In recent years, the number of smart phone apps available to help people lose weight, get in shape, or improve their health has proliferated.  These apps are often free (or require a nominal one time fee of less than a few dollars) and provide a plethora of information about calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, and how many steps you take in any given day.  But, do they really work?  Surprisingly, few studies have evaluated the efficacy of any of these apps, and those that have [1] find that most people need more than an app to help them lose weight and keep it off.  So, if your New Year’s resolution to lose weight is starting to feel like an impossible challenge and you’d like to get a boost from the latest technology, here are some criteria to consider before downloading.

1)  You have to know what you currently weigh and what you should weigh.

You can’t start a weight loss plan without assessing your current weight and determining your optimal weight.  You don’t need an app to assess your current weight; there’s a scale for that.  Knowing what you should weigh can be a bit trickier because many of us (especially women) want to weight less than is medically recommended.  Although imperfect, body mass index (or BMI; weight, taking into account height using the formula: weight (lb) / [height (in)]2 x 703) is a good place to start. (You can calucalte this online here:  http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/.)  Your optimal, healthy BMI should be between 18.5 and 24.9.  So, if you are 5’5” tall and currently weight 140 pounds, your BMI is 23.3.  This means you are already in your “healthy weight range” and should not be focusing on weight loss as much as weight management.  However, if you are 5’5” and weigh 185 pounds, your BMI is 30.  This puts you in the “obese” weight range and you are likely to experience significant health benefits if you lose weight.

Among the most popular weight loss apps in the App Store right now (My Fitness Pal, Fitbit, Lose it!)  and other apps new to the market (such as Jillian Michaels Weight Loss and SmartenFit [2] the companion app to my book, Smart People Don’t Diet),  it is common to include a BMI calculator [3].  It was difficult to find on the Fitbit app, but is pretty prominent in most other weight loss apps.  However, weight loss apps are often less clear in guiding you towards your optimal, healthy weight.   My Fitness Pal seemed to object when I indicated that I wanted to lose more weight than would be medically recommended, but offered no guidance other than to keep me from using the app further.  So, be sure to educate yourself about what constitutes a “healthy weight range” for you before setting your goals using your smart phone app.  (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an entire web page dedicated to this topic:  http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/.) 

2)  You have to set realistic goals for yourself.

Research suggests that, if you are overweight, reducing your weight by just 10% will result in significant health benefits [4].  In other words, if you currently weight 200 pounds, but your optimal weight is 150 pounds, you should start off with the goal of reducing your weight by 20 pounds.  Of course, once you achieve that initial goal, you can set another goal.  But, the important thing is to start with something manageable.  Otherwise, it’s just too easy to feel overwhelmed and give up.

So, if you are hoping to lose weight in 2015 (and keep it off!), you want an app that allows you to set goals that have the potential to be not only conducive to health but achievable and sustainable.  My Fitness Pal and Lose It! direct users to try to lose ½ to 2 pounds per week – a reasonable goal for most people!  Instead of focusing exclusively on weight goals, SmartenFit’s flexibly allows users to set all sorts of goals converging dieting, fitness, and other health and wellness behaviors. Jillian Michael’s app (and other apps, depending on the settings you use) can send you push notifications and reminders about your goals, so be sure to determine how much you want your smart phone to be nagging you before you get started (i.e., some nagging is good, but I find these features irritating).   

3)  You have to be familiar with your current (less than ideal) eating and physical activity habits.

You can’t improve your habits in a way that will help you lose weight unless you really understand what your habits are.  This is where journaling or recording comes in.  Most evidence-based weight loss approaches recommend that participants record what they eat and their physical activity, at least initially [5].  This is something that apps can be extremely helpful with, assuming you are more likely to keep your smartphone in your pocket than a pad of paper and a pencil.

Why can recording what we eat (and how much we exercise) be helpful?  First of all, it alerts us to habits we have that we may not be aware of.  It’s so easy to “forget” some of what we eat.  Who doesn’t want to forget that (big) bite of doughnut they took from their child this morning (that was me; guilty as charged). Often just recording what we eat serves as an intervention all by itself.  However, keeping track of our eating also allows us to get to know our habits and subsequently change them.  So, recording can serve the goals of awareness, understanding, and ultimately behavior change.

There are two schools of thought about recording our eating and activity behaviors.  My advice in my book Smart People Don’t Diet is to keep track of what you eat for a week (or two, at most) and then stop recording.  This approach is also implemented in the app SmartenFit.  The other school of thought is to record not just what you eat but almost everything else — steps, exercise, and even how much you sleep – forever.  Apps such as Fitbit are great if you are interested in micromanaging your behavior.  For some people, this may work.  However, even as a scientist who loves data, I’ve concluded that this is simply more data than most people need.  Such continuous recording can easily feel like a never-ending homework assignment.  Eating better doesn’t have to be about counting every calorie you consume — forever.  After all, you already know that the side order of fries contain more calories than the side salad.  So, act accordingly, at least some of the time.  And, choose the app that will work for you in the long run.

4)  You have to adopt better, sustainable habits.

This is where things get tricky.  Steps 1, 2, and 3 probably seemed like common sense, but if we could all nail Step number 4, the diet industry would take a huge hit.  One of the best things apps can do for us when it comes to weight loss is help us adopt better habits for the long haul by providing suggestions, reminders, and new ideas to get us on the right track. 

Jillian Michael’s Weight Loss offers you a meal plan once you provide some initial information about yourself (height, weight, what type of “metabolizer” you are –is there really such a thing? How does one determine their “metabolizer type”?).  But, the obvious problem with being told what to eat is that you’re not going to do it if you don’t like the options!  A banana-berry smoothie may be an excellent breakfast option, but if you don’t like bananas, those doughnuts are that much more likely to tempt you (am I the only one obsessed with doughnuts lately?).   This approach is indicative of the approach taken by many diet plans and programs:  Tell people exactly what to eat.  There’s some appeal to this; it simplifies our lives if we don’t have to choose what to eat.  But, it is unlikely to work for the long-term. 

SmartenFit offers a Healthy Options feature that allows users to plug in foods they usually eat and learn about better, more nutritious and less calorically dense alternatives.  Vetted by a team that included registered dieticians, this is one way to learn how to adopt better, sustainable habits.

Lose It! provide users with detailed nutritional (e.g., calorie) information that can be valuable in learning how to make better food choices.  If you know that Caesar salad dressing is typically far worse for you than balsamic vinaigrette, then you can choose the vinaigrette more often.  However, constant calorie counting can make eating a miserable math problem.  My advice:  Don’t expend too much energy focusing on the details of what you eat; just make smart choices most of the time.

 5)  You have to stay motivated.

The hardest thing about losing weight is keeping it off.  Most people can lose a few pounds or even a few dozen pounds, but unless the approach is sustainable, that weight will all come back on.  Unfortunately, losing weight is not like losing a camera on a subway, never to be found again.  Our weight will go back up when our eating shifts back into pre-diet mode.  So, how do you stay motivated…forever?

Social support may be one contributor to sustained motivation and some apps try to offer this through the inclusion of tools that connect you with others via social media such as Facebook. Lose It! allows users to let others (i.e., their “friends” or “groups”) know about their weekly weight loss plans and their weekly results (or lack there of).  My Fitness Pal allows users to engage with different communities through forums (e.g., “success stories”).

Another app feature that can keep you motivated is the educational tips and inspirational messages such as those included in the newsfeed of SmartenFit and the Daily Tips section of Jillian Michael’s Weight Loss.  For example, today SmartenFit reminds us that, “There is no such thing as eating perfectly; we are all just works in progress.”  We can all use all the help we can get on our journeys toward healthy weight management, so why not take advantage of these tools (on our phones) that tend to be with us wherever we go?   

At the end of the day, there are many apps that may help you lose weight and get in shape.  The one you choose may come down to the one you find to be the easiest to navigate.  But, regardless, it’s up to you to do the work involved in eating well, exercising, and charting a path towards health day after day.   My advice:  Use the technology that works for you, but don’t spend so much time on your smart phone that you don’t have time to peal an orange or hit the gym.

Copyright Charlotte N. Markey, 2015. 

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References and Notes

[1]  Breton, E. R.., Fuemmeler, B. F., & ABroms, L. C.  (2011).  Weight loss – there is an app for that!  But does it adhere to evidence-informed practices?  Transl Behav Med. 1(4): 523–529.  doi:  10.1007/s13142-011-0076-5

[2]  Full disclosure:  the author of this blog helped in the creation of SmartenFit.

[3]  This article is not intended to be a thorough review of all of the capabilities of all of the apps mentioned.  It is intended to use popular apps as examples of some of the common and important features included in different apps.

[4] NIH, NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative. Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults. Available online: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/ob_gdlns.pdf

[5]  Markey, C. N. (2014).  Smart People Don’t Diet:  How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently.  New York:  Da Capo Lifelong Books.