Use your smartphone for smarter nutrition.
Can you app your way to better nutrition and health?
If you own a smartphone, as nearly two-thirds of Americans now do, odds are you’ve gone a little bit app happy. While health and fitness apps claim a relatively small percentage of the app market, they have been the top growing app category for the past few years (Google declared 2014 the year of health and fitness apps) and 19 percent of millennials use them.
But can they help you eat better, exercise more and be healthier? As always, it depends.
Apps aren’t magic — you still have to put in the time and effort it takes to prepare meals, exercise and so on — but they can help you build awareness of your food and activity habits and possibly serve as a form of accountability and motivation. Here are some of my top picks:
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If you are simply looking to track what you eat and how much you exercise, MyFitnessPal (Android, iOS; free and paid versions) is one of the best all-around apps. You can track calories, macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and set custom goals for each of those areas, allowing you to override what the app says you should be eating. If your food comes in a package, you can scan the bar code.
You can also set fitness goals and track your exercise — linking to your Fitbit if you have one. The Web version, which you can access for free, has a handy water tracker, lets you enter notes about any successes or challenges you had and print out daily reports. (It’s also easier to enter information on a full-size keyboard.) The paid version is ad-free.
Another solid, back-to-basics app is MyNetDiary (Android, iOS; free and paid pro versions). Track your food using bar codes or manual entry, log your exercise and easily monitor your hydration by tapping on an icon for each glass of water you drink.
An in-app notes feature lets you keep a record of your thoughts and mood. The Food Check! feature can scan bar codes or type in specific foods, brands or restaurants to sleuth out nutrition information.
Like most food-and-fitness trackers, the app is somewhat weight-centric, even including an optional before-and-after photo feature, but as with MyFitnessPal it lets you override its calorie recommendations. The app “grades” your food choices, which can be encouraging for some people but off-putting for others. This feature can be turned off in the settings.
The app supports linking to Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin and other fitness tracking devices, giving it an edge over MyFitnessPal.
After testing both, I find that MyNetDiary’s more pleasing interface when entering foods (you see attractive icons of each food you eat) also gives it the edge over MyFitnessPal, although both apps are very good. The primary advantage of MyNetDiary’s pro version is that it allows you assess to the Web-based version for easy of entry and access to printable reports.
Trying to eat more whole or minimally processed foods? Wholesome (Android, iOS; free) may be the app for you. While Wholesome does track calories, macro and micronutrients, and a wealth of phytonutrients, it doesn’t break them out by meal, which is fine if your focus is simply on getting enough of the good stuff into your day.
You can browse foods by color, and the vibrant photos may actually encourage you to eat more produce. Falling short on a few nutrients? You can ask the app to suggest foods that will help make up the shortfall. The app also allows you to browse appealing nutrition-packed recipes, which come up automatically on the homepage.
These days, it’s as if your food doesn’t exist if you don’t snap a photo and post it to your blog or Instagram feed, but if you prefer using photos to keep track of your eating habits, Pic Healthy (Android, iOS; free) may be just the ticket.
The one catch is that your photos aren’t private — the app has a social-media component that invites others to view and comment the on healthfulness of your meal (which you earn points). You can also follow other users and rate their meals.
One annoyance is that your meal photos don’t appear in your gallery immediately — they have to be approved first by the app powers that be.
Recovery Record (Android, iOS; free) is a unique food-tracking app. Designed to assist in eating disorder treatment, I find that it’s also beneficial for those who grapple with emotional and stress eating, or who are more concerned with practicing intuitive and mindful eating than counting calories and nutrients, which the app doesn’t do.
You can turn off many of the questions that are related to eating disorders if they don’t pertain to you, and you have the option to take a photograph of your meal as well as type in what you ate.
Cooking at home makes it easier to eat more healthfully, and planning is a critical factor for the successful home cook. PepperPlate (Android, iOS; free) is more than just an app, it’s primarily a Web-based program that syncs with the app when you are signed in with your free account.
Use the Web interface to add recipes from the long list of supported recipe sites simply by cutting and pasting the recipe’s URL, or manually add recipes from non-supported sites using the easy cut-and-paste template. Once you have imported recipes, you can quickly create menus and shopping lists.
The best use of the app is to browse your saved recipes and call up your shopping list while at the store.