Do food tracking apps really help you stay healthy, or does it just fuel the negative cycle of diet mentality? Let’s hear what the research says.


Lose It. MyFitnessPal. MyFoodJournal… there’s no shortage of food tracking apps out there, but should you be using one?

Let’s jump straight to what the research says.

Yes, tracking food has been shown to lead to weight loss more vs. non-tracking. However, most studies only last 6 months to 1 year, so the jury’s still out when it comes to whether these subjects actually kept the weight off in the long term. There’s also no way of knowing if they were able to keep up with tracking beyond the length of the study.

Often times, food trackers dictate the amount of calories allotted in a day.  This is essentially a diet – prescribed to you by a piece of technology. Unlike the studies above – which leave us much to the imagination on what the long-term benefits of food tracking actually are – we DO have tons of research to support the fact diets don’t work in the long term.

People who lose weight typically gain it back, and the evidence that diets don’t work well for weight loss continues to grow. The yo-yo weight cycling that ensues may actually be more harmful to our health than extra weight. Based on this data, it is highly likely that the participants in the above studies who lost weight tracking gained it back as tracking becomes unsustainable, tedious, and associated with guilt.

Beyond the potential for gaining back weight, there is another part of the story to be considered.

One of the most eye-opening messages I’ve recently heard is the following: We treat people with eating disorders for behaviors we prescribe in overweight people.

Read it again. Think about it. Let it sink in. This concept will shift your outlook on how our society is helping people “get healthy.”

As it turns out, calorie-tracking apps lead to eating disorder symptomatology in college students. This is a very real problem, and if you are or have any teen or adolescent men or women in your life, you need to have this awareness.

By allowing an app to tell us how many calories we can have (much like a prescribed diet plan), you may find yourself obsessing or freaking out if the limit is reached or exceeded. Conversely, we may eat to reach our limit even if we aren’t hungry because we feel we can’t “waste” it. This makes no sense, because we all need a different amount of nutrition each day. Your body can help you figure out what it needs and how much, if you pay attention and listen to it. An app can’t do that.

So are there any positives to food tracking?

Despite some issues, not all monitoring is bad. In fact, there are some ways it can be helpful, if you give it a chance.

First, you need to relinquish control. Tracking should not be used to track numbers or set arbitrary rules for yourself. Rather, try taking a journaling approach and letting go of the numbers. You may find this approach more useful when you:

1. Slow down.

Monitoring what you eat, and when, can create great self-awareness.  Knowing we need to have an awareness of what we are eating and how much helps us to slow down. Instead of eating out of the fridge or while standing up, it can prompt us grab a plate, serve ourselves, take a seat, and actually enjoy food with mindfulness.

2. Learn about nutrient content in foods.

This is most helpful for someone with diabetes who would like to increase their awareness of sources of carbohydrates, or find out more about how their blood sugar responds differently to different serving sizes and sources of carbs.

3. Nourishment (or lack thereof).

Instead of using the data to control you, use it to better understand how food fuels you by monitoring hunger, fullness, and eating times. For example: 200 calorie microwave meal at lunch leaves you hungry in less than two hours; three slices of pizza at lunch keeps you full for more than 5 hours.

This sort of data helps you place trust in your body’s ability to make adjustments to hunger as needed. Your body can regulate how much energy it needs, if you let it! This can also help you identify meals you need to beef up. For instance, a heartier lunch may fuel you through a workout after work while your small lunches leave you falling asleep at your desk.

4. Find what’s missing.

Simply, tracking the food items consumed can help you see the gaps and what may need to be added. For example, many of us don’t get enough healthy fats on a daily basis.

Remember, if you would like to use food tracking or journaling as a way to data collect and find areas to improve your nutrition, that’s OK.

But never let an app tell you how much to eat.

Adapted from the original article.

Courtney Ferreira, MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian based in Baltimore, MD with a passion for helping individuals reach their health and wellness through flavorful whole foods and freedom from counting calories, fat, and minutes on a treadmill. For more insightful tips on living your healthiest life, visit Courtney at the RealFoodCourt.

  1. Great article Courtney! This is the reason I moved my clients away from apps that track calories (my clients don’t have eating disorders but rather want to lose some weight in a healthy manner). I do think tracking is still important for helping people change behaviors, so I teach about MyPlate/The Healthy Eating Plate, which gets the focus off numbers, and I also teach about the hunger scale. Then my clients track by taking photos & using the hunger scale throughout the day. I always say that the tracking isn’t meant to be done long-term. The goal is that it helps them change habits that eventually become part of their routine and that by the time we’re finished working together, they have a new healthy routine and don’t have to track anymore. It works really well for most of them, and if it doesn’t, we don’t do it.

    1. I love the approach you take! Especially with the hunger scale! Getting away from numbers really can increase body awareness! What a great approach. And meeting people where they are at is so important – every client is so different. Thanks for sharing!