Study: Your Method of Food Tracking Can Help or Hurt Your Weight Loss

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We know that tracking your food leads to better weight loss, and these days, there is no shortage of ways to do it: keeping a paper log, tracking your calories and nutrients at, using a mobile app on your Smartphone, or a combination of all three! Each method has its own pros and cons, but is any one method actually better than the other?

A new study published in the journal Obesity aimed to answer that question. Researchers put 210 participants in one of three groups during a weight-loss intervention. One group of people used a personal digital assistant (PDA) that offered tailored feedback based on what they tracked; a second group used a PDA that did NOT offer feedback; and the final group simply tracked their food and fitness in a paper log. Which group do you think lost the most weight?

After six months, people in all three groups lost weight. However, those who used the PDA that provided feedback were the most likely to lose at least 5% of their initial weight. In fact, both groups who used the PDA (with or without feedback) lost more weight than those who tracked their diet and exercise on paper. The PDA groups also reduced their waist circumference more than those using the paper records. Researchers also discovered that people who had the PDAs tracked their goals more often as the study went on.

So can using a PDA or Smartphone help you lose more weight? Possibly. Researchers speculate that one reason participants with the PDAs fared better was its convenience—that it made it easy to not just track calories eaten and burned, but also to look up foods before eating in the first place, whereas people who kept paper diaries did not have that luxury. This could have led the PDA groups to make better choices. Tracking food and fitness electronically might also be quicker and easier than a paper log—for the tech-savvy, at least.

But receiving feedback based on one's choices had a big effect, too. Researchers say that this feedback, whether positive (when participants did well) or constructive (when participants failed to meet certain goals), enhanced their motivation to stick with the program. "The feedback message functioned as a compass that enabled the individual to stay on course toward the goal," wrote the study authors."It also functioned as a source of more frequent attention that 'someone' was noticing what the participant was doing, which was another powerful reinforcer."

The bottom line: "Other studies also show that recording your dietary intake, physical activity, and weight on a regular basis are effective strategies to help people lose weight," commented Dr. Kevin O. Hwang, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. (Hwang was not involved in this study, but I asked him for comment.) "It's great to have online and mobile tools to make this self-monitoring more fun and convenient," he says.

Tracking your calories definitely leads to better weight loss. Which method works best probably depends on the individual. That's why offers free online food and fitness trackers, along with our free mobile apps to making tracking on-the-go (and looking up foods before you bite) easier. When you can get feedback from a program (or a professional), that's even better, so be sure to take advantage of SparkPeople's Nutrition Feedback feature when you're done tracking each day. You can get feedback in other ways, too, like printing your trackers and reports to share with your personal trainer, dietitian, or health care provider at your next visit, or "sharing" your trackers on your SparkPage for other members to view and offer suggestions.

What's your favorite way to track your food and fitness? Do you ever share your logs with anyone in order to get feedback or suggestions?

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I have tried several times to download the Android application to my phone without success. Very disappointed. Report
Sparkpeople has made it so easy to track, I have found the most effective way is to track immediately after breakfast which prepares me track the balance of the day. When I miss tracking breakfast, I seem to blow the entire day. Report
I use old fashioned paper and pen. I am trying to do Weight Watchers on my own. So far it has worked. I have lost 6 lbs. in 3 weeks. I have tried the SP tracker, but it was too time consuming. My method may not be perfect, but it works for me. Report
I have been tracking online on spark people. Last week I ate several things that I did not know the values for and did not want to take time to figure them out, I ended up gaining 1/2 pound. Not tracking seemed to give me an excuse for eating a lot of things I knew I really shouldn't. As I enter more of my recipes into the tracker, I know I will find it less time-consuming. Report
I track on iPad. I do have app on android but don't use that often. Report
I have tried the pen and paper--boring! I spend 8 hours a day on a computer for work and have had so little interest in the internet I wondered why I paid for it...till I found SparkPeople. Now, I am having a lot of fun tracking my food/fitness and I want to add more and so I do more. I want the good feedback so I now watch what I eat more. I find I can actually get good feedback and that astonishes me. I am enjoying the site to the point I'm addicted in a good way. Yes, this site helps me succeed! Report
Tracking is the cornerstone to lifestyle change. I love electronic apps--either mobile or desktop. Tracking gives me motivation. I look at food in a different perspective and am mindful of getting the right combination and amounts. Paper records simply don't give me the data in the way that motivates me and it takes too much time. Report
Using a tracker really helps me stay in focus. Report
I like using the SparkPeople Nutrition Tracker, but find it can take a lot of time. I love the Quick Track feature, but wish it were more inclusive. I'd like a Quick tracker where I can track all of my servings as well as fruit/veggies and water. My personal challenge is to eat a more balanced diet: fewer grain carbohydrates, more fruits, veggies and protein. Can SparkPeople include all the dietary servings/needs in the Quick Tracker? Report
Since I don't own a PDA or a cell phone--smart or dumb variety--I find using Sparkpeople on my computer works just fine. However, I think food-tracking with feedback is essential. It is a rare day that I lay out my daily food menu and press the report that I am not shocked at how that tiny bit of food added up, so I have to go back and cut out this or half-portion that. I need to lay out my menu before my day begins and just stick to it. Report
I prefer using spark people on the computer. The iPhone app, though nice, is more limited. Report
I use both the app for my Droid and the on-line trackers. I love it! I have used paper before, but on-line once your favorites are added is very fast and easy and I love that I can search other members foods entered, which saves me alot of time. I like that I get feedback every day and the SparkStreaks motivates me because I don't want to break a streak and helps me when I am tempted to skip cardio after a long day! Report
I am not very organized when it comes to using paper ..and I find it bother to have to look up calories or count "points". I really like the tracker on SP because it gives me immediate feedback on how many calories I am eating AND lets me know if I am getting a balanced diet. I plan out my day of food and can tweek it depending upon what nutrients I need to increase and others to decrease. I feel it helps me make better food choices for a healthier ME!! Report
You know those little calendar booklets you can get from a greeting card company every year for free? I just use that, and I only write down anything I may eat that day that is non healthy. I log my weight on it daily, first thing in the AM too. Waist measurements once a month. And that's that. I keep the little calendar booklets to check on which part of the year is harder for me to maintain, or which part of the month is tougher, that type of thing. Been doing it for several years now. Works for me. Too much time wasting to sit and tinker around with apps or whatever it is. Report
I've tried many ways to track in the past and the spark people app is the best! I think this is the first time that I've really paid attention to more than just one aspect of what I'm eating. I had no idea how tough it is to eat enough protein and how easy it is to overeat carbs! Report
Remind me when you have BlackBerry Storm included in your smartphone apps. Report
Why no app for Blackberry Storm? Report
Love, love, love the smartphone app. I don't carry a purse most of the time and a piece of paper would get lost in about 20 seconds. The app is perfect for nutrition, fitness, water, reports, etc...and I can get on the SP webpage when my email comes in that there is an update or a comment I want to read.
I've only known's tracker, so that's what I use. Report
The more one must "go out of your way" to record, the more likely one is to "forget." For this reason, a notebook on my kitchen table by my plate works better for me than recording on Spark People. Further, the multi-step method necessitated by computer technology means I can write down my entire meal and its caloric impact in less time than it takes to record one item on the computer. (I don't have, need or want a PDA, so, for me, that part is moot.) Report
It would be great if Spark's iPhone app provided the nutrition tracker feedback. Are there plans for this? (I use my iPhone app every day as I go) Report
I try to get to the laptop- I'm hoping you will get the BB app to work on my Storm!
Thanks! Report
I only use my trackers on spark. Recently I joined a diabetes challeng and I started to use resitance bands and dumbbells. I also started to look at the calorie differential and for me it explains alot/ After 30,pounds I was on a plateau for over 4 months. It took my taking these two extra steps to break it. Added ST and Tracked the differential. I used to just add and subtract the calories from the tracker. I like it goes that one step further and does it for me Pat in Maine. Thanks for my ST experience coach it sure made a big difference. Report
I think whatever is working for you at the moment....writing it down or computer/PDA. I have become more faithful with tracking my food and fitness on my iPod or laptop, and I have seen a difference in how I feel. Tracking fitness has hooked me into seeing the miles add up for walking. I never realized how far I was going each day/week......and now I want to go even further!! Report
I have the tracker on my phone, IPOD and pc. I love it because I can track right there and then! Report
I used the Spark tracker when I first joined, over 4 years ago. Once I was at my goal weight for 6 months, I switched to a handwritten journal. I write down what I eat and watch my portion sizes, but no longer count calories. It works for me, because I've been able to maintain my goal weight for over 2 1/2 years now so far. Report
What's your favorite way to track your food and fitness?
Sparkpeople. No doubt. But I get pretty lazy about it sometimes, especially when I feel I've eaten something not in the tracker and/or has too many ingredients (like a funky salad I've created.) When I feel overwhelmed, I just take a photo of what I've eaten with my cell phone and track it later. It really does help cause it makes you realize how much you have eaten!

Do you ever share your logs with anyone in order to get feedback or suggestions?
No. If I had friends who also tracked their food, I would, but I wouldn't share with anybody who didn't track. I shared my log once with my boyfriend, and he was shocked and said it was amazing I didn't weigh more... Ha! This was on a day where I ate about 2k calories, which really isn't awful, but it looked awful all written out to somebody who NEVER tracked food. Report
Tis is an AWESOME article! Thank you! I just found out how important tracking and feedback is recently when my computer crashed. I will share this with my not-so tech savvy mom. Going digital makes a difference! Report
I used my phone to track when I started and got so obsessed with the calories and percentages I went back to paper. Yes, it is easier to use my iphone but too much feedback can be a bad thing. I know what is good for me and what isn't at this point and on paper I get less worried about the numbers and more worried about eating foods of high nutritional value. I say whatever makes someone track and keep losing than to each their own. Report
Tracking my caloires, both in and out is exactly why I have been successful. But after some less than constructive criticism a long time ago, I've always kept it to myself. Only I can judge whether or not I am making good choices for me. Report
I only use the SparkPeople site to track my food intake. And I have noticed that if I stop tracking, I can forget what or how much I've eaten in a day. Report
I actually use 3 different methods for tracking my food and fitness through sparkpeople. I use the app on my droid, my IPad and use the website online when I am at my desktop or laptop. I love having choices and the convenience of technology I think has made a huge difference for me. I also make sure that I share my food and fitness trackers because it almost makes me feel like I am being watched and will held accountable for all of my decision! :) Report
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the SparkPeople app for my iPhone! The app makes it easy for me to enter my food and water intake and exercise time when I have just a minute or two. As the article pointed out, it's easy to look up the calorie counts on food before I eat it. Report
I like to track here on Spark on my computer. I find it easier than on my iPhone. Report
I track my food and exercise daily with sparkpeople. I need that accountability. I live to eat, so slowly transitioning over to eating to live is a lot harder than I thought. one the days I did not track the foods I ate, I noticed I would sneak and eat things I shouldn't. Report
I track using sparkpeople - both food and exercise. I am not as good about it on weekends, which is causing problems and is something I'm working on. I love the different reports and being able to track so many different nurtrients, especially sodium. I know I'm eating too many processed foods and not enough fresh fruits and veggies when I am struggling to keep within the sodium range (or I'm eating out too much). It makes me look at my meal planning and substitute healthier foods. Report
I track on a semi-regular basis, but I usually go by logging food choices (not calories). Calorie-counting makes me focus on the numbers, not holistic food choices. If I only track what (and how much) I eat, and not the calories/fat grams, etc, I'm more likely to skip that 100-calorie pudding cup or slice of cake at work because there's no way for me to say, "oh, I have a few extra calories for the day, I can have this." Instead, I think, "This isn't part of any of the food groups and it's not going to help me run, so no thanks." Report
I use the Bodybugg software through Apex though I prefer the Sparkpeople program. I agree with others who have stated how imperative it is to track your food because you won't really know how much you are eating until you do. Most people eat WAY more than they think that they do. Report
I track on my iPhone and online and I love the SparkPeople trackers! My iPhone is always with me and it makes it easy to stay out of trouble when I'm traveling or shopping. I love the responsiveness of the SparkPeople techs who just keep making things better and better!! Report
I have been using the Lose It app for my iPhone for over a year and it has really helped me lose 30 lbs. Sorry, Sparkpeople, but I find this other app easier to use. Yes, it has helped me make better choices because I can check what the calorie count will be before I eat something. And I love how it subtracts the calories I've burned through exercise. A great motivator! Report
I track food and exercise, but I don't share. I have Metabolic Syndrome/Insulin Resistance so I have do have low carb and that doesn't fit a lot of other people. Report
I originally used to track. It was much easier then weight watchers online. I love how members add their foods making it easier. Now I am using sparkpeople on my iPhone and love it even more! So convenient for me! Thank you SP. Report
I do track my food and exercise daily on Spark People and share on a regular basis with my Nutritionist. I feel this has been very important to my 61 pound weight loss. It keeps me accountable and makes me aware of things I am trying to avoid in certain foods. Report
I downloaded the Sparkpeople Nutrition and Fitness as well as the Sparkpeople Recipes app. They have worked for me sooo well, especially when I am at work.
I am so glad Sparkpeople made these apps for the iPhone! Report
Don't own a smart phone or blackberry or whatever- But, I do get on line and track my foods daily. It has helped me loose the 60+ lbs. Report
I love my app it seems to keep me honest. If I wait until I log in a journal I found myself forgetting things. Report
I love it that I can track my calories on my blackberry. It helps with the food choices I make. Thanks
Makes sense to me. When I was recently out of town, I did not track because I have no PDA. I just ate without the benefit of the tracker and I was careless. No doubt in my mind, I would have eaten differently if I did have a pda. Report
I track using iPhone.
Last month I began tracking food for the first time. I discovered that I tend to eat too much fat and I am learning about portions. This month I am adjusting portions so I feel satisfied with each meal- it's interesting!
I am a huge fan of the fitness trackers here. Very motivational!
Blush. I guess I'm a Luddite. Just use a paper notebook! Report