Calorie counting apps and long-term weight loss

Weight loss and especially the long-term maintenance of the weight reduction is a complex process that involve many factors. Calorie counting apps can be helpful as a part of a more comprehensive weight loss program. They also have some inherent characteristics that can be counterproductive to long-term success.

The calorie counting apps are extremely popular these days. Many weight loss programs include calorie counting apps and people seem to like using them. This popularity is a bit surprising because numerous studies point out that the long-term benefit of calorie restriction for weight loss is minimal. Let’s take a look at what makes the calorie counting apps so popular and what are the pitfalls of relying uniquely on this tool to help with weight loss.

Weight loss and especially the long-term maintenance of the weight reduction is a complex process that involves many factors. The food itself, our physiology, physical activity, social environment and mindset all play a role in weight loss. Calorie counting apps can be helpful as a part of a more comprehensive weight loss program. They also have some inherent characteristics that can be counterproductive to long-term success.

Benefits of Calorie Counting Apps

You pay attention to what you eat

By logging your food you start paying more attention to what you eat. Being aware of what you eat is the first step to better food choices. You might also notice some patterns in your behavior. For example, when I eat in front of the TV I tend to eat more. 

Easy macronutrient breakdown of meals

If you are targeting a specific macronutrient composition of your meals an app will make it easier. Let’s say you are going on a low-carb diet. An app can help you with an initial assessment of what your plate should look like. It will let you know whether you had too many grams of carbohydrates. And consequently, it gives you a peace of mind that you are on the right track.

Accountability

Tracking your food intake keeps you accountable. For many people seeing their day-to-day progress helps to stay motivated. 

Increased engagement 

You can invite other people to connect with you through the app and start a competition. If you are not that competitive, you can just encourage and support each other.

Calorie counting apps – disadvantages

Restricting calories and long-term weight loss

Counting calories apps can only be effective if the approach of creating energy deficit (eat less, exercise more) produced sustainable weight loss results. And research points out that restricting food intake doesn’t result in long-term weight loss. We certainly have been using this approach for 60+ years and the rates of obesity kept going up. We all agree that excessive caloric intake and physical inactivity create positive energy balance that is associated with weight gain. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s the cause of the weight gain and that reducing calories is the solution.

Internal regulation of energy balance

If you primarily focus on counting calories you miss the importance of internal mechanisms that balance energy intake and expenditure. Calories from different macronutrients affect these internal processes in dramatically different ways. A tablespoon of olive oil will give you 135 calories just as 2 slices of bread will. The effect of these two different foods on your metabolism and your hormones will be significantly different. And that difference can be a much more relevant factor to weight management than the number of calories consumed.

Caloric target can be far from your needs

The apps prompt you to set your caloric target. That target is some kind of average number that can be pretty far from your actual needs. There is an algorithm that calculates your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). It estimates how much energy you need at rest based on your current weight, hight, age, and sex. Then the algorithm takes your physical activity and your desired weight loss into account and provides you with a target number of calories to eat a day. However, two people with the same weight and physical activity can have very different basal metabolic rates. For instance, two 175 pound men can have BMR from 1600 to 2100 Cal. And that means that one of them can eat 500 calories more that the other without gaining any weight.

Labeling inaccuracies

The feature of the apps that my clients seem to enjoy is how quickly and easily they can log their food. Now they can just scan a label and all the ingredients are accounted for. The problem is that manufacturers are allowed 20% margins for labeling inaccuracies. That can be -/+300 calories for someone targeting 1500 Cal a day. And that’s huge! If you buy into the calorie-in/calorie-out concept then it would take you only 21 calorie of daily overeating to gain 50 pounds over the course of 25 years. And 21 calorie is about a teaspoon of sugar. No app could ever track your food intake to that precision.

Apps make you focus of the quantity and not the quality

Caloric density of foods are positioned as bad for you. And that’s just not true. There are plenty good for us foods that are calorie dense, like olives, and plenty of low-calorie foods that have very little health benefits for us like popcorn.

Also if at the end of the day you have 200 calories left to consume you might reward yourself with a cookie. Or you might find yourself “economizing” your calories on healthy foods so you can have that extra cookie.

You give away self-regulation to the machine

In a way it’s a subtle message to yourself that you are incapable of being responsible for your weight and that you need an external mechanism of control. Instead of trusting your hunger and satiety signals, friendly and honest assessment of your cravings and habits we give control to a rigid algorithm.  An app is a gross simplification and estimation of what is going on inside the body, of this very complex internal process of body weight regulation.

What happens when you stop counting calories?

More that 80% of dieters gain weight back within the first year. Most people at some point stop using the app and tracking their food. Maybe they reach their ideal weight, or they get distracted by the intensity of life, or the motivation runs out. And because they are not used to relying on their internal signals to regulate weight they have nothing to fall back to.

And the apps don’t really address the question of weight maintenance. Or to be more specific, how not to gain the weight back. They don’t teach you how to transition to eating without the use of apps.

Why do we still use the calorie counting apps and consider them helpful?

We are usually focuses on the immediate result that awaits us at the end of the weight loss intervention. Hence there is a sense of success or achievement when the weight is lost. The logic goes “when I was using the app I was losing weight – the app is working”. And of course, you should be proud of your achievement! 

Now, how do you hold on to your success is another part of the story. And it’s just as important as the initial weight loss. That’s when working with a professional or engaging into a comprehensive program that addresses this question becomes important. Make sure to learn from your nutritionist or it’s clear from the program description how they help you change your eating habits so you can not only lose weight but also keep it off.

References:

  1. Benton D. and Young H.A., Reducing caloric intake may not help lose body weight. Perspective on psychological science 2017; 12(5): 703-714.
  2. Kraschnewski, J. L., Boan, J., Esposito, J., Sherwood, N. E., Lehman, E. B., Kephart, D. K., & Sciamanna, C. N. (2010). Long-term weight loss maintenance in the United States. International journal of obesity (2005), 34(11), 1644-54. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2010.94
  3. Rena R Wing, Suzanne Phelan; Long-term weight loss maintenance, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 82, Issue 1, 1 July 2005, Pages 222S–225S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/82.1.222S
  4. Taubes, G. (2007) Good calories, bad calories. Anchor Books, NY

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