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How Apps Are Being Used for Nutritional Balance

Health-conscious eaters are turning to apps to round out their diets and track their vitamin intake.

We are a culture obsessed with counting. We always need to know how much or how many, and constantly want to know how we measure up. This is especially the case when it comes to our health—calories ingested, steps taken, pounds lost, crunches done, etc. And yet, with our increasingly busy lives and incredibly diverse lifestyles and needs, it's impossible to find a one-size-fits-all trick to quantifying and evaluating the state of each of our individual health.

There’s the vegetarian whose grandmother hand-wrings over her protein intake. There’s the newly pregnant woman, her partner thrusting one kale smoothie after another her way—baby needs folate, after all. There’s the man on a 20-day cleanse who feels thinner, but wonders if he’s dieting or actually just starving himself slowly. And then there are the rest of us, living harried schedules with slap-dash meals crammed into busy days. Sometimes you feel like you’ve succeeded if you manage three actual meals, you “Strive for Five” (fruits and vegetables), but wonder whether, nutritionally, you’re falling short.

Even those for whom food is often a matter of convenience can find solace—and helpful wellness tracking—through a variety of apps that can chronicle vitamin intake and monitor deficiencies, especially during times when we might be tempted to binge (while eating out) or take temperance to an extreme (with crash dieting).

According to Gena Seraita, registered dietician at New York Presbyterian Hospital/The Allen Hospital, the use of apps to track nutritional data is becoming much more common. “More people of all different age groups are getting smartphones and like to have something at their fingertips,” she says. “Obviously an app can never replace going to see a registered dietitian or a doctor or a nutrition expert,” she adds, but says that apps can help individuals better track their diets—and also be a useful tool when visiting nutritional counselors.

A rising number of apps, like MyFitnessPal help track caloric intake, but for those who monitor their diets for nutrition rather than weight-loss, trackers like Nutrition Journal offer the opportunity to log exactly what you eat, and with that, the nutrients you’ve consumed (not just calories). It includes a database and an exportable log for folks who understand their dietary success better when in spreadsheet form. Others like Vitamin Complete are more like an encyclopedia of nutritional data. If you want to increase your vitamin A, you can actually compare apples and oranges, to determine which of these (or other foods) can boost the vitamins you need.

This sort of vitamin bingo is increasingly necessary. Three-quarters of Americans suffer vitamin D deficiencies. Over the past few decades even the fruits and vegetables we eat have become less vitamin-rich due to soil depletion. As Mother Earth reported in 2013, one-third of Americans are classified as overweight or obese, but at the same time, many Americans’ diets are deficient in seven key nutrients: calcium, fiber, folate, iron, potassium, vitamins B12 and D.

With so many of us leaning on high-calorie, processed food to get through the day, it’s no wonder many of us are vitamin deficient. But if you begin to take this deficiency seriously and want to see what’s really in your food and how it serves your overall health, apps like Vitamin Deficiency Tracker take the guesswork out of meal and snack-planning. Making a point to only call itself an educational tool (as in, see your doctor for a full work-up if you’re feeling off), this app looks for dietary deficiencies that match specific symptoms and offers suggestions for foods to eat to fill in the gaps.

If you are cutting calories—but don’t want to make yourself sick in the process by skipping the wrong foods—tools like CRON-O-Meter make it easier to balance diet, nutrients, and exercise—and targets can be specialized for paleo, vegetarian, and low-fat, raw vegan diets. EatingWell’s Health in a Hurry app offers 200 healthful and fast recipes, with full nutritional information so you can cook and eat to your needs.

Specialized diets are one thing, but all of us are presented with the occasional dietary curveball—dessert on a fancy date, a box of seemingly nutritious granola bars. This is where apps like MyFitnessPal do come in handy, with a massive food database to track caloric intake and major nutrients, a barcode scan option for grocery shopping, progress reports, goal-setting and the ability to sync with friends on social media for mutual support.

“People might be more inclined to show their friends when they're eating healthier rather than advertising that they're not eating so healthfully," Seraita says, noting a University of South Carolina study that showed dieters who tweeted their eating habits lost more weight over a six-month period than those who didn’t tweet how they ate.

“Tracking what you eat is a really helpful tool because it forces you to be accountable to something, even if it’s just being accountable to your iPhone,” says Seraita. “You have to put in what you're eating and then have to look at it.” And it’s that potential ghost of poor dietary choices past—plus an increased awareness of what foods could make for a healthier future—that have made apps a must-have, not just for weight-loss, but for wellness.

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