Which apps are most likely to change behaviour?
Regularly monitoring your food intake is at the cornerstone of weight loss, says Dr Juliana Chen, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist and the primary dietitian in the Healthy Weight Clinic at Macquarie University Health.
Dr Chen led a world-first study by Australian researchers out of the Charles Perkins Centre, The University of Sydney. It tested the quality and evidence base of weight loss apps, ranking them according to their accuracy, scientific basis, and ability to change behaviour.
“The majority of weight loss apps - in fact all the ones we studied - allowed for some form of self-monitoring or self-tracking of behaviour.
“Most apps also provided some feedback, but this level of detail varies from simply counting calories through to more detailed and personalised feedback,” Dr Chen says.
However, many apps lacked other behaviour change techniques. “The majority of weight loss apps did not prompt reviewing of goals or provide adequate features to enhance motivation and persistence with goals.”
The good news is, the more popular an app, the higher its quality, Dr Chen says. The more popular apps had greater accuracy of scientific information, more technology-enhanced features, and more behaviour change techniques.
What are the top 5 weight loss apps?
Here are the 5 best weight loss apps according to Dr Chen’s study*:
Score (out of 100)
Noom Weight Loss Coach by Noom Inc (USA, 2010)
Calorie Counter PRO by MyNetDiary Inc (USA, 2010)
ControlMyWeight by CalorieKing Wellness Solutions (Australia, 2012)
Food Diary and Calorie Tracker by MyNetDiary Inc (USA, 2010)
Easy Diet Diary by Xyris Software (Australia, 2011)
Apps are useful, but best used with personal advice
Apps are convenient, accessible tools for recording your food intake. They’ll give you a good understanding of the amount of food and kilojoules you eat each day.
But it takes commitment and motivation to use these apps over the long term, let alone entering data every single day, Dr Chen says.
“You generally need to be a highly motivated individual to maintain the food logging over a longer period of time, and normally the process can become tedious, and engagement with the app drops off.”
Having weight loss counselling along with using an app will lead to more effective weight loss, she says.
A weight loss counsellor “can assist you with goal setting, identification of barriers, and enablers to follow the plan,” says Dr Chen, who has finished a PhD on how dietitians could be better using apps in patient care.
“Research shows that when dietitians specifically provide the counselling alongside app use, there is often better weight loss success for patients compared to when other health professionals deliver the counselling.”
“An Accredited Practising Dietitian can provide you with information and feedback about weight loss and healthy eating tailored to you personally - something that apps are unable to currently do.”
How to stick with using an app
The longer you use an app, the more weight you will lose and the longer you will keep it off, Dr Chen says.
“Research shows that the more frequent users keep logging into their apps and the longer the period they’re logged in for, the more weight they will lose and also maintain keeping off in the long term, with less of the yo-yo effect on weight.”
But using an app to track your food intake over several months is challenging, and often apps are quickly abandoned when the novelty wears off.
Push notifications that come up on your phone can also be a helpful reminder for people to log their food or weight, but over time individuals become less likely to respond to them.
“Reporting back to someone – a health professional, friend or social network - can make you more likely to stick with an app”, Dr Chen says.
“Having accountability can increase engagement and compliance with using apps, particularly when they are prescribed by a health professional or when you have other peers or support groups within the app.”
What to look for in a weight loss app
There are some key things to look for in a weight loss app, Dr Chen says.
A good weight loss app should:
1. Come from a credible source. “Health professionals should have been involved in the development of the app. Often weight loss apps are created by app developers who have no scientific understanding of how to support weight loss”, Dr Chen says.
2. Have reliable sources of information. See if the information provided in the app matches up with reliable sources on healthy eating such as the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
3. Be easy to use and to log your food. For instance, choose an app that has an Australian database of foods. Some apps may also have barcode scanners to make it easier to enter certain foods.
4. Include several techniques for changing behaviours. Try to choose apps that include more motivational components such as points, levels, feedback, rewards and challenges. These will help make changes in your behaviour. Apps with these components rated best in the Dr Chen’s evaluation.
* Chen J, Cade JE, Allman-Farinelli M. The most popular smartphone apps for weight loss: a quality assessment. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2015;3(4):e104. PMID: 26678569 doi: 10.2196/mhealth.4334.