Nowadays it's common to look to your smartwatch or phone for confirmation that you've taken enough steps or eaten the right number of calories on a given day. But while tracking apps and devices can be helpful motivators for many, they are not right for everyone.
Taking a numbers-focused approach to health – defining it in terms of calories, steps and pounds – can detract from the inherent pleasures of eating well and being active. It can also be anxiety provoking and even dangerous for some: There is evidence, for example, that using a tracking device exacerbates symptoms of eating disorders. Instead of zeroing in on numbers, it may be better to self-monitor in a more intuitive way and with a wider-angle perspective, evaluating eating patterns and activities based on how they make you feel and whether they contribute to your long-term goals.
These five e-tools are designed help you reach your wellness goals more mindfully:
Ate Food Diary
Ate Food Diary is an app that, from my experience, lives up to the description on its website: "It's visual, mindful and nonjudgmental. Instead of calories, we focus on how meals make you feel." Type your wellness goal into the app (I wrote "eat better" and later, just to see what would happen, "lose weight") and it prompts you to select specific steps you will take toward that goal from dozens of behavior-based options such as "cook more often," "no snacking after dinner" or "eat most of your food from plants."
Refreshingly, even when I chose "lose weight' as my goal, none of the actions referred to body weight or calories. To start a log, you take a photo of your food, choose whether what you ate was "on path" or "off path" and answer multiple-choice questions such as why you ate, who you ate with, where you ate and how the food made you feel. At the day's end, you get a visual recap of your food images plus stats on the percentage of meals that were "on path," the frequency of your meals and the length of your overnight fast.
The basic version of the app is free, but you can personalize the questions and get other benefits, the ability to log beverage intake and customize the way you track mood and feelings, by upgrading to premium, which costs $5.99 monthly.
Good for: those who want the accountability and awareness that comes with keeping a food diary, without the calorie-counting or diet mentality.\
Recovery Record was designed as an eating disorder recovery app, but it can be an effective tool for anyone seeking a better relationship with food and body. Based on the principals of cognitive behavioral therapy, it enables you to monitor what you eat and the feelings associated with it, uncover unwanted behaviors, such as skipping meals or bingeing, and develop skills to cope with them – establishing regular meal patterns and tactics for overcoming unwanted urges, for example. You can use it on your own, but the app creators strongly encourage linking your account with your health care provider, such as a dietitian or psychologist, for optimal care. As with Ate Food Diary, you set goals and snap pictures of your food to enter it into your log and then click to answer questions about how the meal made you feel, who you ate with, where you ate, etc.
But this app goes deeper, helping with issues around disordered eating, addressing ways to manage triggers and urges, improve body image and suggestions for self-care, such as breathing and visualization exercises. With each log entry, the app also asks whether you've restricted yourself, binged or had the urge to do so. The app is free to individual users; the company charges clinicians and health organizations for using it with their patients.
Good for: those recovering from an eating disorder or struggling with food and body image issues.
Am I Hungry?
Am I Hungry? is an app developed by author and physician Michelle May and is designed to help you eat more mindfully and less emotionally. It takes you through a set of questions guiding you to respond to your internal hunger cues and examine other feelings, such as stress or boredom, that may be driving you to eat. The app is very rudimentary, with none of the sleek graphics and high-tech interactive elements of the others on this list, but the line of self-inquiry it establishes can be powerfully effective.
When you click the "I want to eat" button on the opening screen, you are guided through a decision tree of sorts to help you to determine why, when, what and how much you want to eat. With practice, this way of tapping into and heeding your internal cues becomes more second nature, and this app, which costs $2.99, can help get you there.
Good for: those seeking to move away from emotional and impulsive eating toward more mindful, self-nurturing food choices.
Insight Timer is another app that may help you on your quest to eat more mindfully and live better. It offers a library of thousands of guided meditations addressing an array of wellness concerns from sleeping better to dealing with anxiety. I entered "mindful eating" into the app's search function and was led to a vast array of free guided meditations, lasting from three to about 30 minutes, with that. I listened to several and liked some instructors very much, while others grated on me almost immediately. But there is such a wide variety of classes to choose from on this app, you are bound to find at some that suit you. In the free app there are charts where you can track the meditations you have completed and the time you have spent meditating, and a social platform where you can connect with instructors and other users.
Good for: those seeking to cultivate a more mindful approach to wellness overall.
Shapa is not just an app, it's a scale that is linked to one. But it is a scale with a different mind-set, which is apparent at first glance because it has no number display at all. When you step on this scale, the app reveals your Shapa color, a shade based on changes in your weight and body composition, taking into account normal weight fluctuations. (Shapa initially determines this after a 10-day calibration period.) A green color display means you are holding steady (within your normal range of fluctuations) compared with the last time you stepped on it, gray indicates you are gaining weight/fat and blue means you are losing weight/fat.
Because Shapa's assessment is longer range and multi-factorial, it tracks more meaningful patterns than simply weighing yourself would, and as someone who finds regular scales incredibly anxiety provoking, it is a much kinder and gentler experience than facing down the harshness of an absolute and often randomly fluctuating number. Each time you step on it, the app displays your color and suggests a couple of wellness missions based on the goals and personality information you enter in the beginning. Keep in mind, though, that Shapa is geared for people who want to lose or maintain weight/fat - it is not currently set up for those who want, or need, to gain. And it doesn't come cheap - the device costs $99 and the personalized app program is $7.99 per month. But, as of now, it is the only scale besides the one at my doctor's office that I am willing to step on.
Good for: those who want to lose or maintain their weight and want the accountability and daily affirmation of weighing in without the angst that can come with it.
Ellie Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author who hosts public television's "Ellie's Real Good Food."