With the new year in full swing, one of the most common resolutions is to improve ones health. Generally speaking one of the best ways to get healthier is to start with your diet. Whether you’re following a specific diet, just tracking calories, or wanting to track your macros, there are many apps to help you keep track of this information. One of apps I’ve been trying out is Cronometer, and wanted to provide my thoughts on it.
A few notes going in. For one, I’m only reviewing the free tier, which is supported by ads. There is a paid subscription that removes ads and also adds a bunch of features. While I’m focusing on the free version, I will be making some comments about the paid version when relevant. Also, the other app that I have used in the past is MyFitnessPal so that is my frame of reference for this. I may do a review of that in the future, but it’s just going to serve as a comparison point given it’s also one of the biggest nutrition/calorie tracking apps on the market. With that out of the way, let’s talk about Cronometer.
Starting Out, Setting Goals, and Interface:
Starting out the app is pretty standard. You sign up with an email address and password, and give it your physical details like your sex, age (by providing your birthday), as well as your height and weight. If you’re a woman using the app, you also have the options under the sex tab to list whether you’re pregnant and/or nursing. While I can’t speak to it personally, this seems like it could be useful as being pregnant and nursing can certainly affect your weight throughout the day as well as your diet, necessary calories, and your health goals.
After putting in your physical details, the apps will ask you to set your goal, mainly whether you want to lose, maintain, or gain weight. I feel like a lot of apps have traditionally focused on weight loss more than maintaining or gaining weight, so for Cronometer to put that option up front is promising. Also if you try to set too extreme of a weight loss goal the app will give you a warning about the dangers and recommend you change your goal and consult with a doctor or dietician about the safety of your plan. I’m all for taking your health in your own hands, but ultimately there are times when we need consult with experts, and I applaud this app for encouraging that. One quibble I have at this stage is the app misspells the word “energy” as “eneregy” in the goal description. Not sure if this is a regional spelling difference because it spells it that way both when you are trying to gain or lose weight, but I can’t find that spelling in a quick web search.
Then you set your email and password. Nothing fancy here, though I might appreciate having options like “Sign-In with Apple” available, but certainly not a deal-breaker. Remember, never re-use passwords. Overall, a pretty standard and decent onboarding experience.
Once you’re in the app, you’ll find at the top the current date and the option to scroll through other dates to add or remove things before or after the fact, as well as seeing your previous metrics. You’ll also find a menu that will nicely let you mark a day as complete to prevent you from doing anything else, copy information your intake from the current or previous day, as well as to do a mass wipe of your day’s data.
Next you’ll have your metrics. The default pane shows 3 circle graphs showing your consumed calories (broken up into 3 colors with blue for carbs, green for protein, and red for fat), a burned calorie graph (broken into purple for your metabolic rate and overall activity, and orange for what you’ve actively burned), and then a final circle graph showing how many calories you can still consume or need to consume based off how much you’ve burned and your goals. However you can swipe left or right on the pane to show either a line graph with lines for total energy, protein, carbs, and fat consumed for the day, and another circle and bar graph combo showing your target nutrients like iron, calcium, specific, vitamins, etc. This is truly one of my favorite things. If you want to just focus on calories then you can, but the fact that you can quickly and see other metrics that might be more important to you is much more useful. I personally prefer the bar graph showing energy and macros personally, and this might be useful for some diets as well. Likewise perhaps you’re needing to make sure you don’t over or under eat a certain nutrient due to a dietary restrictions. This is one of Cronometer’s greatest strengths: it doesn’t force you to just look at calories, but a more complete view of your overall health and how your diet is affecting your health.
Below this you’ll have a small banner ad that changed between showing me keto diet services and offers to sign up for Cronometer’s premium Gold subscription, and then below it is your diary of what you’ve eaten. If you have linked the data into Apple Health in the settings tab, then you’ll also see how many calories you’ve actively burned as tracked by the Health app and any linked fitness trackers like the Apple Watch, Fitbit, Withings, etc, and the resting heart rate listing that Apple Health has tracked, if you’re using that. And then below that you’ll have the listings of the food you’ve eaten, the portions, and how many calories that added to your total. You’re able to add foods by hitting the large plus button at the center-bottom of the screen, but more on that later. Suffice to say you can either search for food in a search bar or scan the barcode of an item to more quickly add it, as well as other items like metrics and exercises done.
The next tab over is your Foods tab. This is where you can add foods that aren’t in the database of set recipes for meals. Recipes are obviously useful if you want to just track a meal you regularly make and have, but don’t want to type in all the ingredients. Seriously, if I’m having my homemade breakfast burritos, I don’t want to have to add 1 tortilla shell, so many ounces of tomatoes and chilies, so many leaves of spinach, etc. Likewise, despite having multiple databases to pull from, sometimes the app doesn’t have everything. There were a few times I scanned a barcode and the app didn’t have that item in its database. While this can be frustrating, especially when I haven’t had this problem in an app like MyFitnessPal, I have to give credit to the app for how well I could add things to the database. When I scanned a barcode that the app didn’t have in its database, it would prompt me to take a picture of the nutrition label and the front of the package (though the last one is optional). It could then machine read the nutrition label and automatically get serving sizes and nutrition information. There was on occasion where it had to ask me to type in some extra info, but I think that had more to do with the crinkled packaging. Even then it only asked me to confirm serving size and one other bit of nutrition info. After that you give it a name and submit it to the database. You’ll be asked if you want to be notified when the info is added to the public database, but that’s a personal choice. While I can’t say I ever had issues with food not being recognized, the machine reading function of the nutrition label more than makes up for it. It’s worth noting that it may be worth double checking some of what it imports, as I imported the nutrition label for a muffin bar that weighed 37 grams, but Cronometer misread the label and thought that it had a 210 grams of carbs rather than the actual 21 grams.
Next you have the trends tab. I didn’t find myself using this much, but it does let you easily see your nutrition and calorie burning information for the current week, as well as how your weight has changed over time.
Lastly is the settings tab, where you can adjust some of your metrics be they weight, caloric, or macro based. It’s also here that link the app to Apple Health or other health services and set your default activity level for the purposes of seeing what your max calorie count can be for the day (which can be set to none if you’re sedentary or are using a fitness tracker to monitor that). You’ll also be able to friend people in the app and share that data with them, as well as some options to submit your data to your health professionals and participate in studies. I will admit that the settings section feels a little spartan in design, but it is well organized into sections, and you can condense the sections that don’t access much down to get through the settings quicker. There are some settings here that are locked behind the premium service, but not so many that you’ll be frustrated by the free offering too much.
Tracking and Measuring:
Now we get to the meat of the experience, actually tracking your calories and macros. This is also where I started running into some trouble too.
When you’re ready to add food and meals to your day, you’re going to tap the plus button in the middle of the screen and hit “Add Food”, where you can scan a bar code, search for the food or meal name in the search bar, or scroll down the list for things you’ve previously had. This list can be sorted in different way: the default is most frequent, but you can change this to alphabetical or sorted by most recently. You can also filter by tags and types, such as favorites, brands, and even databases. I would also recommend enabling multi-add so you add multiple food and meals without having to go back to hitting the add button after each food.
I’ve already talked about scanning the bar code of food, which is well and good. It’s the searching and “previous” list where I really start having some issues. For one, the search seems to either lack, or doesn’t fully implement things like prioritizing searching for things you’ve previously eaten. As an example, I’ve had pineapple or juice in the morning when I get up. If I start typing “pineapple”, I would expect that particular pineapple juice that I’ve had at the top of the list. Instead, I get different forms of pineapple be it canned, in the child size plastic packs, and even fresh. Even if I type in “pineapple juice” it still will show other pineapple juices or pineapple chunks in juice before it lists the juice that I’m using. This isn’t even a weird, off brand juice. It’s a pretty major brand. And this isn’t the only food to do this. I’ve had this with milk, orange juice, granola bars, cheeses, and vegetables. I typically have to type the name exactly right in order for it to appear at the top, and sometimes it’s just easier to scan the barcode if relevant. I’ve even had some quirks where even where the brand doesn’t matter. For example I was adding a tomato to a dish and so just typed in “tomato”. Obviously there are several different types of tomatoes so I wasn’t surprised when the specific tomato I was using wasn’t the first result. What I didn’t expect to be the first search result was tomato juice, which I’ve never had (at least not since starting the app). It’s not wrong to have tomato juice on the list since I only typed “tomato”, but I don’t feel like this should be the first result and just emphasizes my issues with the search. I will say I never really had this problem with custom recipes, as searching even a 2-3 words in the title of a recipe or the name had them popping up to the top of the results.
Some of this can be alleviated in the list of previous items below the search bar, and this is true to an extent. But even this has some weird quirks. For example despite having my list sorted by most recent, the list doesn’t show the most recent item after I’ve selected one item to add to my food diary for the day. Then it seems to display other items that I had, some of which are recent and others that I hadn’t had for a couple of weeks. Even stranger still, there were foods in the list that I haven’t eaten since using the app. The repeat offenders I typically remember seeing in the list were avocados and bananas. I haven’t eaten either of those, or anything with those items in a meal, since I started experimenting with the app. Now the app what it calls an “Oracle” that can suggests foods for you to try based off your food preferences and goals, as well a “Suggest Food” option to help find food that will help you complete your macro targets. But I don’t think this could be it because those are both behind the paid subscription, which I remind you I wasn’t using for this review. So why I am getting these in my list is a mystery.
The easiest way I found to fix it was through the copy feature. You can go to any previous day, hit the edit menu in the top right corner, and then multi-select the food you’ve had and copy/paste them and their amounts into any other day. This is super helpful when adding similar meals or items together. You can even copy whole days and then add and remove whatever else you want to it.
Adding a food itself isn’t too bad. Once you do find the food you’re looking for, it’ll show you a list of things like its calorie count, macro ratios, and nutrients. You’ll also be able to adjust the serving size. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of options for serving size in weight and volume measurements. When relevant you can even get measurement ranges, such as slices of something and subdivided by how big those slices are. In other cases though, you don’t really get the same amount of options, and may need to do some estimating about how much of an ingredient you’re adding. I’d love to have a few more options by default in each thing, but perhaps that’s a limitation of the databases they use. And yes, you can set the measurements to be based in metric or imperial.
One thing you can’t do it set when you ate the food or what meal it was a part of (i.e. breakfast, lunch, etc.). This is also locked behind the Gold subscription tier. This certainly isn’t a deal breaker, if you link the app to Apple Health it will make it appear like you at all your food right after midnight that day. Still, there are other fitness apps that do still let you add organize food into meals on their free tier, so I don’t see why this has to be locked behind the subscription.
Ads and The Gold Subscription:
As mentioned earlier, this is a free app supported by ads unless you use the Gold Subscription. Let’s talk about the ads for the moment. There are are only 2 places I found ads. The first was in the aforementioned Diary view of your food and macros where you’ll see a small banner ad between the too. The ad on mine was almost always advertising keto diet help, despite the fact that I’m not personally following that diet. The other place I noticed ads was a little less frequent, but a little more noticeable. Occasionally when you switch between the different sections at the bottom of the screen, you’ll encounter a full screen ad. Again this were mostly ads for keto things, though later I started getting video ads for yoga services and weight loss supplements. These video ads were all skippable after about 5 seconds. While they kind of interrupted my flow at the times, the full screen ads weren’t that annoying, but the video ads were a little too much. If I’m at the office (which I have to be at my job in the pandemic), and I just want to update the app with what I had for lunch, it can be a bit of a shock if a video suddenly starts playing when I forgot what I had the volume at before that moment.
If you want to get rid of the ads and add some other features, then you can sign up for the Gold Subscription. It costs $6.99 USD/month or $39.99 USD/year, which for the annual subscription is really a good deal, saving you about half the cost of paying for a years worth monthly. Along with the removal of ads you get the ability to organize food into meals, adjust the timestamp when you eat the food, access their food suggestions and Oracle, share recipes and custom foods with your friends, and a few other features as well. As mentioned before I didn’t test the Cronometer Gold, and there is no free trial, so ultimately you’ll have to decide whether the features are compelling enough to pay. It is worth noting that the overall cost is less than other services like MyFitnessPal.
Security, Privacy, and the Web client:
This is admittedly a bit of a catch-all section since these didn’t necessarily fit in the other groups (except maybe the web client going in the overview section), but I think these were positive things worth bringing up when considering the app.
First, something that this app does right with security is offer Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) via an authenticator app such as my favorite Authy, or alternatives like LastPass Authenticator or Google Authenticator. As I mentioned in the Authy review, I am a HUGE proponent of 2FA security, as even in the event of a password leak, bad actors don’t gain access to your account because they’ll need the other device generating codes to gain access. While I can’t vet all of Cronometer’s security, I will say the fact that they even offer 2FA is a big thumbs up in my book.
Running next to security is privacy. The more stuff that is offered for free in an app, the more you tend to wonder how that data is collected, and this is certainly true with any app that directly relates to your health. Going off their own reporting in the App Store’s Privacy Notes, the developers of this app are collected a fair bit of data from you. Not all of this is surprising, such as analytical and improvement data as well as just the fact that it’s running some ads, but it is weird to see that Cronometer will use the health and fitness data you provide it for their own advertising or marketing to you, though not to third parties. Compare this to some other apps that don’t use your Health data for any sort of advertising. Ultimately one’s comfort level with advertising is mostly subjective, but I think it’s important to be aware of the data any company uses and what they do with it when considering use of their products.
Lastly, I should note also that Cronometer has a web client. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t use it much. Calorie tracking I’ve found is easier to do in the moment and with you have on hand, which is typically the phone and the app. That’s not to say it’s a bad client though. Honestly I found it very responsive, functional, and I liked the layout of the charts more than in the mobile app, especially the nutrients layout. It’s just not something I’m going to access as frequently.
Overall Cronometer is a really useful app for tracking more than just calories and weight. The fact that the macros and nutrients can and are put just as much front and center in the app is something I really appreciate. The thing that holds me back the most from this app is just they poor search functionality and the weird way the recent lists is organized and adds food I don’t eat into the list on a regular basis. I think the copying feature between days is a big help, enough help to keep me using the app at the moment, but I think if they could really fix those 2 issues then I could more confidently recommend the app.
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