8 Surprising Things We Learned from Calorie Trackers

We tracked our diets with the Fitbit and Jawbone UP fitness tracker apps and the Weight Watchers mobile app. Want to eat healthier or lose weight? Here's what you need to know.

Attractive woman using smartphone and eating in a cafe.Photo: Shutterstock / Kanashkin Evgeniy
Photo: Shutterstock / Kanashkin Evgeniy

Three Taste of Home staffers—Emily, Amanda and yours truly—caught the track-your-diet-with-a-mobile-app bug. Here’s the skinny on what we learned using fitness trackers and the Weight Watchers mobile app to count calories and track our exercise.

1. You’re Probably Eating More than You Thought

Logging a snack or meal makes it real. As an on-the-go woman, I often eat two—and sometimes three—meals a day at work. Toss in a couple of snacks and the lure of amazing food continuously rolling out of our Test Kitchen, and it’s no wonder that the Freshman 15 isn’t just a problem for incoming college students. Fortunately, you don’t fall into mindless munch mode when you’re diligently tracking what you consume.

2. You Don’t Have to Eat Little to Eat Healthy

Emily, who has been using the Fitbit app for just over a week, found that a balanced dinner of chicken breast, 2/3 cup peas and 1/2 cup risotto clocked in at just 405 skinny calories (below left). The meal felt like a lot of food and kept her full. Calories in some of her go-to office snacks, such as granola bars, tortilla chips and cheese (below right), added up quickly and contained more calories than the satisfying protein- and fiber-rich dinner. Fortunately, there are plenty of 400-calorie dinners in the Taste of Home library.

Screenshots of Fitbit calorie tracker appPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

3. Cool Visuals Are Motivating

The Jawbone UP uses stoplight colors and a 1-10 scale to rate the health value of the food you eat, with one being the least healthy and 10 being the healthiest. One of my favorite comfort foods is boxed stuffing mix, which I ate frequently with green beans and this slow-cooked turkey breast. The stuffing scores a paltry 2.2 on the UP scale and is color-coded orange (avoid). The turkey (7.5 points and OK in moderation) is yellow, and the green beans (go nuts) get the green light and a good-for-you score of 9.5.

UP Food Tracker appPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

Fitbit’s dial graphic shows when you’re in the zone. If Emily is running over her calorie budget for the day, the needle shifts right to pink; when she’s under budget, she’s running in the blue.

Screenshot of fitbit calories in and out trackerPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

Weight Watchers shows progress toward a weight-loss goal over a custom time frame. Amanda’s progress from when she started using the app in 2013 to today is shown below. How motivating is that?

Screenshot of calorie tracker progress chartPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

4. Sodium Creeps up on You—especially When You’re Eating on the Go

The sodium in convenient foods like grab-and-go sandwiches, frozen pizza, canned soup, and stuffing from a mix can add up fast. An otherwise-healthy eating day can quickly be sabotaged by too much sodium. I never thought consuming too much salt was a problem for me, but it turns out that on most days, it was.

5. If You Get Creative, You Really Can Eat What You Want

Amanda, who’s a Weight Watchers pro (in 2001, she tracked her diet in a handwritten Weight Watchers journal, then graduated to the desktop system and, in 2013, the mobile app), has some smart advice here. A can of orange soda contains 10 points, but if she really wants a sparkling orange beverage that feels like a treat, orange La Croix accomplishes that with zero calories and points.

And consider her morning coffee. The gourmet vanilla creamer she was using contains 4 points in a serving (her allowance is 35 points a day). She learned that regular half-and-half contains just 2 points, and the fat-free version, 1 point. But she didn’t want the chemicals in a fat-free product. The solution? “What I really want is the creamy taste in my coffee. So I use regular half-and-half, saving 2 points, and go for vanilla-flavored coffee when I want a treat”—which tracks 0 points, just like regular coffee.

Screenshot of half-and-half in calorie tracker appPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

6. It’s Easier to Say “No” When You’re Tracking

Though Emily enjoys sweets, she found it’s easier to turn them down since she started tracking her activity and diet with the Fitbit app. “Dessert spikes my calorie count, and I don’t want to work out more just to offset it,” she says.

Amanda, who’s been tracking her diet on and off more than 15 years, put it best: “Writing is accountability. Tracking your diet helps you be mindful of how much you’re eating.”

7. A Good Working Knowledge of Nutrition Helps Sidestep Pitfalls

One tracker we saw indicated that a 5-ounce glass of Gamay red wine has just 23 calories. That would mean it has (theoretically) little to no dietary impact. But common sense tells us that alcohol is best consumed in moderation, especially when you’re watching calories. And a useful free food tracker from the USDA indicates that the wine has 125 calories—more than five times the amount our tracker stated.

8. A Little Extra Work Means a Max Payoff

Amanda loves this hearty pork chili. To lighten it up, she uses 2 pounds of lean pork sirloin instead of 3-4 pounds of pork loin roast, and she browns the meat in cooking spray rather than canola oil. Because she swaps ingredients often to make recipes more healthy, Amanda uses Weight Watchers’ Recipe Builder tool to calculate the dish’s nutritional value rather than simply inputting the nutritional information provided. In this case, the extra steps of inputting her healthy changes trimmed the chili from 8 points per cup to 3 points.

Zippy pork chiliPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

No matter which system you use to track your calories, it really comes down to accountability and smart choices. Be consistent, and use what motivates you to achieve your goals.

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Christine Rukavena
Christine loves to read, curate, sample and develop new recipes as a book editor at Taste of Home. A CIA alumna with honors, she creates cookbooks and food-related content. A favorite part of the job is taste-testing dishes. Previous positions include pastry chef at a AAA Five Diamond property. Christine moonlights at a boutique wine shop, where she edits marketing pieces and samples wine far higher than her pay grade.