Weight Loss Apps: Don’t Waste Your Money

  • Share
  • Read Later
Henrik Sorensen / Getty Images

They’re the latest in high-tech weight loss, but all that technology isn’t translating into slimmer users, according to the latest study.

Apps like Daily Burn , Livestrong, and FitBit, promise to help dieters shed pounds by providing calorie counts for foods, tallying up how many calories a brisk walk will melt away, and inspiring people exercise with friendly reminders and motivational messages. But researchers reporting in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that these digitally-based approaches to weight loss may not be as successful as old-school diet and exercise.

The problem, say the study authors from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is that the apps don’t include features that help people stick with weight loss programs over the long term and help them to make permanent changes in the way they eat and exercise. They do incorporate some proven strategies for weight loss, including food logging, but the apps don’t seem as successful in generating the lasting behavior changes needed to keep the pounds off.

(MORE: What’s the Best Motivator for Health? Cold, Hard Cash)

The scientists compared the 30 most popular weight loss apps (both free and paid) on iTunes and the Android Market to 20 behavior-based strategies like portion control, problem solving to figure out why people over eat, and stress reduction. Of the 30 apps, 28 included 25% or fewer of these lifestyle-based strategies. That doesn’t bode well for those hoping to lose weight, since these behavior-based methods were proven effective by scientific studies and are part of the Centers for Disease Control’s Diabetes Prevention Plan, which was developed to help participants make diet and exercise changes to lose 5% to 7% of their body weight.

And paying for the apps didn’t seem to get users much more than the freebies provided. In fact, the free apps were just as likely as the paid ones to provide evidence based strategies.

“In my practice we use the traditional food journal, and about 95% of patients that use the journal will lose weight,” says Dr. J. Shah, a bariatric physician and medical director of Amari Medical in New York. Studies show that keeping a food journal can help people watch their weight by helping them to take stock of what they consume.

(MORE: South by Southwest: Will Collecting Data on Your Body Make You Healthier?)

Shah admits, however, that some of his patients are more comfortable with digitally-based methods, and recommends certain apps to select patients. The most effective ones for weight loss, he says, include more detailed information about what people are eating, such as how many calories are coming from protein versus sugar, and also encourages physical activity through goal setting, drinking water and getting enough sleep.

One feature that the study researchers suggest might help in making weight loss apps more effective is a way to track users’ progress. This way, the devices could provide the motivation just when users need them, at specific times of day, or if the dieters indicate they are hungry. The next generation of apps, for example, already incorporating features such as barcode scanners to give users more detailed information about their food instantly, as well as email and text encouragement. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always cash — some app developers have built their programs around monetary rewards for those who meet their goals.