Are Mobile Apps Effective for Weight Management?

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A new study by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute evaluated the top mobile apps that target nutrition and weight tracking and found that many of them do not lead to long-term behavior change. The study was published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Mobile apps may be a fun way to track our physical activities and diet but many of them do not include features that are most likely to lead to long-term behavior change. This is a key finding of a recently published study conducted by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute (PAMFRI). The study evaluated mobile apps that target primarily nutrition and weight tracking based on strategies commonly used to guide behavior change. The study was published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In the U.S., rates of overweight and obesity continue to rise. With 61 percent of U.S. adults owning a smartphone, software apps offer a new and promising approach to behavioral lifestyle intervention.

“Given the thousands of apps available that target diet and weight loss, we were very interested to see if the popular ones included features that we know will help people achieve their long-term health goals,” said PAMFRI Assistant Research Physician Lenard Lesser, M.D., MSHS.

In a clinical practice, health care providers often use well-researched behavioral strategies to help patients eat healthy. For example, a physician treating an overweight person might have them write down what they eat or weigh themselves every day. Both strategies have shown to be important in weight loss and in promoting lifestyle behavior change.

“The key to a successful app would be one that both keeps users engaged and uses proven behavioral strategies. For any of us to change our behaviors, we have to take little steps and celebrate each one of them,” said co-investigator Kristen Azar, R.N., BSN, MSN/MPH, an assistant nurse researcher at PAMFRI and co-investigator in this study.

PAMFRI investigators assessed ten of the top-rated free apps in the Health and Fitness category in the iTunes App Store. The apps were evaluated based on the same criteria and categorized into five groups: diet tracking, grocery decision-making, restaurant decision-making, healthy cooking, and weight tracking. Four researchers then evaluated two of the most popular apps from each category based on scale that measured incorporation of several theories of behavior change. The researchers found that most of the apps scored low, meaning they lacked features that are likely to lead to long-term healthy habits.

“Our results indicate that many app developers are not including proven behavioral strategies in their apps,” explained Dr. Lesser. “Without long-term data on whether these apps work, it is hard to recommend them as the solution for poor eating habits. While we await that data, app developers should work with health professionals to make sure they are making their apps as beneficial as possible.”

The top-rated app in the study was “Lose It!” by Fitnow, Inc., however PAMFRI researchers note that different apps may be suited for different individuals.

“Patients should talk with their providers about which app might be best for them. Providers may use the results of this paper when recommending an app for a particular type of patient,” Dr. Lesser said.

“Ideally more app developers will collaborate with medical experts so the new apps are medically effective and fun,” Dr. Lesser said.

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Cynthia Greaves
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