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8-01-2024
Do calorie-tracking apps or meal subscriptions for weight loss really work? How to make the most of them

Article first published on Channel News Asia

Hands up, if your guilty pleasure is to scan your social media feeds for year-end photos to see how everyone looks. If there’s one thing about Singaporeans, it’s our love for comparison. Yes, other than your performance bonus, Junior’s grades and where your relatives holidayed this year, you’re also likely to be comparing appearances at this time of the year.

And you can’t help it. According to studies, as much as 10 per cent of your thoughts involve comparisons of some kind. There can even be some good that can be gleaned from healthy comparison. For instance, seeing how fantastic your ex-schoolmate looks may be the kick you need to take better charge of your weight and diet this time, come hell or high water. And with New Year Resolutions season declared open a couple of days ago, the urge to participate in one-upmanship has certainly peaked.

The question is, how do you go about losing some weight, especially after the festivities? You look around for tools to help you out and see meal subscriptions backed by trim, happy influencers tucking into seemingly tasty meal boxes delivered right to their doors. Your smart device may suggest downloading a food-tracking app (there’s even one by the Health Promotion Board or HPB) to help you monitor your caloric ins and outs.

But are they worth a try? We find out from the experts.

CALORIE TRACKING – WHO’S IT FOR?

You’d be in good company if you already log what you eat in an app, according to a Prudential Singapore study: Around three in four Singaporeans aged 25 to 65 are already proficient in using apps for health purposes ranging from recording blood pressure to tracking diets.

Over at Gleneagles Hospital, it is estimated that about 20 per cent of their clients use calorie-tracking apps as part of their dietary management strategy, said Rachel Tay, a senior dietitian there.

The majority of individuals who take the calorie-logging route do so because they prefer “a structured approach to monitor their food intake to support weight loss goals”, she said, adding that the commonly used apps include nBuddy, Healthy 365, FatSecret Singapore and My Fitness Pal.

DO CALORIE-TRACKING APPS WORK?

These apps’ weight-loss effectiveness can vary significantly from person to person, said Tay. “Anecdotally, clients have been observed to lose between 1kg and 5kg a month”, which she emphasised, also involves physical activity and lifestyle changes.

These electronic food diaries can work because they let you solidify your goals versus the ephemeral promises you make to your brunch or beer buddies. Goal setting is an important factor that can influence behaviour change, along with motivation and self-efficacy, according to this study. “Self-monitoring is considered the cornerstone of successful weight management and can be particularly helpful when combined with tailored goals.”

Tay agreed: “These apps enable users to set personal health and nutrition goals, providing them a sense of accountability and the motivation to stay on track”. Moreover, they can help you be more aware of the nutrients you’re consuming, guide you to make better food and beverage choices, and even let you plan meals to meet your dietary goals, she said.

WHAT ARE THE COMMON COMPLAINTS?

One limitation is that you can’t find the nutritional information of local dishes or food on these apps. But that can be circumvented by using locally designed trackers such as Healthy 365 or cross-referencing with government health agencies such as the HPB. “Pay attention to the serving size as the nutritional information is often provided per serving,” said Tay. “Adjust the values according to the portion size you consume.”

For instance, if your app doesn’t have “nasi lemak” on its database, look for food entries that are similar to it, said Tay. “While they may not be an exact match, they can provide a reasonable estimate of nutritional content.”

Or create your own customised entries; this is especially doable if you cook. “You can manually input the ingredients and their quantities for more accurate tracking,” said Tay. A helpful tool to have for this purpose is a kitchen scale. “This can enhance the precision of your homemade dish entries and improve the accuracy of your tracking.”

But don’t fret if you are unable to find an exact match to your dish. Make educated estimations based on the ingredients used and their typical proportions in the dish, suggested Tay. “This may require a bit of research into the standard recipes or you could seek the support of a dietitian to help guide you.”

Another complaint about food-tracking apps is their sustainability or how long you can stick to the programme. “Clients have shared that logging every meal can be time-consuming and some individuals may find it challenging to sustain this practice consistently,” said Tay.

“Some clients find these apps helpful for long-term behaviour change and weight maintenance, while others may use them more intensively for a shorter period to gain insights into their eating habits,” she said.

Another downside is, when you place too much emphasis on tracking every calorie, fat, sugar and salt you consume, it could lead to an unhealthy obsession with certain foods, cautioned Tay. For instance, you may be so convinced that a grain bowl is the most nutritionally balanced dish that you don’t eat anything else for lunch and dinner. Even stir-fried kailan can cause nutritional damage if that is all you eat.

There is also the pitfall of “letting quantitative data overshadow the qualitative aspects of eating, such as hunger cues, satisfaction and the enjoyment of food”, said Tay.

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT FOOD-TRACKING APP FOR YOU

If you’re unsure just how many calories you need to reduce or how to tweak your meals, it is always a good idea to check in with a dietitian first, said Tay. “He can offer a thorough assessment and personalised advice based on your individual health needs and goals.”

The commonly used apps in Singapore include nBuddy, Healthy 365, FatSecret Singapore and My Fitness Pal, said Tay. Whichever you choose, make sure it’s been developed or endorsed by qualified nutrition professionals to ensure accuracy in the nutritional information, she added. Speaking of accuracy, the nutritional information of a dish or food can vary, so cross-reference the information whenever possible, she advised.

Instead of fixating on calorie count, pay attention to the nutritional quality of your meals, said Tay. Try to ensure a balanced diet with a variety of nutrient-dense foods. “If you find yourself becoming overly preoccupied with caloric numbers, take breaks from the app or seek support from a mental health professional.”

“Log your meals around the same time each day as consistent tracking provides valuable insights for assessing your eating patterns,” said Tay. To help you out, use the quick-entry feature for frequently consumed dishes. And be honest, even if it means logging less healthy choices consumed. “Accurate tracking provides a realistic picture of your eating habits and allows for reflection and effective adjustments.”

You should also periodically review your progress and adjust your goals as needed. “Celebrate achievements, no matter how small, and make modifications to your plan based on your evolving health and wellness objectives,” said Tay.

WHAT ABOUT MEAL SUBSCRIPTION PLANS?

“Convenient”, “chef prepared” and “balanced” are just some of the hashtags you’ll see accompanying videos of lean protein and exotic carbs on social media. (Not to be confused with tingkat services that deliver homecooked meals to the family at the behest of time-starved working parents.)

And it seems easy to do: Decide on the meal plan (calorie cutting, plant-based or muscle building, for example), click on a dish for each meal, pay a subscription fee and it’s on the way to your door. All your nutritional needs are met in each pre-packed box of food and best of all, you don’t have to waste time pondering, what shall I eat today?

It’s no wonder that the appetite for meal subscription plans is apparently growing. “Many individuals make resolutions for healthier lifestyles in the new year, contributing to this trend,” said Dr Ganesh Ramalingam, the medical director and a specialist in general surgery from G&L Surgical Clinic. And there are various ways people use these meal subscriptions, he said: As a kickstarter for their weight-loss journey, or as a long-term tool to aid them in making the right food choices.

CAN THESE MEALS REALLY HELP WITH WEIGHT LOSS?

It depends, said Dr Ganesh, whether you’re complementing the delivered meals with physical activity and a balanced lifestyle. For that matter, pairing your macro-balanced grilled salmon and quinoa with a side of couch-potatoing isn’t going to cut it.

On the whole, a reasonable weight loss goal for overweight individuals should not be more than 0.5kg to 1kg per week or 10 per cent of your body weight over six months. “Rapid weight loss may not be healthy or maintainable in the long term,” he said.

WHAT ARE THE DOWNSIDES TO THESE MEALS?

The biggest is, of course, cost. On average, the pre-prepped meals could go from as low as S$6 to as high as S$20 each; even on the low end, it’s pricier than your average pack of economy rice or nasi padang – and certainly more expensive than cooking your meals at home, especially if you batch-prep a week’s worth of meals.

“Meals costing less than S$6 may be more budget-friendly but could vary in nutritional content and ingredient quality,” said Dr Ganesh. “When evaluating meal prices, it’s beneficial to balance budget considerations with nutritional goals and personal preferences.”

The other potential complaint is portion size, which may be smaller than what you’re used to eating. As a rule of thumb, said Dr Ganesh, a quarter of your plate should be wholegrains such as brown rice or wholemeal bread; another quarter should be protein such as tofu, fish or chicken; and half of your plate should be filled with vegetables or fruits. “For example, a portion might consist of grilled chicken (about the size of a deck of cards), brown rice (1/2 to 1 cup) and a serving of mixed vegetables or fruits,” he said.

Still unsatiated? Go ahead and add snacks such as fresh fruits, raw vegetables or a small handful of nuts, suggested Dr Ganesh. “You can also enhance your meals by adding lean proteins such as grilled chicken, fish or tofu, and incorporate healthy fats like avocado, olive oil or a sprinkle of chia seeds for added satisfaction.

“If you are concerned about how your meal portions will affect your weight loss goals, consult a registered dietitian or healthcare professional for personalised advice,” he said.

There’s also the pitfall of focusing too much on macronutrients such as proteins and carbohydrates. “Look for plans that prioritise a balance of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), include sufficient fibre, incorporate healthy fats and emphasise whole, minimally processed ingredients,” said Dr Ganesh.

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT MEAL SUBSCRIPTION PLAN?

Price aside, there are a few guidelines to help you out. For instance, ensure that the meals have a balanced mix of macronutrients and micronutrients, said Dr Ganesh, and check that the calorie counts and portion sizes align with your weight-loss goals in a healthy way.

If you’re not sure, check with a dietitian or your doctor. And while you’re looking into the medical side of things, ensure that the meals, ingredients and nutritional values complement any medical conditions you may have instead of worsening them.

Got dietary restrictions or preferences such as food allergies or a no-meat policy? Confirm that the meal plan accommodates them. That aside, pick dishes or plans that consist of whole, minimally processed foods and avoid excessive additives, he said.

“It’s important to do your own research and read customer reviews on the meal subscription company of your choice,” said Dr Ganesh. “Reputable companies will usually work with certified medical professionals like dietitians and nutritionists.”