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Digital Health — 9 min

Your Digital Health: Diet, Nutrition and Digestive Apps

April 11th, 2019
Biron

We take a look at a number of popular apps that help you track the health of your diet and of your gut, assessing the effectiveness of MyFitnessPal, Cookinspiration, Habitbull and Cara

So much of our health depends on our intestines and everything that goes into it, from our energy levels and basic bodily functions to our mood and even, sometimes, our self-image. But for all our good intentions when it comes to diet as a means of improving overall health, our relationship to food can be complicated — influenced by personal history, environmental cues and the enticements of food marketers. We could all use a little guidance in better meeting our nutritional goals, if only for the simple reason our brains can be faulty nutritional calculators. Not surprisingly, among the most popular health apps on the market are those designed to track the calories and nutrients in our meals and advise on how to meet our nutritional needs more healthfully.

To help us understand the potential benefits of these apps we spoke with Catherine Vezina, one of our nutritionists here at Biron. Generally, Vezina says, “if you have a healthy diet that’s providing, for example, the proper hydration and fiber intake, and not too much processed food, then digestive health should follow, as long as you don’t have a condition that affects your digestion.” This is where apps that track our eating habits can help us better understand what’s on our plate and set goals accordingly.

But even then, many of us will still experience digestive discomfort as a result of undiagnosed food intolerances or other factors, and it can take some detective work to identify the source of the problem. “It’s not just about dietary choices but dietary behaviors,” Vezina points out. “It's not just what you put on your plate that matters but also environmental and lifestyle factors — the context, amount of physical activity you’re getting, and stress.” A good digestive health app should try to account for these factors as well.

These apps shouldn’t be considered a substitute for the advice or assessment of a nutritionist-dietitian, especially if you are trying to address a particular problem. But the data they capture can help your health practitioner round out their understanding of your overall eating habits and digestive health and then recommend a course of action with better efficacy.

Apps for healthy eating

MyFitnessPal

Already well established as one of the most popular calorie-counting apps out there, MyFitnessPal is reliable and easy-to-use — just input your vitals and weight goals and the app calculates how many calories your body is likely to burn without the benefit of additional exercise. As you record your daily intake of food and drink, either input manually or with the app’s barcode scanner, MyFitnessPal helps you manage your diet accordingly. A significant downside is the rather basic amount of personalization available (user’s weight, height, age), limiting its ability to providing meaningful advice on how to improve your diet. If you already have a good understanding of your nutritional needs or are working with a nutritionist-dietitian, a good calorie tracker may be very useful. “I wouldn’t recommend using it daily over the long run,” Vezina says, “as overfocusing on calories is not necessarily going to lead to better health outcomes. But it can certainly help people in the short-term become more aware of what they’re eating and enable them to introduce the appropriate changes to their diet.” $11.99 for monthly subscription, $57.99 yearly; available in French and English.

Cookinspiration

While there’s no shortage of recipe apps and websites out there, too few of them provide adequate nutritional information while also tracking your meal plans toward a specific dietary goal. Created by the Dietitians of Canada, Cookinspiration is more than just a massive database of recipe and meal ideas with nutritional data included — it also maps out a full week’s meals, with shopping lists, informed by your personal objectives and needs (eg. gluten or nut free, vegetarian, kid friendly, active lifestyles). Nutritional information is supplemented by helpful commentary from dietitians and reflects many of the priorities outline in the new Canada’s Food Guide, such as the benefit to cooking more for yourself in cultivating healthier dietary habits. Free; available in French and English.

Habitbull

Whether it’s eating better, exercising and meditating more or quitting smoking, improving our health ultimately comes down to breaking old habits, creating new ones and then reinforcing them. That’s where the powerful app Habitbull comes in — just enter your health-related goals, including weight and diet, and the app allows you to track the relevant behaviours (up to 100 of them) on an ongoing basis. “Realistic goal setting is critical when it comes to changing dietary habits,” says Vezina. “And for some of us counting calories requires too much of a commitment — understanding our habits and tracking our success in changing them can be just as effective in maintaining motivation.” Because Habitbull doesn’t provide specialized information on meeting your dietary or nutritional goals, you’ll need to either consult a nutritionist-dietitian or consult reliable sources to ensure the objectives you set are healthy and realistic. But the app comes loaded with features all designed to support you in meeting your goals, from reminder prompts and useful analytical tools to community discussion boards where you’ll find like-minded users trying to make the same sorts of changes to their lives. Free; available in French and English.

Cara

There are many factors beyond what you eat that influence good digestive health, including stress and the amount of sleep you’re getting. If you’re experiencing digestive issues, this app assists you in identifying the problem by monitoring contributing behaviours and isolating possible causes. The data compiled with the app will help your health practitioner get a fuller picture of what’s going on. Free; English language version only.

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