The buzzword "mindfulness" is often associated with stepping away from technology, not toward it. But health club dieticians and personal trainers say clients who use a smartphone app to track calories, exercise—even carbs and sugar—are doing a great thing by being mindful of their health.
Further, research reveals that tracking food consumption with an app can greatly increase the likelihood of long-term weight loss. A 2008 Kaiser Permanente study of nearly 1,700 participants found that those who kept daily food logs lost twice as much weight as those who did not.
Although the names and features of every calorie-tracking app are too numerous to list, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has reviewed several free options. Chief among them? My Fitness Pal, which AND gave 4.5 out of five stars, enables users to enter activity level and current and goal weights. It also enables them to scan bar codes of foods or enter the foods manually, drawing from a massive database of nutritional information. Users can also add information about new foods if they aren't in the database. Users can copy and paste meals from one day to the next, saving time.
Allison Dean, a health fitness specialist at Cisco's LifeConnections Fitness Center in North Carolina, says about 60 percent of her clients use an app.
"They really get into it," she says, adding that it holds them accountable. "So many people go through their day and don't realize how many calories they're eating, how much they're sitting, how little they're sleeping."
My Fitness Pal enables the members to be friends with people, so they can compete with them.
AND gave three out of five stars to LoseIt, which carries most, if not all, of the My Fitness Pal features. Jim White, a registered dietitian and a spokesman for AND, is considering a deal with LoseIt for his 300 one-on-one personal-training clients. White pays $3 a month per client for access to all his clients' data at once. He plans to start charging clients an extra $10 per month for monitoring via LoseIt.
"[LoseIt's app designers] are tailoring it more and more to what club owners and PTs want," White says. "With the official program, we can see exactly how much our clients are losing, as opposed to logging into 300 people's individual accounts," he says.
Some apps are designed especially for people with certain health concerns, such as diabetes, gluten-free diets and food allergies. Diabetics often need to monitor their carbohydrate intake, says Elana Zimelman, a certified diabetes educator and a registered dietician at Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.
"Tracking that intake as well as fiber, calcium for bone health—anything they are deficient in or over in—can help us pinpoint better goals for them," she says.
Zimelman says the first few days of logging food are hugely educational for clients—especially when it comes to dining out. Even seemingly healthy choices such as a salad may clock in at 1,000 calories at a restaurant.
"So we're not asking them to log food just to do it, but to use it in making changes," she says. At least one of her clients has told her it's very motivating and it works.
"When it works, it motivates the patient to keep doing it," she says. "We like the feedback they get on a day-to-day basis."
A 2013 study from the United Kingdom found a 93 percent adherence rate for people who used the app, compared with 55 percent for those who used a website and 53 percent for those who used a handwritten log.
Personal trainers who encourage app usage should be aware of inconsistencies that may impede weight loss. The apps' recommended daily calorie intake to reach a certain weight may vary widely, White says.
"If we put someone on a 1,200-calorie diet and My Fitness Pal says it should be 1,800, that can throw the plan off," he says.
In addition, when clients exercise, the apps often tell them they can eat more, which often goes against a trainer's recommendation to drop about 500 calories for a 1 pound a week weight loss, he says.
Nutritional information may be incorrect because users enter much of it manually. For apps that allow a barcode to be scanned, users have to enter whether they ate one serving or two, which can trip up people, she says.
Even fruit can be frustrating, she says.
"What kind of apple is it? Is it small or medium size?" she asks.
The average length a personal-training client continues with training is about three months, but White's clients who have major health improvements hang around for closer to six months, and app usage is part of the reason for their good results, he says.
Nevertheless, White views calorie-tracking tools as more of a jumping-off point than something to be used for years on end.
"It's almost impossible to keep it for a long period of time," he says, "but by then, we hope you're your own calculator in your mind."
Editor's Note: Thinking about recommending a calorie-tracking app to your clients? Read more reviews from The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.