Want to Lose Weight? Leave it Up to Your Smartphone

Researchers find using a smartphone app to shed pounds may help dieters stay on track.

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There’s an app for practically everything now, and the latest study shows that when it comes to weight loss, some apps may be more effective than traditional dieting methods. 

Smartphones are an ideal way to communicate and remind people of everything from to-do lists to food and fitness goals, so researchers in the UK decided to investigate how effective weight loss apps alone might be in helping people to shed pounds.

The University of Leeds scientists, funded by a grant from the UK’s National institute or Health Research, worked with software developers Blueberry Consultants to create My Meal Mate, an app that helps users track their food intake and exercise as well as set weight loss goals. The app sends users reminder text messages each week about their progress.

For the study, published in the Journal of Internet Medical Research, the researchers recruited 128 overweight volunteers and split them into three groups for a six month study period. The first group relied on the My Meal Mate app, the second an online food diary and the final group used a paper version of a food diary.

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At the end of six months, the researchers measured changes inthe participants’ weight, as well as their compliance with their assigned weight loss management tool. On average, participants those relying on the online weight loss website and the paper food diary made entries about once a week, the smartphone app users relied on their weight loss helper every other day. Over the six month study period, the app users lost an average of 10 lbs., the paper diary users lost 6.5 lbs. and the website users lost about 3 lbs.

Previous research showed that food diaries can be an effective way of helping people to keep track of what they eat throughout a day in order to remind them of how many total calories they’re consuming. And numerous apps already help dieters to stay on top of these tallies digitally. My Meal Mate, however, is the first to incorporate a large national food database known as Weight Loss Resources that’s likely to provide calorie and nutrition information on any of the foods that UK residents are likely to encounter — at the grocery store, in restaurants and in cafeterias. The app is also available for free on the UK’s National Health Service Choices website.

“Whilst we wouldn’t expect people to use My Meal Mate daily for the rest of their lives, it gives them the skills and education to monitor their diet themselves – to have a better understanding of portion sizes, nutritional content and the effect of exercise,” said lead study author Michelle Carter, from the University of Leeds in a statement.

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Other weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers have their own smartphone apps, as well as online interactive elements that connect users with other dieters for motivation and support. Studies show that such communities can be important sources of inspiration for not only losing weight but maintaining healthy lifestyles.

At this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, for example, health and fitness tracking emerged as a major theme, with sophisticated body-tracking gadgets like BodyMedia — a device that measures calories burn, physical activity and sleep efficiency — showcasing their popular products. “[The measurements] manifests itself into accuracy, personalization and more of a health orientation. We are more than an activity tracker or fitness device, we are actually a health management tool,” BodyMedia CEOChristine Robins told TIME. Robins got her start developing products for the medical research sector, before moving into consumer-based fitness products. Robins said her company is considering expanding its products beyond fitness tracking to include devices that help people with chronic conditions such as diabetes to have a better handle on their glucose and insulin levels.

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What’s encouraging about the current research is that the app alone helped dieters to lose more weight than those relying on paper or digital diaries, possibly because apps are more accessible and convenient for people to use. With so many people glued to their smartphones now, it could make sense to tap that technology to promote healthy behaviors, say the researchers. They hope their findings lead to more comparative trials of different smartphone apps for weight loss to determine which techniques are the most effective in helping dieters to shed pounds.