By the SMU Social Media Team
It’s been said that you are what you eat. But do you track what you eat? MyFitnessPal, MyPlate Calorie Tracker and Fooducate are but a few of many apps in existence with the sole purpose of helping you log your meals and count calories. The purported result is to encourage healthy eating habits and nutritious food choices. Now while it’s fun to upload Instagram-worthy food shots and meet your calorie count goals with the help of a nifty app, does all this actually translate into significantly healthier diets?
A paper by Senior Research Scientist, Dr Palakorn Achananuparp, and Director, Professor Lim Ee-Peng, of Singapore Management University’s (SMU) Living Analytics Research Centre aims to answer that and also explore whether food journals actually lead to better food choices.
The starting point of this joint research was a personal initiative, revealed Dr Achananuparp. “I started logging my running and movement data since 2010. Gradually, I recorded other aspects of ‘life data’ such as sleep, food consumption, etc. I started daily food journals about five years ago, so there was a bit of personal curiosity in finding out how effective personal informatics technology can be.”
“Our findings suggest that food choices are mostly unconscious and multifactorial.”
The results from the research, though, were far from straightforward. Those who tracked their food generally still made choices that resemble those of the general population, or people who do not keep records of what they eat on a daily basis. “Our findings suggest that food choices are mostly unconscious and multifactorial,” Dr Achananuparp explained. They are made subconsciously based on factors including gender role (men tend to eat more meat, women tend to eat more fruits and vegetables), age (older people tend to eat more healthy protein sources, fruits and vegetables than younger people), and even cultures.
“In some way, these factors are already well known amongst those who study food consumption behavioural patterns. The surprising outcome is that actively logging food diaries does not have a major impact on the kind of foods chosen. Food journalists ate similar foods to regular people, they just ate them less,” he observed.
So if journaling has but only a marginal effect on eating behaviours, is it worth the time and effort to record what you put in your stomach? Dr Achananuparp’s answer is—it depends.
“If you are trying to lose or gain weight through calories counting, or if you want to eat more healthily but don’t know the current baseline of your eating behaviours, or if you are simply keeping tabs on your long term healthy eating habits, keeping a daily food journal is an inexpensive and effective way of helping you achieve your goals,” he reasoned. “However, if you are already aware of your eating habits, are typically in good health, and have a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI), recording your meals will not necessarily help you to be any healthier.”
“However, if you are already aware of your eating habits, are typically in good health, and have a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI), recording your meals will not necessarily help you to be any healthier.”
Dr Achananuparp is quick to add that he is neither a certified dietitian nor health coach, but recommends that perhaps the better way to healthy eating is to slowly make it almost second nature, like a good habit. Learning to set realistic goals and gradually changing your behaviour is step Number One. “The goal of healthy eating—and its eventual effects such as weight loss – is like running a marathon. It’s virtually impossible to run a marathon if you’ve never run any races before in your life, so break down your goal into smaller ones. With the accumulation of “small wins”, you’ll be more confident to take on more challenging tasks.”