I attempt to avoid entire categories of delicious food; and, in the end, dejection and a junk food binge because I can’t stand to say “no” any longer. But several months ago I read an early manuscript of “Don’t Diet!” by Charlotte N. Markey, and I decided to try her more moderate approach to making lasting changes to my health.
The first step Markey suggests is to keep track of what you eat to identify patterns and figure out where you can improve your routine. Full disclosure: I know full well which parts of my routine keep me plump (late night snacks and alcohol). Yet I also know that studies consistently show that people who track their food intake have far more long-term success losing weight, so I decided to give food tracking a whirl for the first time in many years. I downloaded several dozen smartphone apps that keep track of meals and exercise, count up calories and macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) and offer a host of other features—such as recipes and custom diet plans—intended to help people get fit.
It rapidly became obvious that unless you want something ultraspecific—say, a pescatarian meal planner for bodybuilders—all these fitness apps do pretty much the same thing. I homed in on LoseIt! and MyFitnessPal because they are two of the most popular meal-tracker apps, which gives them the advantage of syncing well with other diet and fitness apps (such as Pact, described below) and having a large community of users for support and inspiration.
I liked LoseIt!’s interface better than MyFitnessPal’s, but in the end it doesn’t make much of a difference. Logging meals is just as tedious on an app as I remember it being on calorie-counting Web sites when I tried using them in the late 1990s. To track your intake, you type in the food you ate, select the best match from a long list, indicate how much of it you ate and click Save. This process is a chore, even with the apps’ built-in bar-code scanner. The scanner makes data entry much faster than it used to be online…if you are eating a lot of bar-coded food. How ironic that the healthiest way to eat—cooking at home with fresh ingredients—is the most difficult type of meal to log in these trackers. I soon became sick of spending 10 minutes entering a list of ingredients for salads that took me only five minutes to put together. I was in danger of giving up the whole enterprise—experiencing exactly the kind of mental burnout Markey warns against.
And then the fitness Web site FitClick released its brand-new Talk-to-Track Diet app. As soon as I saw the press release in May, I knew this app could be a game changer. FitClick developed a voice-recognition system specifically tailored to recognize ingredients, common grocery store brands and kitchen measurements, such as ounces or tablespoons. I had tried using my Android phone’s built-in voice-recognition system with the other meal-tracker apps, but it required so much after-the-fact correction that it did not actually save any time. Not so with FitClick’s Talk-to-Track. It takes me about 10 seconds to list aloud all those aforementioned salad ingredients, and the app immediately spits out an amazingly accurate tally, complete with calories and macronutrient amounts. Over time the software learns its users’ habits: I had to make a couple of manual corrections each day at first but after a week that dropped to almost zero.
The app automatically uploads your recorded meals to FitClick.com, where you can pore over more detailed nutrition information, log every imaginable fitness-related measurement and interact with a huge community of users. Or you can just use the app by itself as a stand-alone meal tracker, as I do. I have recorded my every bite for almost a month but feel none of the exhaustion, frustration, resentment or stress that have doomed my past diets. Talk-to-Track helps me manage my occasional indulgences (like all that wine at the neighbor’s party) so I can treat myself and still feel in control. But it is not the usual iron-willed, vise-grip, obsessive-style control that is impossible to sustain. I have even lost a few pounds. I feel as if I could keep this up forever.
Betting on Yourself
App for Android and iPhone (free)
If I don’t exercise today, I will lose $10. That simple bargain has motivated me to exercise nearly every day during the past two months—far more than my willpower alone has ever managed. I can thank an app called Pact, whose creators drew from a mountain of research in psychology and neuroscience that shows we humans are more averse to a loss than a missed gain. So promising yourself a reward for exercising will not work nearly as well as punishing yourself for not doing it—but who is going to stick to their pledge to tear up a $10 bill if they skip a workout?
Pact makes those intentions a reality. Users commit to exercise a certain number of times a week and decide on the amount of money they will pay for each day they miss. At the end of the week, the payments from people who failed to meet their goals are pooled and divided among users who succeeded. The rewards are small, just a few dollars a week. It is the potential losses that get people off their butts. Pact boasts that users meet the goals they set some 80 percent of the time, which is far higher than the adherence rate for typical diet or exercise plans.
Last year Pact expanded beyond exercise. Users can now pledge to eat a certain number of vegetable servings a week or log their meals daily. All three types of pacts have strict rules and procedures to ensure that people are not cheating; for instance, outdoor exercise must be tracked by your phone’s GPS, exceed 30 minutes and average a speed of more than three kilometers per hour. I found the app’s learning curve to be a bit steep—my first workout did not count, because I hit the wrong button—so I would advise new users to start with modest pledges while they learn the ropes.
The meal-logging and veggie-eating pacts have not significantly changed my life. The exercise pact, however, has been akin to a miracle. My fitness routine is no longer weather-dependent or easily derailed by my inner couch potato. The app’s motion trackers and minimum requirements also prevent me from slacking off through my workouts; if I start moving too slowly or take a break that goes on too long, the app warns me that my session is in danger of not counting. Part of my recent weight-loss success is probably thanks to this increased activity. As Markey points out in her article, exercise can enhance the effects of a healthy eating plan. More important, I have seen improvements in my fitness: I can bike farther and faster than I could two months ago. Pact, it seems, has figured out how to save me from my own laziness.
Healthy Options Everywhere
App for Android and iPhone (free)
“Sorry, I can’t go out to lunch—I’m on a diet.” How many times have we chronic dieters sadly uttered words such as these? As Markey explains in her article, diets often fail because they require giving up too much. If you can’t lead a normal life, your eating habits won’t be sustainable. Yet restaurants can be challenging for people watching their waistlines. The app HealthyOut aims to take some of the pressure off—and succeeds. It catalogues all the healthiest and lightest options at nearby restaurants, lists calorie and nutrient content if available, and is customizable to suit your dietary preferences (for instance, vegetarian or low-carb). Are you looking for a lunch delivery or heading to a restaurant with friends? Browse the healthiest items available—including off-menu choices and modifications that you may not have thought to ask for. I thought I already knew most of the healthy dining options in my small Pennsylvania town but HealthyOut pointed me to new places and secret menu options—such as lettuce wraps substituted for buns—that have been fun to try.