Feb Feature Linitz_TaraYou’re ready to retire the paper food diary for a food or calorie app. Or maybe you’ve tried one or two apps already, but aren’t getting the results that you want. As with most other worthwhile endeavors, there’s a bit of a learning curve when you first download an app — for both you and the app.

Initially it can be time consuming to set up an app. You typically have to input a great deal of information about your meals and snacks into the app database, which can become tedious. The upside is that many apps store your favorite foods and recipes that can make it much easier in the long run. Even if it takes a bit more time at first, using a food or calorie app can be well worth the effort. Unlike a paper diary, an app gives you feedback in real time. You can update your food anywhere, anytime and know in an instant how many calories you’ve consumed for the day, and how many you can still eat. If weight loss is your goal, tracking can give you an edge. Studies have shown that dieters who are conscientious about tracking their food intake lose more weight than people who don’t.

We asked Tara Linitz, RD, LDN, an outpatient dietitian at Massachusetts General Hospital and coach with the BeFit program for some tips on how to get the most out of using a food or calorie tracking app.

How do you pick the right app for you?

TL: Choose the app that is the easiest for you to use, that way you’ll be most likely to stick with it. I’ve noticed that some people are suffering from “app overload.” They download too many apps, which can be very overwhelming. I recommend that people look at the top apps, and then download the one that they find most appealing.

What do app users need to know before they get started to get the best results?

TL: In order to track calories with any degree of accuracy, it’s very important to understand what a portion size looks like. The problem is, people tend to underestimate how much they eat. Obviously, you’re not going to walk around with a measuring cup, so you’re going to have to learn how to “eyeball” it. I advise patients to use this simple technique to measure portion sizes.

One fist = 1 cup; one deck of cards = 3 ounces of fish, meat or poultry, and one tennis ball = ½ cup. It’s a good idea to practice measuring portions for a few days until you get the hang of it. Don’t forget that all beverages (other than water) and alcohol also need to be added into your calorie count.

Should people track exercise along with their calories?

TL: Exercise is very important, so of course, if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to do it because it helps maintain muscle mass. The more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism works, even at rest. If you want to keep track of the amount of time you spent exercising, or the intensity of exercise, that’s fine.

Unfortunately tracking calories burned through exercise on some of the apps tends to be off and gives people additional calories to ‘add back in’ which may slow progress, so just focus on adding in your food intake at first when trying to lose weight.

What’s a smart way to set weight loss goals? What’s the maximum you can aim for?

TL: Healthy sustainable weight loss is anywhere from one-half to two pounds per week. Any faster than that and it’s usually water weight that will come right back on. Women shouldn’t eat less than 1,200 calories a day; men usually shouldn’t go under 1,800 calories. Eating too few calories can disrupt metabolism and actually make it harder to lose weight, plus it’s very difficult to obtain all your nutrients on too few calories.

Many people download weight loss apps and stop using them — similar to the way they sample diets and then quit. What do you think people can do to help stay on track?

TL: There are several things that people can do to stay engaged. Send yourself daily reminders to keep using the app. Have someone that you’re accountable to, like a friend or diet buddy with whom you can share your information. Set up an appointment with a registered dietitian and set a goal to bring in your food logs at each appointment.

How often do you need to track?

TL: Every day is best, but if tracking every day seems daunting, try tracking every other day, but make sure that you track on at least one weekend day. That will give you a good idea of what you’re eating. Keep in mind that studies have shown that people who track the most lose the most weight.