Updated 08 October 2013

Mobile apps don't strategise weight-loss behaviour

Mobile apps to help people lose weight are lacking when it comes to strategies for changing behaviours.


In a new study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, UMass Medical School behavioural psychologist and weight loss expert Sherry Pagoto, PhD, and colleagues find that mobile apps to help people lose weight are lacking when it comes to strategies for changing behaviours.

"Apps do include evidence-based behavioural strategies, but only a narrow range," said Dr Pagoto, associate professor of medicine at UMass Medical School. "Strategies that often were missing are ones that help patients with adherence and motivation."

Behavioural strategies

In the study "Evidence-based strategies in weight-loss mobile apps", published online, Pagoto and colleagues rated 30 of the most popular mobile weight-loss apps on the market for inclusion of 20 evidence-based behavioural strategies. Most of the apps evaluated include few or no behavioural weight-loss strategies – 28 out of 30 included only 25% of the strategies or less. Even the top two apps include only 65% of the 20 strategies.

Behavioural weight-loss strategies that are evidence-based – meaning they have been scientifically researched and found to be effective – include stimulus willpower control, problem solving, stress reduction and relapse prevention. The 20 strategies that the study rated are those in the Centre for Disease Control's evidence-based Diabetes Prevention Plan, designed to help participants make modest behaviour changes in order to lose 5% to 7% of their body weight. Pagoto's team was also interested in determining whether apps incorporate technology features to enhance behavioural strategies. "On the bright side, in terms of how apps are using technology, they're doing some really interesting things," Pagoto noted.

Included enhancements 

Enhancements include barcode scanners that can be used in a supermarket to instantly get products' nutritional information; social networks where users can encourage and support each other; email and text reminders; and calendars for scheduling exercise and tracking food intake.

The researchers' final question was "Do you get what you pay for?"

"The answer is no," said Pagoto. "Free apps were just as likely as paid apps to include evidence-based strategies. That's the good news for the consumer."

The two top-rated apps, according to the study, are MyNetDiary PRO ($3.99,) and MyNetDiary (free.)

"Where we're hoping the next generation of apps can do better is in incorporating some of those strategies that help the user who might not be so good about entering their diet every day and staying on track with their goals," Pagoto concluded.




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