Tracking Your Food: Healthy or Harmful?

If you think you’ve never been influenced by diet culture, think again. It’s everywhere, from television and movie plots, to marketing tactics, invading the socio-cultural fabrics of even our healthcare system. It’s pervasive, and it’s really clever. Diet or weight loss companies that you’ve probably heard of, including the Atkins Diet, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, have raked in billions, according to an article published by Market Research, worth of revenue based on the premise that their products will make it “easy” to lose weight. I vividly remember a book given to me when I was in fifth grade called “Eat This! Not That!” which was ironically self-described as a “no diet” weight loss solution.

It sounds pretty harmless until you dive deeper into the messaging behind these advertising and marketing strategies. To get your money, a company must convince you that you need their product, and they can do this by capitalizing on the idea that (1) health is defined by a person’s weight, and (2) being fat is inherently undesirable and to be blamed on moral misguidance; which means that losing weight should be easy! It’s just about self-control, right? Wrong. This, obviously, is not true. Body size is not alone a valid indication of health, nor is it related to morality or self-control, or anything quite so simple. It has been found that 72-98% of media reports discussing obesity emphasize individual responsibility for weight, compared with 40% of scientific papers. According to the National Institute of Health BMI is no longer recognized as a metric that can solely quantify an individual’s health status, and the field of nutrition is evolving towards eradicating weight-stigma from the complex framework of health. This includes recognizing fat-phobia as a threat to both the physical and mental health of those who are the targets of its rhetoric.

One of the first principles of nutritional science that you learn as a student in the field is that there are no objectively “good” or “bad” foods. Dichotomy is dangerous, and labeling food as either good or bad inevitably leads to restriction, which ultimately leads to binging, thus concocting a perfect, vicious cycle. It’s also the recipe to success for companies that sell diet focused weight loss “solutions.” 

One potential application of this business model is in calorie counting, or food tracking, smartphone apps. Most of them simply total up the calories you consume in a day, and some even break down these calories into macronutrients: protein, carbs and fat. Some apps go even further by tracking your micronutrient intake. Cronometer is one of these, and I accidentally encountered it through an advertisement on Facebook. It cost $3.23 from the App Store, so I downloaded it and began to log my food. I had never used one of these apps before I downloaded Cronometer and didn’t have any expectations that it would make a huge difference in my diet since I’m already quite conscious of the nutrients in my food. If you have little knowledge of micronutrients, then an app like Cronomoter could bring more awareness to that aspect of your life. Dr. Jorunn Gran-Henriksen RD, of SUNY Plattsburgh’s Food and Nutrition department and a registered dietician, remarks on the potential usefulness and shortcomings of food tracking,

“Keeping track of food intake, whether a food diary/log or using apps, including those that track micro’s, can be helpful to people who are trying to manage weight or reach certain nutritional goals. As far as simply tracking macros, there is no guarantee that you automatically get the micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) you need, as you will need to eat a variety of foods from the different food groups to get that.”

It’s true that consuming the right amount of calories to meet a “weight management” goal or hitting targets for protein, fat, and carbs in a day will not guarantee that you are meeting all nutritional requirements for your body to function at its best. With a focus on vitamins and minerals, rather than just calories, Cronometer may be more useful than some other food tracking apps for someone who wants to eat a balanced diet. 

Range of factors that impact health. Image source: Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts

This is a fundamental principle of the Intuitive Eating philosophy, an approach to health and nutrition that is anti-diet culture and aims to help individuals learn (or rather, re-learn) how to trust their own body when it comes to hunger, fullness, and food choices. Many trained dieticians use some combination of food tracking and intuitive eating, in addition to many other strategies, when counseling clients because at the end of the day, nutrition therapy is a highly individualized form of healthcare. There is much more to being “healthy” than the food that goes into your body or the size of your body, and any simplification of the concept of health that ignores this is at best useless, at worst: harmful. There is also no single behavioral approach to health that will work for every person, and if anyone tells you otherwise it’s probably because they just want your money. 

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