Tracking our food with a (digital?) diary
June 7, 2020 3:38 PM   Subscribe

No one is more surprised to suddenly find that Lady Sparrow and I are now deadly serious about changing our diets to lose weight and get more healthy. It would be nice if there was some sort of digital solution that would let us enter food, track calories, perhaps even have a favorite meal that we could call up from memory and not have to manually enter each time.

This new burst of willpower and motivation catches us unprepared. We need to keep a diary or log of the food we eat, with calorie values. The last time I did this and successfully lost weight the app I used was on a no-joke Palm Pilot, and that is not an option any more.

We are also open to an old fashioned paper logbook. Or, we have years of successful use of a Google Sheet (spreadsheet) as our budget tool, so this could probably be folded into that. But I am hoping there is some off-the-shelf solution ready for us.

We are flexible. It could be a website, a phone app (Android household) or something else I haven't thought of. Another nice feature, but not a deal-breaker, would be the app automatically totalling calorie values together for the day. If it is works, we don't mind paying for the app or service, within reason.

What works for you in tracking your food?

This is the end of my question, but to forestall any requests for clarification or well-meant but not applicable advice, here are some details about our health and the diet we have chosen, offered in case it helps elicit a better answer. (Don't feel like you have to read further if you already have a good answer to my question.)

We are both morbidly obese: he (52 y/o) is 6 feet tall and weighs 360 lbs, she (47 y/o) is 5'8" and weighs 235. He has severe type 2 diabetes, and she has a debilitating combination of inflammatory diseases-- rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, as well as pre-diabetes. He can exercise a little bit, she cannot walk at all and spends 23 hours/day in a hospital bed, and uses a motorized wheelchair when she leaves it.

The diet chosen to start is a modified form of alternate day fasting where we eat just 500 calories on the alternate days, and then try to make good choices and eat sensible portions on the off days. This is a modified version of the 5:2 Diet, but we are not attached to any one rigorous protocol, and have made alterations based on our current health and known psychological issues.

On the non-fasting days we hope to eat less than 2500 calories for him, and 2000 for her. This is based on BMR calculations, which we don't entirely trust, and don't have much faith in calorie counting as an effective means of weight loss anyway, but we still want to record the numbers in our food diary. The main goal of non-fasting days is to eat healthy, enjoyable foods that are mostly non-processed and avoid or minimize high amounts of sugars and refined grains. We pay more attention to what individual food types do to our insulin and blood sugar levels.

We are starting small with intermittent fasting because of underlying health conditions and a long history of unsuccessful weight loss attempts. We hope to eventually transition to more rigorous fasting if this is successful.

We have done our research. The bulk of what we based these decisions on came from Canadian Nephrologist Dr. Jason Fung (brief explainer video here, we did many more hours of research beyond this) and we mostly believe his research and conclusions. We were also inspired by Penn Jillette's weight loss experience using similar methods (nine minute explainer here) and found some good motivation, advice, and techniques from Jess at Keto Rewind on Youtube (obligatory video summary).

Huh, that little disclaimer is twice as long as the original question. If you read it all through, thank you! And since I opened the door, obviously if you have opinions about our strategies in addition to a food diary recommendation, we'll gladly read those as well.
posted by seasparrow to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
MyFitnessPal is flexible and has an excellent database.
posted by Jahaza at 3:40 PM on June 7, 2020 [17 favorites]

Best answer: The best way to do this simply is to pick a few dishes for each meal, or similar components you use and switch up non caloric spices on and just eat those for a bit. When you get tired of those, add a few more. I get that not everyone likes to eat the same dishes all the time but wow does it make calorie tracking so much easier.
posted by ananci at 3:51 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t have knowledge about intermittent fasting or even a success story with counting calories to lose weight (counting calories does not play well with my mental health) but I would consider speaking to a nutritionist for recommended daily calorie counts to make sure your plan is viable. I was floored to find out from a nutritionist that my maintenance daily calorie count should be about 2400 as an early thirties woman at 5ft11 and 220lbs. As a woman I had always figured my daily calorie count should be around 1700 since I’m tall but clearly I was way off. Having accurate calorie needs may make this more sustainable for you.

Best of luck on your journey!!
posted by raccoon409 at 3:52 PM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: MyFitnessPal and MyPlate are very similar, I used MyPlate but know others who've used MyFitnessPal. It worked very well for me, and I know in MyPlate you could definitely save recipes.

The most important thing is to actually measure everything - get a scale and weigh out all your portions, use measuring spoons for cooking oil, etc. Don't guess, you will be wrong.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:16 PM on June 7, 2020 [6 favorites]

Lose it! worked well for me. It tracks your calories/protein/carb/fat intake and you can re-enter previous meals. It has lots of Canadian grocery chain items in it’s data base.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:19 PM on June 7, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I'm going to give you a blanket warning about every app that has a user-contributed database: people are useless (and/or malicious for giggles) and those databases are absurdly wrong like 94% of the time (or you have to scroll through 400 listings for scrambled eggs to find one that actually falls into the ballpark of USDA or similar database information), so whichever app you like, pick it on the other features. The only data you can really trust is what you put in yourself, so expect to spend a fair amount of time logging your frequently used foods at first. Or cross-checking and then favoriting the ones that are actually right. Don't expect it to spare you any time reading labels and looking things up in actual nutritional databases.

This warning brought to you by a half-dozen groups I belong to that get at least one post a day of "Carb Manager said grape jelly had 0 carbs so I've been necking an entire jar every day for three months but I just looked at the label and I think that might be wrong!!!"

And yeah, get one regular digital food scale and one drug scale, eyeball nothing until you've trained your eye for a long time with scales.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:30 PM on June 7, 2020 [6 favorites]

I use Nutracheck - it's British but they have a US version/database (that's the one I've linked to). I find it much easier to use than MyFitnessPal. You can save recipes and add them a portion at a time. It has six pre-sets that you can choose between when it comes to setting targets - well balanced, 5:2, low carb, low sugar, high protein, lower fat. Then there's a 7th option where you can set your own targets - choose your daily Kcals, then set your targets for individual nutrient groups, and it makes sure your targets don't exceed your calorie goal.
posted by penguin pie at 4:37 PM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

LoseIt worked for me in the past. In addition to the large database of (yes, user-controlled, so beware, but they have a nice feature called "Verified Foods" so those you can trust), you can scan bar codes on packaging and then enter quantity, you can create recipes using individual measurements of flour, pasta, whatever that you'd manually enter and then name and save, and you can add a whole meal at one touch. For example, if you always eat the same breakfast, just go into breakfast and duplicate yesterday's. And you can set goals based on whatever your focus is.
posted by clone boulevard at 5:19 PM on June 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The free version works so beautifully that I bought a paid lifetime subscription out of gratitude after using the free for years and years. There is a website and an app. You may save custom foods, as well as scan and enter premade/prepackaged stuff/normal ingredients and restaurant food. .

It is a glorious, perfect app, and the poor sods who recommend MyFitnessPal are delusional and lost.
posted by liminal_shadows at 5:39 PM on June 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

I love LoseIt because:

1) really strong recipe builder
2) you can correct other user submissions if they are wrong
3) if you pay for premium, you can track all kinds of things and it will tell you which kinds of foods often lead to you overindulging and which keep you on track
4) premium also lets you track percentage decreases in calories and other measures across months
5) low key challenges with others if you kind that kind of thing motivating
6) some good recipes

I have tried a few others and found that this was the best combination of easy and full featured so I paid for lifetime premium.
posted by eleanna at 5:52 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Cronometer, absolutely.

I’ve used all the other popular ones and had enough issues with them to never develop any consistency in using them, but Cronometer is accurate, smooth to use, simple, informative, and just all-round A Good App. Seriously the only one that hasn’t frustrated me to the point of giving up tracking altogether.
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 6:15 PM on June 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I’ve recently started with Cronometer, chosen due to its Fitbit integration and the fact that the food database is not user-generated.

I’ve found it very pleasant and would recommend it to everyone.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:15 PM on June 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, the other very nice thing Cronometer has is the ability to add biometrics to your log. For example, your glucose measurements.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:14 PM on June 7, 2020 [5 favorites]

I've been using Noom and have found it very helpfull, but the "rah, ra, rah, daily psych you up stuff might not be what you had in mind. It does keep track of your food and has a section of recipes you can bookmark, though I don't believe you can import recipes.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:28 PM on June 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've used MyFitnessPal and LoseIt, but have switched to cronometer because it has a real database. MFP and LoseIt"s databases are jokes in comparison.

Good luck!
posted by medusa at 10:20 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone for the responses. Reading them, as usual, sparked some good thoughts I had not considered:

1. On a diet with such emphasis on fasting, I need easy timestamps to help me track the fasting intervals.
2. Eventually, I want to exercise more, and having that built in to the tracker is a really good feature. Easy interoperability with a monitoring device like fitbit is even better.
3. If the app offers tracking other health metrics like A1C, blood sugar, heart rate, etc then I should incorporate that as well, since I want to record those anyway.
4. I am perhaps unfortunately a terrible snob about user interface design. Even if it works, a poorly laid out website or app will have me grumbling, sighing, and eventually swearing under my breath, and no one wants that.
5. If I am going to rely on an outside database for food, it needs to be accurately vetted.

So, having looked at all the recommendations, I find myself most drawn to Cronometer. I think it will work for my particular needs.

I really appreciate all the thought and care put in to the replies here. Even if you recommended another solution, it helped clarify exactly what I was looking for. And given the global nature of Metafilter, will be a useful resource for other people, who will invariably have different requirements.

Thanks again! This is going to be a huge step forward in our journey to better health and weight loss.
posted by seasparrow at 7:06 AM on June 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: To help address #1 in your reply, if you want assistance tracking your fasting hours, there are a variety Intermittent Fasting apps as well. One that is popular in some groups I follow, is called Zero (available for iOs and Android), but there are plenty of others.

Good luck! I really hope this works and feels right for you and your partner.
posted by hydra77 at 9:36 AM on June 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Another vote for Cronometer. I heard about it here, it's about 500% less annoying than the previous app I used, and it has both desktop and mobile versions.
posted by confluency at 1:05 PM on June 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

(This is too long to be an edit. I cannot emphasize how pleasant it is not to have to deal with random people's incompetent data entry any more.)
posted by confluency at 1:07 PM on June 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've used MyFitnessPal in the past, and switched to Lose It a while ago. I'm back using the tool to log eating. +1 to the data comments, I'm intrigued by a product that provides vetted nutritional info!

My partner has started using Lose It as well and the first feature we'd now be looking for in a move away is the ability to share data. When we prepare meals we create a recipe and share it with the other, we individually adjust our serving sizes. It feels nice to share this work.

The Apple Health and activity integration is nice... I do respond well to the "Do More, Increase the N" game. If I'm already in LI constantly, it's fine to see it there.
posted by concavity at 2:21 PM on June 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yet another vote for Cronometer, plus I wanted to specifically respond to this:

"perhaps even have a favorite meal that we could call up from memory and not have to manually enter each time"

I use this feature heavily in Cronometer - I create "recipes" from meals that I eat a lot:

peanut butter sandwich = 34 g bread; 30 g peanut butter; 15 g strawberry preserves
yogurt and granola = 110 g yogurt, 80 g raspberries, 30 g granola

Then, when I'm logging my breakfast or whatever, I just choose "yogurt and granola" in Cronometer and it adds that to the day. If I want to be super accurate (and I do, just because I find this fun), I can then right-click that recipe in the day's diary entry and choose Explode Recipe, and then I can edit the quantities (maybe I only had 70 g of raspberries today) without having to re-enter everything.

Also seconding showbiz_liz on getting a kitchen scale. I just love data and love collecting the numbers, so I weigh EVERYTHING - and it's just kind of fun (for me) to see how close I am on estimating amounts. (Answer: not close. I've been doing this for years and I still can't eyeball a pat of butter and tell you how many grams it actually is.)
posted by kristi at 12:35 PM on June 12, 2020

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