Wired for health

Nutrition apps seem to be all the rage, but can they really help us become more fit?

By Paul King, Editorial Director

One of the sessions I attended at last month’s Association for Healthcare Foodservice (AHF) conference was on the use of nutrition apps in foodservice. The presenters were Dan Henroid, director of nutrition services at UCSF Medical Center, in San Francisco, and Camp Howard, director of dining at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville.

The foodservice departments at both of these institutions promote nutrition apps for customers to use. UCSF Medical Center has partnered with MyFitnessPal. Vanderbilt uses an app called Nutrition Addition, which was created by a Vandy graduate and is currently being used by six other colleges.

Not only did Henroid and Howard talk about how they use and promote their chosen apps to customers, they also spoke about the variety of apps that are on the market. FatSecret, SparkPeople, MyNetDiary, Health Month and Lose It! are just some of the other apps that are available to people to help them track a variety of wellness-related items, from weight loss and exercise to sleep habits.

The selling point for each of these apps is that they provide ways for users to keep a journal of the foods they eat, along with a way to communicate with a community of users who can support each other as they attempt to achieve specific goals.

Some of them, such as MyNetDiary and Lose It!, focus solely on nutrition and weight maintenance. Others weave in exercise and nutrition for a more complete wellness package. One of them, Health Month, tries to make a game out of getting healthy. At the beginning of every month, you establish your own set of rules to follow and then demonstrate throughout the month how well you can keep your rules.

As I listened to the presentation a couple of thoughts went through my mind. The first was: Whatever happened to the days when staying healthy was simply a matter of watching what we ate and exercising on a regular basis? When did it become so important that we track everything we eat and log every time we take a walk, ride a bike or play a sport?

In a way, these apps are almost the adult version of what many parents today do to their children. Instead of just letting their kids have fun, they arrange play dates and enroll their children in all sorts of organized sports and other extracurricular activities.

My second thought was, how well do these apps really work and how well are they accepted by the people who originally sign up to use them? The number of users vary from app to app; SparkPeople, for instance, says 13 million have signed up, while Health Month claims a mere 68,000 users. However, we all know the difference between those who sign up and those who actually make use of a particular service or app. So the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

During his presentation, Howard noted that the Nutrition Addition people were planning an expansion to their program, adding such elements as a build-a-meal feature and taking into account religious dietary accommodations. So either the creators believe that the demand is there or they are hoping that adding new features will make their app more attractive to more people. I continue to be skeptical.

But then, I wondered, at the age of 58 am I cynical because I think these apps are a waste of time or because I’m too old fashioned to accept this type of change? I mean, I don’t think I am against apps, per se. It’s just that there seems to be a lot of work involved logging information in and making the time to get into the habit.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it’s a question I couldn’t answer because I don’t have enough information. So, I decided to choose one of these aforementioned apps and use it for at least a couple of months. I opted for FatSecret for a couple of reasons. First, it combines nutrition and exercise, which if I were going to embrace this type of fitness tracking would have to be elements of the app. Second, it provides a list of monthly challenges to choose, and everyone knows that almost everything is easier to do if you can make a game of it.

So let’s see how well I can embrace this brave new world of nutrition technology. Through my blog I’ll keep you posted on my success, especially given the amount of travel I do during the summer.

And if any of you readers are on FatSecret, drop me a line. Perhaps you can be the lifeline I’ll need once the going gets tough.