Smartphone Apps and Dieting

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A new Arizona State University study finds that using a smartphone app to monitor dieting helps more than the use of paper and pen to keep track. Chris Wharton, associate professor of nutrition at ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, will talk about the study.

Ted Simons: A new study finds that using a smartphone app is a better way to monitor dieting than more traditional ways of tracking nutrition. Christopher Wharton is an associate professor at ASU's school of nutrition and health promotion. You were behind this study. Correct?

Christopher Wharton: Yes.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about this study. Apps for dietary self-monitoring. Explain.

Christopher Wharton: That's right. So a lot of health-related apps are obviously populating the marketplace these days. Many of them are related to physical activity and also dieting. And what we find with the literature is that self-monitoring, tracking your own intake is one of the best tools to help you monitor, find out what you're eating and manage weight. So we were interested in looking at a particularly popular app called lose it to see how it would perform in the context of a weight loss trial.

Ted Simons: How does lose it work?

Christopher Wharton: Essentially it has a very large database of foods and all you do is sign in and you can track your dietary intake throughout the day real time. So after you've completed a meal, enter in what you've eaten, it has brand information and the amounts you consume. And then it reports back to you primarily in a calorie gauge format how many calories you're consuming throughout the day. If you have a goal set as we did for our participants in the study, of a one pound per week weight loss, it will set for you the calories per day that you ought to be consuming to meet that goal.

Ted Simons: I see. Calories only, what if someone is trying to watch their blood sugar, do they have apps for that as well?

Christopher Wharton: Yeah. A lot of apps do have that sort of information which can be useful for some people who are well versed in the numbers of nutrition. But that can be difficult for a lot of people, you know, not everybody is a nutrition expert. So what a lot of apps lack is food-based guidance in return. So in terms of dietary quality, how many fruits and vegetables are you consuming, how much in the way of whole grains. So that can be problematic if you're thinking about weight loss but trying to eat a more healthy diet.

Ted Simons: This is basically calories, weight loss.

Christopher Wharton: M-hmm.

Ted Simons: Focus.

Christopher Wharton: Yes.

Ted Simons: More effective than memo features on computers?

Christopher Wharton: To an extent. There's as memo feature on the smartphone. So our contention was, since we're carrying smartphones around all the time for every function in our lives these days, it seemed it would be more feasible to track your diet using an app in comparison to more traditional day tear self-monitoring tools we've used for other studies, for example, literally paper and pencil diet logs, or a memo function on your phone. And what we found in the study is that people more consistently actually track their dietary intake using the app compared to other methods.

Ted Simons: How did you conduct the study?

Christopher Wharton: We enrolled people who were either overweight or obese, but otherwise weight stable, and we ran them through an eight-week weight loss trial. So we trained them up on the app, or on their methods for tracking their diet, gave them counseling at the outset, and we let them otherwise go about their days and track their diet throughout the eight weeks.

Ted Simons: I would imagine, does lose it all also have like advice and those sorts of things, or point you in the right direction, and if so, did the other subjects get that kind of advice?

Christopher Wharton: A good question. So in this study we were primarily interested in the feasibility of using the app. So there are other functions in the app that people can use, but we were trying to keep people focused on using the calorie gauge in particular. With the other groups, the memo group and the paper and pencil groups, they didn't have any such feedback in terms of a calorie gauge, so we would send emails to them once a week to help them understand where they were in terms of their intake and what they should be focusing on.

Ted Simons: That already sounds more complicated.

Christopher Wharton: Slightly more complicated, yeah. But what's interesting about that is, although these weren't significant results, what we saw, the dietary quality decreased, trended downwards in the app group but upwards in the other groups that were getting counseling. So while all the groups actually were successful losing weight, they all lost on average 4 1/2 pounds, it was interesting that the dietary quality didn't seem to improve at all with the app.

Ted Simons: Why do you think that?

Christopher Wharton: Well, if people are focused on calories, it's easy to lose weight. Not easy. But it's possible. To lose weight. But that doesn't necessarily mean you improve the quality of what you consume. So you could literally consume say 1800 calories of snickers bars, and actually lose weight. But that doesn't mean you're eating a healthy diet.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Were you surprised at these results?

Christopher Wharton: I was not -- I was a little bit surprised. I was hoping to see -- I was expecting to see a little more weight loss with the app. Just because I thought it might be more convenient for people. We didn't actually see significant differences in weight across groups, but it was a short-term study, so it's possible over a longer period of time there might have been differentiation. So that's something we hope to follow up on, to see what happens over longer periods of time.

Ted Simons: Did you notice the younger people in the study more affable to the apps, and the older folks maybe a little more comfortable with the pen and paper?

Christopher Wharton: There was not -- In the end there wasn't much of an effect when it came to age. The most important factor was the app itself and using that in comparison to other methods.

Ted Simons: Do you see more dietary apps being developed because of this study and others looking at this kind of thing?

Christopher Wharton: For sure. There's a larger body of literature out there, a lot of people are looking into this, mobile technology in relation to health is obviously becoming huge. Apple watch just came out and it's got all sorts of technology to track health-related information. The difficulty with these sorts of apps is that with physical activity, you can passively track your actual activity, because you just strap a device on and go about your day. With diet, have you to be more rigorous in terms of entering the information, and so if people are looking for apps that are useful, to them, I think they need to be looking for apps that help them track calories but also look at diet quality as well.

Ted Simons: Interesting. It is an interesting study. I'm glad we had you here. Thanks for joining us.

Christopher Wharton: My pleasure.

Chris Wharton:Associate Professor of Nutrition, School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University;

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