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How to Choose a Tracker

What to look for when using a macronutrient tracker for your keto diet.

Article by Mandy Pagano | 02 May, 2021

Article originally published on Ketovangelist.com on 4/13/18. It has been lightly edited for re-publication.

Most of us here in Ketoland track our food, or have at least a few times. As we've written about before, tracking can be an incredibly useful tool. Logging our food can help us stay on track and identify foods that may cause us trouble, and that we need to moderate or eliminate to meet our goals.

That is, when it works.

We all, however, run into problems from time to time. Like logging a specific food- even down to the specific brand- and finding out that our application says it's six grams of protein when it's really more like ten. Little mistakes like that add up over time, and just when we think we're doing really well... BAM!!! We notice an error, and wonder how many times we've mislogged this food. And then wonder if we've been inadvertently overeating one macro or another. And then wonder if that's been holding us back.

While there likely isn't a definitive answer for any of those questions, we can help you figure out which trackers to use and how to best utilize them so that your logs are reasonably accurate.

Avoid Anything Overly Simplistic

A good friend recently did a little experiment wherein she downloaded a whole pile of tracking apps and logged her food in each of them just to see what kind of discrepancies there were. Holy cow, did she find discrepancies. Some were off by a little here and there, but the biggest problems she had were with the apps that were overly simplified.

Now look, we all want things kept simple. We would love to pull up the phone and just touch a picture of an egg and a slice of cheese and have an omelet logged perfectly! Unfortunately, that simplicity comes at the price of accuracy. Where our friend ate ham for breakfast one day, bacon the following day, and pork chops later that evening, the database on one particularly "simple" application gave her a single choice for all of those different foods.

Pork.

That was it.

Anyone who has spent more than ten seconds on a food tracker- or heck, just reading labels at the grocery store- knows there are vastly different macronutrient values between ham, bacon, and pork chops. Anyone invested in tracking their macros also knows that a few off grams here and there of any macronutrient can seriously skew your perception of your day. If you're using one of these overly simplistic trackers, you may enjoy how easy it is to log your food, but know that the user-friendliness comes with a trade-off on accuracy. If you're at all interested in having a clear picture of what your days look like, or are trying to pinpoint why you've stalled or are having other issues, you probably want to abandon ship on this style of tracker.

Custom Entries Are a Must

It's happened to everyone. You go to log your dinner and find ten quadrillion entries for guacamole, but zero for your brand of guacamole. And, of course, not one of the plethora of other entries is even close, macro-wise.

What's a ketonian to do?

Plug in your own entry, of course! Which assumes your tracker actually allows you to add custom foods.

Custom entries are an extremely helpful feature, especially when you can't find what you're looking for in their database, or in many cases when the entry you find is incorrect. Many trackers that allow custom entries often also allow custom recipe building. Instead of trying to enter the individual ingredients of your chili every single time you eat it, you enter them all at once, tell the tracker how many servings you get out of the whole recipe, and you've got yourself an easy way to log that dish going forward!

The one caution here is that if custom entries are allowed, you will need to be careful about choosing things other people have added to the database. Mistakes happen, so check to see if it's an official entry (which the app makers have usually checked for accuracy) or if it's something some rando plugged in. If it's the latter, you will want to double check your food labels before you assume they're correct in the applications.

Look for an Extensive Database and UPC Scanner

There are a lot of trackers that are a little more elaborate, and while many people complain that they're not as user-friendly, they do tend to have a much larger selection of food entries to choose from. This, hopefully, means you will spend a lot less time manually inputting your food.

The UPC scan option is also a massive time saver. Instead of spending ten minutes hunting through all the options for pepperoni, just scan the bar code on the package and, as long as it's in their database, it comes right up!

Spot Check Against the USDA Database from Time to Time

If you're curious at all about the accuracy of your tracker, the USDA has a massive database of foods and food products and their macronutrient breakdown available for free online.

After our friend ran her little tracking experiment, it inspired some curious about the two apps usually considered to be the most accurate. So, we logged one day identically in both trackers, using only the official entries in each. Guess what? The protein was off by twelve grams between the two. When we drilled down into the logs and started looking at the packages and the USDA database, what we discovered is that neither tracker really did a better job than the other. One was off by several grams on one food, the other on another food. One tracker tended to overestimate, the other tended to underestimate. Those little errors here and there culminated in a twelve gram protein swing at the end of the day.

That's a pretty large difference. So, even with the best tracker there can be some fairly major discrepancies. While we don't think it's necessary, or even advisable, to try and look everything up on the USDA database all the time, it's still not a bad idea to spot check here and there.

What's the Bottom Line?

Some trackers are vastly superior to others. You want to avoid those that are so simple that accuracy is thrown out the window entirely, but be aware that even the more extensive ones have their problems. Ultimately, they're all just tools designed and populated by fallible human beings. Remember, none of them are 100% all the time. There are going to be errors and frustrations. That's just part of humanity using technology. Hopefully, the above tips will help you choose the one that will be most helpful in reaching your goals.

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