Researchers compared 5 popular apps for calorie-counting, and the winner is clear

Business Insider US
Melia Robinson/Business Insider

  • A group of UK researchers evaluated five of the most popular nutrition apps based on how accurately they estimated calories.
  • Their study found a clear winner and loser, but there are pros and cons to each app.
  • Databases that allow users to input recipes and those that rely on scanned nutrition labels showed some inaccuracies.

Downloading a nutrition app is easy, but finding one that accurately reports calories is a tougher task.

For those interested in weight loss or healthy eating, choosing from among the hundreds of thousands of health and fitness apps can seem daunting - particularly when there's little scientific evidence to suggest that certain apps are more trustworthy than others.

A group of researchers has made the selection process a lot easier. Their new study evaluates the accuracy of five of the most popular nutrition apps: Samsung Health, MyFitnessPal, FatSecret, Noom Coach, and Lose It!.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), compared all five nutritional databases against professional standards used by dieticians and nutritionists in the UK. Apps with nutritional data that closely matched the UK standards were deemed the most accurate.

For the most part, all five apps provided satisfactory estimates of calories and saturated fat, but a few failed to accurately represent sodium, protein, and micronutrients like calcium and Vitamin C.

The study found a clear winner and a clear loser, but each app had its pros and cons. Take a look at the findings.

Lose It! ranks among the top 10 health and fitness apps on iTunes, but the study found it to be the least accurate.

Lose It! is a favourite among calorie counters, but it underestimates all types of nutrients, including protein, sodium, carbs, fat, and fibre, according to the study.

This is because, in addition to letting users input their own data, the app's barcode-scanning feature seems to lead to some inaccuracies. The researchers argue that nutrition labels aren't always reliable, since they hail from manufacturers who "may have incomplete micronutrient data."

Noom was the clear winner, since it has the most up-to-date database.

The Noom app doesn't show users their levels of micronutrients (like calcium, iron, and vitamin C) or macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), but its overall calorie estimates are pretty spot-on.

Noom is different from the other apps in its focus on wellness as opposed to traditional dieting. The app provides users with "coaches" who motivate them to meet their nutrition goals.

"Weight loss is a lot more than just writing things down," said Andreas Michaelides, Noom's chief psychology officer. "It's really about changing your behavior."

Unless someone has a clinical diagnosis and needs to track their micronutrients, he said, it's more important to form healthy, lifelong habits.

"Most people, without the assistance of a food database, would not be equipped to know the big picture," Michaelides said. "A lot of the calories in food are buried inside their meal."

Michaelides added that no nutrition app should tell people to consume extra calories because they've exercised. Tracking physical activity can help people set goals and learn new behaviours, but it shouldn't be a reason to change healthy eating patterns.

"People shouldn't be obsessed [with logging]," he said. "At the end of the day, it's really a matter of forming lifelong, sustainable habits."

The three other apps the researchers analysed all had pluses and minuses. FatSecret underestimated sodium and protein levels.

FatSecret has been called "hands down the best calorie-counter app" by New York Magazine, but the recent study found that it significantly underestimates sodium and protein levels.

This could have serious consequences for people with high blood pressure who think they're consuming less sodium, the study said.

Similar to the Lose It! app, one issue with FatSecret is that it allows users to input their own food nutrition metrics, or select those that have been added by other users, which can result in inaccuracies.

MyFitnessPal underestimates micronutrients, but dieticians have recommended it.

A 2017 study identified MyFitnessPal as one of the top two nutrition apps recommended by dieticians. But the new study found that the app tends to underestimate micronutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamin C.

In addition to counting calories, MyFitnessPal users can track their water intake and macronutrients, giving them one of the most extensive nutrient databases of the five apps analysed.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that women drink about 11.5 cups of water per day and men drink about 15.5 cups per day, but some of this water can come from food and other drinks.

Samsung Health (S Health) does a good job of tracking carbs and total fat intake, but it isn't as reliable when it come to micronutrients.

S Health is the only app included in the recent study that doesn't have a barcode-scanning feature that allows users to scan an item's nutrition label. Instead, the app compares users' diets to nutritionist recommendations, and classifies them as either low, average, or high.

Like MyFitnessPal, the app significantly underestimates calcium, iron, and vitamin C levels in many foods, but gives accurate estimates for carbs and fat.

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