Quantifying Nutrition Data with Shortcuts: The Good & The Bad

QuantifyingGiven that keeping track of nutrition data can be complicated, several different weight loss interventions instead offer what I’ll call shortcuts to calorie counting. These shortcuts simplify the process of tracking nutrition by reducing each food item to a certain number of points (e.g. WeightWatchers) or red/yellow/green (e.g. Kurbo). Another example comes from the Human Performance Institute, which coaches its students to think about food in portion sizes related to the palm of your hand (what’s clever about this one is that your hand is proportional to your overall size–personalized shortcut!).

These sorts of shortcut quantifiers are helpful for a number of reasons:

  • They make a hard behavior easier. This helps build competence and encourage people to try and stick with something that might otherwise be intimidating.
  • They help people to learn the relative healthiness of food items in a heuristic way. You can see examples in this TIME reporter’s experience with Kurbo, such as when she began choosing wheat bread rather than white for her sandwiches because it was yellow rather than red.
  • Typically these shortcut systems ladder onto solid principles of nutrition and weight loss. For example, WeightWatchers’ system is designed to keep people within a calorie budget that aligns to weight loss goals and activity levels.
  • Shortcut systems like WeightWatchers also support the idea of autonomy. People can choose to eat any food they want to, but must deduct its value from their overall allowance for the day.

The negatives of using a shortcut to quantify nutrition data include:

  • This type of system doesn’t help people with more complex nutritional needs. For example, I am not aware of any commercial weight loss interventions that account for sodium content alongside calories and fat, which would be important for people with comorbid hypertension.
  • As Katy Steinmetz also points out in TIME, some foods which measure up badly for calorie count, like avocados, actually are nutritionally valuable in moderation. Points systems or other shortcuts don’t make that clear and may limit consumption of healthy foods that are higher in fats or calories.
  • Lessons may be lost in translation over time. If people stop adhering to a specific program (and we know many people will), will they really carry forward nutrition lessons that rely on a specific language and categorization? We can hope that they retain information about the relative goodness of various food choices, but it seems unlikely that someone will maintain the same meticulous calculus outside of an intervention.

I really like the idea of using a shorthand to quantify health data in the learning stage, but I think it should be treated like a pair of training wheels. Our job as health coaches is to eventually help those training wheels come off by giving people the more complex education they need to make goal-consistent choices outside of any specific intervention. When a more simplified intervention has kick-started weight loss results for someone, they are likely feeling confident and self-efficacious, and may be in a receptive state of mind for more information.