11/08/2013 03:01 EST | Updated 11/08/2013 03:01 EST

Apps for Weight Loss?

-Co-Authored by Kristin Wiens

Applications (apps) on smartphones are accessible, convenient, inexpensive, and have the potential to be far reaching BUT can they be effective for weight loss? The public and software developers certainly think so, as there are an estimated 400 iTunes apps and 480 Android apps available in the "health and fitness" category with 30 specifically designed for weight loss including self-monitoring (1).

With the growing obesity epidemic, one-on-one consultations or resource intensive programs a la "The Biggest Loser" are not feasible for everyone. With this in mind, there is a push to determine how electronic resources can be used to help people become successful with self-monitoring, weight management interventions (2). Can an app really help you lose weight or is it a waste of money that will turn you into an angry bird?

How Smart is Your Smartphone?

Mobile phones are omnipresent, engaging and easily portable making them an obvious choice to promote healthy habits. Consistently recording dietary intakes and health information can be a key component to successful weight loss and electronics make this easier. When people used Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) to track diet and physical activity and get daily feedback messages, 63% of the participants achieved greater than 5% weight loss (3).

Mobile phones have the advantage over other types of media as they allow two-way communication; almost everyone already has one and knows how to use it. Daily text messages designed to encourage people to change their diet and physical activity resulted in ~ 2kg of weight loss in 16 weeks (4). However, another yearlong study found no effect with texting as compared to a monthly e-newsletter for weight loss (5).

A recent study combined text messaging and self-monitoring using a smart phone app over 6 months found that those in the smartphone group recorded their dietary intake for an average of 92 days as compared to 35 days in the website group and 29 days in the paper diary group. The smartphone group also lost and average of ~5 kg as compared to ~1.3 kg in the website group and ~3 kg in those using paper diaries (2).

A+ Apps?

Apps may have a positive role in weight control; however, the currently available apps are limited. They excel at some technology-specific features including: barcode scanners that immediately provide nutritional information, physical activity tracking devices, calendars, online social networks, reminders for healthy habits, and "flags" when goals are not achieved. A review of thirty weight loss apps, however, found that the behavioural strategies that improve health, reduce stress, increase motivation, and help people problem solve are lacking in the majority of apps (1).

Apps may have the potential to help you lose weight and develop healthy habits but you are still smarter than your smartphone. How effectively and diligently you use the app will determine your success. Considering many of the apps are free and that the paid apps generally range from $0.99 to $4.99 (1), you don't have much to lose by giving one a try.

Getting Started


1. Pagoto, S. et al (2013) Evidence-based strategies in weight-loss mobile apps. Am J Prev Med 45(5):576-82.

2. Carter M.C., Burley, V. J., Nykjaer, C. & Cade, J. E. (2013) Adherence to a smartphone application for weight loss compared to website and paper diary: pilot randomized controlled trial. J Med Internet Res 15(4):e32.

3. Burke L. E. et al (2011) The effect of electronic self-monitoring on weight loss and dietary intake: a randomized behavioral weight loss trial. Obesity (Sliver Spring) 19(2):338-44.

4. Patrick K. et al (2009) A text message-based intervention for weight loss: randomized controlled trial. J Med Internet Res 11(1): e1

5.Shapiro J. R. et al (2012) Text4Diet: a randomized controlled study using text messaging for weight loss behaviors. Prev Med. 55(5):412-7.