Are Most Weight Loss Apps a Waste of Time?

Jun 9 2016 - 10:57am
weight loss apps

You may be the owner of one or more of the thousands of weight loss apps available on the market and hoping it will help you drop excess pounds. Yet less than one percent of them have been developed by a certified health entity and none of them have published data to support their effectiveness, according to a recent report.

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That doesn’t mean none of the available weight loss apps or those that focus on exercise have been studied; indeed, many have been. However, the findings of research presented at the European Obesity Summit (EOS) in Sweden are highlighting specific concerns.

For example:

  • Only 17 (0.5%) of the 3,013 apps identified had been developed by a certified health organization or university
  • “There are no published data on effectiveness of apps for weight management or weight-gain prevention, to date.”

According to the EOS researchers, “Apps on lifestyle advice for weight management are very popular…but currently they all lack certified content-expertise or evidence of effectiveness.” Their research pool included apps from Google Play (GP) Store (2,196 apps, of which 82% were free) and Apple iTunes (817, with 43% free) in the US, UK, and Singapore, and the content of the apps focused on body weight, recording and monitoring of calorie intake, and exercise.

The authors have suggested that one way to improve the effectiveness of weight loss apps is by “transferring previously-tested, effective, professionally-designed online weight control materials into ‘app’ form,” which “would assure content-quality.”

Now let’s look at some research on weight loss and health apps that was conducted recently.

Are weight loss apps effective?
In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the findings of a team of Spanish researchers were published. The investigators performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of 12 controlled studies that compared the efficacy of mobile phone apps with other techniques (e.g., nutritional counseling, dietary information) to promote weight loss and an increase in exercise.

Compared with the control groups:

  • Use of apps was associated with a significant change in body weight (loss of 2.3 lb) and body mass index
  • No significant difference was seen between the two groups regarding physical activity

The authors concluded that “mobile phone app-based interventions may be useful tools for weight loss.”

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In a more recent study, an international team of experts selected the most popular apps from GP and iTunes (7,954 and 25,491, respectively) on health and fitness. The 23 chosen apps included 16 that were free, 15 focused on weight control, diet, and physical activity, and 19 had behavioral tracking features.

Factors evaluated included functionality, quality of information, self-monitoring and tracking techniques, engagement, aesthetics, goal setting, and other technical features.

Overall, the reviewers reported that the popular apps they evaluated had “moderate quality” and incorporated behavioral tracking features and techniques that promote changes in behavior. However, they felt that developers should devote more attention to the quality of information provided and evidence-based content in order to improve the quality of the apps.

Bottom line
If you conduct a search of the internet for the “best weight loss apps,” you will find plenty of articles offering consumers a list of favorites. These lists usually let you know the features of the app but don’t reveal any study data on them, so it’s up to you to determine whether you like and are willing to try the features.

Fortunately most weight loss apps are free, but you also may get exactly what you pay for. Even the ones that have a minimal price tag may not deliver hoped-for results.

Yet it’s important to remember that weight loss apps are only tools—no app will do the work for you! It’s up to you to incorporate it into your other weight loss efforts and keep at it.

According to John P. Higgins, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas, “Lack of encouragement, support, or companionship from family and friends has been identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a major barrier to physical activity.” He suggests using apps that incorporate virtual coaches and social media sharing, which are stand-ins for the motivation and support many people lack.

Sources
Bardus M et al. A review and content analysis of engagement, functionality aesthetics, information quality, and change techniques in the most popular commercial apps for weight management. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2016 Mar 10; 13:35
Flores Mateo G et al. Mobile phone apps to promote weight loss and increase physical activity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2015 Nov 10; 17(11): e253
Medical News Today. Current apps on weight management have not been certified by health authorities and there are no published data on their effectiveness
Prevention. 16 weight loss and fitness apps proven to help you reach your goals

Image courtesy of Pixabay

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