En español | Smartphones are spreading fast throughout American life, and we're now using them to slow our own spread, too. Calorie counting has never been easier. Powerful handheld computers can quickly calculate the nutritional value — or lack thereof — of our favorite foods and track it over time.
The apps are easy to learn and use. Some only need the snap of a photo or the scanning of a bar code to do their work. None requires us to do more than lift a finger, though most also encourage and can track exercise, as well.
While workouts have a lot of health benefits, if you want to lose weight, your focus should be on cutting calories, so we've selected apps for evaluating food with this goal in mind.
Portability is the power added to this new wave of software. Although most permit you to also track your calories on a website, now you can enter key information on the go, or maybe while stopped, waiting for the food order to arrive. That's what makes these apps the best thing for weight loss since (thinly) sliced (whole-grain) bread.
True to its iPhone roots, this app has a streamlined, simple look and feel. That means less time fumbling to enter the calories you've consumed. The software so far has no ads or pitches for paid upgrades, a refreshing change from many competitors. Punch in a weight-loss goal, perhaps a pound a week, and Lose It! calculates a daily calorie budget. In a friendly twist, unused calories accumulate through the week to authorize a weekend splurge. If desired, Lose It! will share progress with friends via Facebook, Twitter or email. Its somewhat limited database of foods is skewed toward processed and restaurant foods, so you may have to add custom eats more often than with some other apps.
Available for: iPhone, Android version promised
This powerful and versatile app is not as easy to use as some. But with more than 750,000 entries, it has perhaps the largest listing of foods. It's also one of the more comprehensive apps, particularly on Android, where it even includes a bar code reader (promised soon for iPhones). Scan the bar code on a cereal box or even a bag of apples and the program returns the nutrition data. MyFitnessPal also can share your progress with friends, and is unique in letting you add multiple foods at once to your journal. On the downside, ads litter the Android app and the accompanying website — it's jarring to see a pitch for Taco Bell atop health tips.
Available for: iPhone, Android and BlackBerry
A comprehensive app with calorie counter and nutrition tips, FatSecret is one of the most popular nutrition apps for the BlackBerry. That's despite not including the bar code scanner that's found with the iPhone and Android versions. The simple menus make it easy to navigate and a calendar offers a handy look at progress over time, including a green or red arrow for good days and bad. The genius swap of a "home" button for the "back" button that's on most apps saves finger touches when, for example, you're done entering a meal. But ads that try to stay unobtrusive at the bottom of the screen sometimes get in the way.
This brand-new app brings a "wow" factor to the office lunch table: Snap a photo of your plate of food, and it estimates the calories. It's hardly perfect, but surprisingly good. Meal Snap thought a bowl of corn chowder was tortilla soup — although it caught the croutons and ultimately was off by only 50 calories. We're promised that the app will soon link to its Web mother ship, DailyBurn.com, a comprehensive nutrition and exercise tracking site with its own free iPhone app. The Daily Burn app is a good one, despite the badgering to upgrade to the "pro" versions (starting at $10) and add a bar code scanner ($5).
Here's another slick, iPhone-only app that is about overall healthy eating. Scanning bar codes on packaged foods brings up a letter grade of the health within (a fresh orange gets an "A," and Twinkies a "D"). You also get a host of facts and warnings, such as: "Choose nuts without added oils (which) add unnecessary calories to an otherwise healthy snack." In addition to the scoldings, the app also suggests specific alternatives that are similar while healthier. It's heavily skewed toward processed foods. That shouldn't matter too much, because if food doesn't have a bar code, there's a good chance it's good for you. But this software is about educating rather than tracking — combine it with another app that can better monitor the food you eat.
Available for: most iPhones