Like many millennial women who came of age in a culture of extreme thinness, I am deeply skeptical of “controlling” what I eat too closely, lest I be sucked into the maw of the diet industry. That doesn’t mean I haven’t made attempts at examining my meals. I downloaded Noom a couple of New Years ago, based on the promise that it would help me understand the psychology behind my snack and drink choices. I deleted the app after I realized that it was, at its core, an exercise in calorie counting. (Also, it was the height of the pandemic. The psychology behind my choices was “it’s the pandemic.”)
Recently, though, it dawned on me that there’s a very, very simple thing I wanted to correct about my diet: I am one of the roughly 9 out of 10 Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, who does not eat enough fruits and vegetables. Growing up, my household was a pretty healthy one, and so when I went to college, I had access to snacks and pizza like never before. The fallout continues to this day. Though I do not lack access to grocery stores or free time in which to prepare vegetables, I just don’t seem to eat that many plants (non-grain division).
I didn’t want to force myself into a hyper-fixation of my eating choices. But I wanted to fix this.
It turns out that eating enough vegetables when you’ve never executed the feat as an autonomous adult is surprisingly difficult. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve declared, say, “more salads,” which historically has meant an additional serving or two per day, for a few weeks, until I forget about the project entirely and stop buying leafy greens. I run a lot, which means that I’m hungry a lot, which means that carrots will basically never cut it as a snack. I understand that you can add carrots to other things, like hummus and pita chips. But while I occasionally make myself baby carrot crudité set-ups and feel heroic, I inevitably let the rest of the carrots dry out in the fridge.
For a while I embraced the idea that I should be eating “intuitively,” a corrective to diet culture that encourages you to eat what you feel like eating, which still I think is basically right, except when I tried to eat whatever I felt like, I wound up back where I started, subsisting largely on carbs, which does not feel good. (To be fair, intuitive eating practitioners encourage taking this into account.) But no matter how intuitively you eat, setting yourself a firm rule like “five servings of fruits and vegetables” is appealing. A lot of nutrition science may be trendy bunk, but it is still indisputable that eating a lot of vegetables, probably more than you are used to eating, is good for the general functioning of your cells and organs.
I didn’t feel motivated to improve the situation until, grocery shopping in October, I noticed that giant containers of rolled oats were on sale. My fiancé was out of town and I was looking for food-prep projects, so I decided to buy the oats and do the thing where you soak them in yogurt in a jar for 12 hours. The next morning I added an apple to the oats—and incredibly, there I was, eating fruit, for breakfast. Was this how people ate enough plant matter? They started early? If I was going to continue this success, I knew I needed some kind of accountability. My moment-to-moment perceptions of what constituted the correct diet for myself were simply too skewed.
I searched the app store for a dead-simple food tracking app, and landed on one called See How You Eat. Each day the app provides a fresh page with six squares. You fill the squares with photos of your meals and snacks. If you forget to take a picture, you can just write down what you ate in the square instead. If you eat on more than six occasions, you can explain that in text.
Or at least that’s what I do—I haven’t tried the app’s premium features, or really explored any of the settings. (There is a recurring pop-up that says something about a diet plan that I diligently x out of.) The app simply offers a very basic visual on what’s been going on, eating-wise, during my day. Have I eaten only carbs? Oh, there they are. Have I forgotten to eat for hours? Oh, that’s a lot of empty squares. And the pleasure of filling those squares with various leafy things has genuinely helped me consume more. The consistent-yet-laid-back monitoring offered by See How You Eat has helped me get four or five servings on many days since I installed it. Exactly how many days, I have no idea. Though I could figure it out if I really wanted to, the app doesn’t automatically collect that kind of thing. I do know that on days when I eat (roughly) five servings of salad and apples, I feel an energized twinge of “tiger blood,” the feeling of euphoria that Charlie Sheen once attributed to the extremely strict Whole 30 plan.
There are a shocking number of tools and plans out there that will encourage you to eat to exacting specifications: meals made of these things at these times with these ingredients, not those, oh my god, not those. But what most of us need, the CDC 9-out-of-10 figure reveals, isn’t a complicated apparatus, but support in completing the most basic of basics. In fact, “food tracking” doesn’t have to involve calories or “points” or a constant stream of data—it doesn’t have to involve numbers at all.
Food tracking is not a solution for everyone—fruit and vegetable consumption is lowest for Americans below or near the poverty line, suggesting something even simpler would help: money. Nor is using photos, in particular: A team of marketing researchers published a paper in October 2022 comparing text-based logging to image-based, finding that while a sample of undergraduates thought taking pictures of their food would be easier than jotting down a short description, on balance more of them stuck to text-based tracking. My personal experience is that having both options available in a single app, and being able to switch between the two over the course of a day, works best.
I am willing to bet, based on past experiments, that I will stick to logging for a while, before tailing off. But I hope that when I do, I will be somewhere at least slightly greener and leafier than where I started.