Diets and Calorie Counter Apps

About a couple weeks ago I decided I needed to go on a diet. I’m 5’5″ and weighed 180.5 pounds, which, while quite alright for other folks, is too much for my own comfort. Plus I don’t eat very healthily, most of my meals fitting into the Geek Food Pyramid, and I also eat as much as one of the guys. My cholesterol level is thus rather concerning, and in any case, none of this helps when I get anxiety nausea near PTSD trigger dates, so yeah, a change in diet is all around a good idea for me.

I’ve only dieted once on purpose before; and it wasn’t a good way to diet. I tried to only eat 1000 calories a day, which is bad for your health and your body’s sanity. I understand that there are some diets out there which attempt to do this: do not do this.

So the thing about proper dieting is that apparently you only do this for a little while before you go back to a more roomy calorie “budget”, although “a while” could mean “months.” And you can only lose a certain amount of calories per day from your weight maintenance calorie budget; losing over 1000 calories a day is apparently very bad for you. And getting close to losing 1000 calories a day is still difficult. It’s why losing 2lbs a week is a stretch, and trying for more is insane and dangerous, and something more like 1lb a week is probably a good idea.

I decided on losing 2lbs a week until I reach 150lbs, and then gradually walk back to losing 1lb a week, and sometime next year I should be at my target weight, 130lbs.

This is going to take… some time.

But in the meanwhile, I’m going to treat this like a video game. A really, really long campaign video game.

In that vein, I got myself two calorie counter apps. I was recommended one by two guys on my own team, which amused me. Half of us have iPhones, and we’re working on converting the rest.

Anyways… I got a pretty calorie app and a smart calorie app, and I use them both. I go on about them quite a bit under the fold.

Lose It!

This is the pretty app. It’s also free. They have a ton of screenshots at their website, and I think as a base calorie counter, even if you’re not planning to lose weight, it’s a very nice thing. The interface is easy to use, and there are pretty icons.

The basic features of a decent calorie counter are all there:

  • Allows recording weight every day, and shows a graph. Visualization is surprisingly important in diets, because easily glimpsed feedback is always nice.
  • Exercise and calorie burn tracking.
  • Database of foods and exercises already available. It’s small, but good on the basic ingredients and exercises. ((Including sexual activity, which burns a disappointing amount of calories.))
  • Allows creating new foods with calorie counts, and even the ability to edit foods already in the database.
  • Ditto for exercises.
  • Lets you look at your calorie spending budget’s history.
  • You can resize portions and it’ll recalculate calories appropriately. This is pretty much required for any calorie counter app, and is one of the important ways such apps simplify your life, rather than adding excess complexity.
  • Some nutrient information other than calories as well. Not as detailed as some other apps, and not on by default, but this is a good thing for simplicity’s sake.

Extra nice features:

  • Prettiness. A pretty app encourages you to come back and enter data in it. There are a lot of icons to select foods from, both for foods and for exercises.
  • Great interface. It’s easier to do many things in this app than it is in similar apps.
  • Ability to create “recipes”, allowing you to combine other basic foods together. For instance, if you make strawberry oatmeal shakes, you can enter the ingredients and amounts, and it’ll calculate the calories, etc., the next time you need to make a couple servings.
  • Ability to browse custom foods and recipes without having to enter it into a log. This feature is surprisingly left out of a lot of other calorie apps.
  • Syncing to an online account if you really want to. I don’t mind, but people who want privacy probably do mind. If you never, ever want to touch their server in any way, not even for searches, this is the app for you.
  • If you really want to, you can friend other people participating in Lose It! and who have accounts.

Some things it’s lacking:

  • Online account sync doesn’t sync your database of custom foods and recipes. That’s… all kinds of bad. You can sync your calorie budget history and weight history, but that’s pretty much it. Obviously you can back up your database via your usual backing-up-the-iPhone, which you should be doing anyways, but still.
  • Every food entry only has one kind of measurement. So, for instance, you can’t specify a serving amount in cups and the equivalent in grams/ounces and another equivalent in, say, tablespoons. This is frustrating sometimes, especially in recipes.
  • Doesn’t calculate or track additional nutritional budgets. For instance, knowing you need to stay under X grams of saturated fat or X milligrams of sodium depends on how many calories you’re eating.
  • Doesn’t track calcium. For a woman, this is a real concern, especially the older one gets.
  • You can’t do much on their website.
  • It won’t let you enter data for future days, which is useful for meal-planning.

Otherwise I really like this app. But I also really like this other app…

My Net Diary

This is as comprehensive a calorie counter app as you can get. It goes rather beyond that, actually.

First, it has the basics that Lose It! has. Unfortunately, its interface is not as good as Lose It!’s, but it’s also not bad, being pretty usable even by a perpetual GUI n00b like myself. And then it adds this other stuff on top:

  • Available on the web, and also for iPhone, iPad, and the Blackberry. There are free versions, but of course you need to get a paid version to get access to more features. I bought this from the get-go, so I don’t know what the free version doesn’t include.
  • Huge database of foods to search from. This is on their server, but it’s pretty snappy, and is more of a search-as-you-type interface, which can retrieve results faster than LoseIt! despite needing a network connection. There are both official and contributed entries, although the database is still smaller than, say, LiveStrong’s Daily Plate.
  • Tracks other nutritional budgets, including calcium (yay!), fiber, carbs, fat, cholesterol, etc. Boy, do I ever need cholesterol.
  • Can track the various kinds of fats, including, very importantly, trans fats. (LoseIt! only tracks total fat and saturated fat.)
  • If you really want to, you can get a free account and sync everything to the website, including custom foods and such like.
  • Facebook and twitter sharing in addition to My Net Diary’s community sharing. If you really want to. I don’t really.
  • Tracking glasses of water. This is pretty cool, surprisingly; I find that I feel best when I drink 6 servings of 8oz of water per day.
  • Tracking other measurements than weight optionally. I really want my thigh size to go down, and I also track my hours of sleep. And not only can you get a weight chart, you can (with some finagling) get a chart for the other measurements, including its automatically calculated BMI, although BMI can be pretty inaccurate…
  • Analysis each day. I love this feature. It tells me things I wouldn’t otherwise know about, like 5g of fiber is very good to eat at breakfast time (and why a lot of cereals try to reach 5g of fiber on their nutrition labels), or what level of trans or saturated fat is bad for me. You get green thumbs-up for good things, red thumbs-down for actually bad things (as opposed to neutral things, like not eating more than the suggested amount of dietary fiber for your gender and age). It’s not a replacement for a real nutritionist, but the visual feedback is awesome.
  • Another thing about their weight chart: it will also show you the ideal trending line, kind of like a scrum chart, so you know whether you’re mostly on target or not. Much more helpful than only having a chart of weights.
  • You can enter data for future days, nice for meal-planning.

Quite a lot of other things there. I don’t know how its completeness compares to LiveStrong‘s, but I do know that I don’t like LiveStrong’s search results page.

Some downsides:

  • Doesn’t have as good or intuitive a UI as LoseIt!, although it does have a form of context-sensitive help.
  • You’ll always touch their server, because searches pretty much need their database on their server even if you don’t get an account. If you’re paranoid about such things, this is not the app for you.
  • You can’t specify the icon for custom foods.
  • You can’t browse recipes or custom foods easily without adding them to a log. In fact, dealing with your own food catalog is pretty difficult in terms of what should be easy operations, like listing or removing them.
  • Recipe creation and storage is far less complete than LoseIt!.
  • Not free. Although your mileage will vary on whether this is a deal breaker or not.

Well, Does Counting Calories Work?

Probably. If you do it in a healthy way. Currently on track and am at 175.5 lbs.

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5 thoughts on “Diets and Calorie Counter Apps

  1. I never really dieted and was always fine with my usual plumpness, but at the end of college I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and wound up putting on 50lbs in a matter of months. Weight gained from hypo is really hard to get off so I spent the next several years not really trying. I was on a very strict diet set by a nutritionist for a while, and actually *gained* a few pounds. So I gave up for a long time out of frustration.

    I’ve been using Lose It! for several months now, and I find counting the calories both strangely addictive to my ocd tendencies and overwhelming all at once. I will use it religiously for a week, then ignore it for two. I have the same issues with it that you do–no conversions, weirdly limited database of foods, lack of meal planning. I will definitely give My Net Diary a try and see how that works for me.

    I also joined a gym last week, which was probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. But maybe what I eat doesn’t matter as much as getting exercise? We’ll see.

    Good luck to you! You tend to eat a lot of veggie-friendly foods, so I do hope you’ll post recipes and low-cal meals you come up with. I have such a small repertoire of things I can make (especially things that are healthy…) and would love to expand it.

  2. Your bento-box entries and occasional references to things like rice-cooker meals or cold noodles with veggies and dressing led me to imagine you as already eating a very healthful, all-freshly-cooked diet.

    My view of dieting has been altered by a couple years of reading the fatosphere blogs, but I send you best wishes on your project.

    Why would a person be concerned about touching the server with a calorie-counting app? Does the program require one’s legal name?

  3. Torie,

    Yeah, lots of things can stop diets from working. Exercise is good, and when I both exercise and follow my budget, I can eat more sushi food! This has led to things like, “I want to eat dessert. Guess I’ll go vacuum for an hour.”

    I tend to get things out of only a few books for my veggie meals:

    Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker. It’s the slow cooker. It’s hard to screw up, although some of the recipes can get a little complex, I’ve yet to find one that I dislike. I totally love the country-style paté one, and strangley so do all my carnivorous friends. ^.^

    Vegan Planet. It’s my chunkiest cookbook (although not as chunky as some cookbooks can get). It has like everything in it. I love all their versions of vegetarian burgers, but the one involving almond butter is the best. Many recipes are a bit complicated, some are really dead simple; it’s somewhat hit-and-miss for me, but introduced me to spaghetti squash, which is teh awesome.

    The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook. There are a good amount of meat recipes here, but also a lot of vegetarian recipes. Haven’t run into a recipe I hated yet, and also it’s hard to screw up a rice cooker recipe.

    Otherwise I scope out AllRecipes and such, although filtering out bad recipes is more difficult.

    Wogglebug,

    Healthy? Heh, nah, when the fellows go out to get a pizza or takeout for lunch, I follow along and eat what they do. A socialization thingy, I suppose. As a result, if I’m not pretty staid on my bento lunches, it’s easy for me to eat a single 1500 calorie meal every workday, probably mostly made up of fat and grease. And I always, always get dessert when I eat out on top of that. This is not a good diet for anybody; it’s not even good if you need to eat more calories.

    Also, when the PTSD is hitting hard, which it has been for the past few months, I tend not to cook and eat out a lot. Not just often, but a lot. Displacement thingy, maybe.

    So when I chose to go on a diet, it’s not just ’cause I wanted to be thin and fit in with my social group—which is, for better or worse, work. I could also be fat and fit in. I could be inbetween and fit in. Where I work, one’s worth is definitely not what one weighs. If anything, being big yields more gravitas, which should not be discounted as coin when trying to herd cats developers.

    The program doesn’t require legal names, I just know some folks who don’t want to be traced at all, or at least, not more than they already can be. I don’t judge paranoia. ^.^

  4. Ah. Yes, restaurant portions make moderation difficult, and so does the social-feedback loop of eating as long as other people are eating.

  5. Really nice detailed summary. Not the prettiest but simple and great is calorie counter by fatsecret. Use it on my Droid but also on iPhone and BB.

    Ciao!
    Demi

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