Weight Loss Apps: Useful Or A Waste Of Time…& Money?

A woman looking at her smart phoneFood diaries, calorie trackers, fitness logs, you name it. We now have a number of weight loss apps right at our fingertips. Are these high-tech tools really a way to melt off the pounds or are they just a way to lose a bunch of cash? A new study reviewing app-effectiveness might surprise you.

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Researchers from the University of Massachusetts compared the top 30 most popular weight-loss apps (both free and paid) from iTunes and the Android Market to 20 behavior-based weight-loss strategies developed by the Centers for Disease Control’s Diabetes Prevention Plan. Strategies including portion control, problem solving to figure out why people over eat, and stress reduction have been scientifically proven effective by the CDC program—but 28 of the apps reviewed included only 25 percent or fewer of these tactics. Many of the apps did, however, feature food logging, which seems to be an effective tool in weight loss.

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“Apps do include evidence-based behavioral strategies, but only a narrow range,” said Dr. Pagoto, associate professor of medicine at UMass Medical School. “Strategies that often were missing are ones that help patients with adherence and motivation.”

In the study “Evidence-based strategies in weight-loss mobile apps,” published online Oct. 8, Pagoto and colleagues rated 30 of the most popular mobile weight-loss apps on the market for inclusion of 20 evidence-based behavioral strategies. Most of the apps evaluated include few or no behavioral weight-loss strategies — 28 out of 30 included only 25 percent of the strategies or less. Even the top two apps include only 65 percent of the 20 strategies.

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Behavioral weight-loss strategies that are evidence-based — meaning they have been scientifically researched and found to be effective — include stimulus willpower control, problem solving, stress reduction and relapse prevention. The 20 strategies that the study rated are those in the Centers for Disease Control’s evidence-based Diabetes Prevention Plan, designed to help participants make modest behavior changes in order to lose 5 to 7 percent of their body weight. Pagoto’s team was also interested in determining whether apps incorporate technology features to enhance behavioral strategies. “On the bright side, in terms of how apps are using technology, they’re doing some really interesting things,” Pagoto noted.

Enhancements include barcode scanners that can be used in a supermarket to instantly get products’ nutritional information; social networks where users can encourage and support each other; email and text reminders; and calendars for scheduling exercise and tracking food intake.

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