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Is a Successful Diet Merely a Calorie Tracker Away?

Whether it’s as basic as a Google spreadsheet or as sophisticated as an app like Noom, is just knowing what — and specifically, how much — you’re eating the difference between a diet that takes and one that doesn’t?

As winter starts to fade and spring approaches, many people are still holding out hope of continuing — or actually starting — their New Year’s resolutions, particularly around eating healthier. There is, of course — as the most modern of clichés goes — an app for that. In particular, meal-planning software is known to be among the most effective diet aids for some people, and often comes highly recommended by personal trainers of all levels. 

To that end, Nick Gregory has spent several years as a personal trainer and a health and fitness coach. He now works for Noom as the coach program manager for the weight-loss app, and is involved in the expansion of the company’s coaching services. I recently spoke to him about why Noom hopes you don’t need it forever, the difference between a meal-planning app and templated meal-planning Google spreadsheets and why specific caloric counts aren’t as important as general caloric knowledge.

What are the general responsibilities of a remote fitness coach?

The focus of effective remote fitness coaches is on letting the customers lead the experience. The coaches are really there for accountability, support and education. A coach is never going to tell you what to eat or tell you what exercises to do. They’re there to help you work through challenges and the questions you have, and to help you utilize whichever app you’re using and accessing them through. They’re there to add value; they’re not there just to be a cheerleader. 

We want the end-user to develop the skills by working through the skills and the content with the help of the coach so that they can eventually stop using the service altogether and eventually accomplish what they’re striving to accomplish without us.

So is the goal to effectively wean the user off of whatever app they’re using?

We help people to focus on the elements of fitness that they want to focus on, and we help them realize how the decisions they make are connected to more than just the number on the scale. We don’t want them to feel like they can’t succeed or maintain their progress without using our services that they’re subscribing to. Yes, a company like Noom obviously needs customers and wants people to use whatever services we’re offering, but we want to build people up so that they can eventually graduate from our program.

From your experience, how important is meal planning for people who want to get their weight under control?

If the goal is weight loss, meal planning is a very useful tool. There are different kinds of meal planning obviously. You’ve got meal planning where you’re breaking down meals by every calorie and every macronutrient. There are benefits to that, but that might be more suited for someone who wants to meet an elite fitness goal, or get involved in bodybuilding, or compete in some kind of sport. 

The type of meal planning that I’ve used more with my clients is less detailed and less structured, but more focused on laying out when the meals will be, what type of food they loosely will include and what the portion size should be. All of that will help to develop a schedule and a rhythm, and helps folks to ensure that they have healthy foods available. I think that’s where the real benefit of meal planning comes in. It puts those ideas front-of-mind and sets the person up for success.

What percent of your clients or customers request meal plans, and how many do you think really need them?

I would guess 60 to 70 percent of my clients were using some kind of a meal plan, more so on the loose basis of planning the day’s food. That’s the other piece: There are a lot of fitness companies and fitness professionals that are selling meal plans and they’re templated and accessible, and they give you foods to pick from. But I’m a little wary of those because I don’t think they take into account the individual, their health history, their background or any of the other things they’ve tried in order to improve their health. 

I always err on the side of working on a meal plan with them without giving them the specifics of what they should do. They can track their calories, they can plug it into whatever app they want to establish a baseline and then we can go from there, but I’m not going to tell them exactly what they need.

If I’m starting out, do I need to have a fancy app to track my eating and my caloric intake, or is a basic spreadsheet that I download from the internet fine?

There is benefit to tracking your calories, at least when you initiate your process of losing weight. A lot of folks don’t realize how many or how few calories are contained within certain foods or certain serving sizes. Tracking that you ate two tablespoons of peanut butter — and that was 400 calories — can be very eye-opening. I don’t think anyone should have to track their whole life; I don’t think that’s sustainable. But as you learn those patterns, you can switch to intuitive eating. You can have your spreadsheet and your notes that you keep with what you should eat that day, but all of that is informed by your background knowledge of what caloric density is and how that impacts your choices.

The only issue with simply using a blank nutrition spreadsheet and plugging in what you’re eating without researching the calories or weighing everything out is that it can be challenging for folks to get accurate info. If there’s some kind of database that plugs in what’s contained within the two tablespoons of peanut butter they just ate, that makes it a little easier to get some accurate data. Otherwise, they’ll be very likely to undercount their caloric intake. In that sense, the meal plans that plug in the nutritional data for you are a little more helpful, and can be worth the added expense.