Calorie tracking apps may help boost weight loss

Originally published on December 11, 2012 8:35 am

If you happen to be a techie with weight loss goals, you've likely noticed the explosion in calorie-counting and exercise-tracking apps available on smartphones.

Whether it's Fit Bit, Tap and Track, Map My Walk, Weight Watchers or any of the other tracking apps, dieters with smartphones are increasingly drawn to these nifty tools.

Why? Experts says tracking helps us regulate our behavior, by keeping us mindful and vigilant.

But how effective are these tools?

A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine concludes that a mobile app can help boost weight loss, if it's used as part of a more comprehensive strategy.

Researchers at Northwestern University studied about 70 overweight men. Their average age was 58, so they weren't exactly born with smart phones in their hands.

Some of the men were asked to log their eating and activity using old-fashioned pen and pad. Others were given a mobile app, and their behaviors were monitored by a coach who provided short, telephone-based check-in sessions periodically during the study. In addition, all of the participants were offered group classes in nutrition and behavior change.

So who did best? The men who used the mobile app and attended 80 percent of the health education classes.

"They were able to lose 15 pounds and keep it off (for a year)," says Bonnie Spring, study author and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She explains the group support offered by the classes helps explain the success. "People need all the tools at their disposal."

The average weight loss among those who used the app — including those who did not attend the classes — was 8.6 pounds. The men who were offered education classes but no mobile app did not lose weight.

Of course most people who use mobile apps to track diet and exercise don't have a professional "nudger" or coach who's minding their progress like the people in the study had. So it's hard to tease apart exactly how effective the mobile app would have been if used alone.

But the findings speak to the importance of blending two successful weight loss strategies: tracking and group support.

Note: The app used in the study was developed by the researchers. But many of the commercial apps (which typically are not studied for effectiveness) are similar, in that they're primarily used to track calories or exercise and evaluate progress.

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