How a smartphone can help you with your diet

The use of smartphones has transformed life as we once knew it.

According to the Pew Internet Project, more than half of American adults own a smartphone and almost a third of them “can’t imagine living” without the device.

The rapidly-evolving landscape of applications has changed the way we socialize, conduct bank transactions, shop and find our way to a friend’s house. But our modern handheld devices can do much more — for instance, a smartphone can help you with your diet.

Lose it app on iPhoneSmartphones have seen wide adoption among Americans in recent years because of their ease of use and adaptability. In fact, approximately 83% of Americans now own a mobile phone, and 45% own smartphones with internet access.

With that in mind, researchers from Arizona State University examined how smartphone use affected weight loss goals and determined that smartphones may offer users an advantage over traditional methods when tracking diet data.

Smartphone apps could help reliably track diet data

For this study, researchers recruited healthy, weight-stable adults and semi-randomly divided them into groups based on their diet-tracking method.

The groups consisted of those who used the “Lose It!” app, those who recorded dietary intake using the memo function of their smartphone, and those who used traditional paper and pencil to record their diet.

To mimic real-life use of the app, the group using the smartphone program received no dietary quality advice. Groups using the smartphone memo and traditional paper and pencil methods received one-on-one nutrition counseling sessions and weekly reminders to eat healthy. A personalized diet plan was developed for these participants, supplemented by a suggested exercise plan.

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Although smartphone use did not affect total weight loss among the 47 participants who completed the study, the researchers observed better diet tracking results among those in the smartphone-use groups.

“Participants using a commercially available app more consistently entered complete days of dietary data compared with the paper-and-pencil group and also withdrew from the study less often than the other groups,” lead author Christopher Wharton, PhD, said. “It’s possible that app technology offers a less burdensome method for tracking data compared with traditional tools.”

Quantity, yes — quality, no

The memo and paper-and-pencil groups reported twice the number of missing days as the group using the app, but diet quality was not improved among app users. Therefore, it was concluded that food and nutrition professionals should consider using app technology in conjunction with dietary counseling for weight management. Because little data about smartphone use as it relates to weight management and dieting is available, this study should help inform further research in this area.

“While no difference in weight loss was noted between the three groups, we found that participants who monitored their diet with either an application or the memo function on a smartphone were more likely to persist in the study and missed fewer days of entering dietary data, compared to those monitoring via paper and pencil,” said Wharton, associate professor of nutrition . “This may be due to ease of use.”

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“At the individual level, dietary self-monitoring has been identified as one of the most successful tools for managing body weight, so this is an interesting finding,” said Johnston, professor of nutrition at at ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.

Little research exists on the benefits of health-focused applications from the user’s perspective, and on whether smartphone technology offers a superior platform for tracking and collecting health-related data. Much of past research has focused on the use of personal digital assistants or PDAs as digital mobile devices for diet monitoring.

“We hope that this study will lead to future research on apps that include feedback, not only in terms of calories but also in terms of overall quality, and how they could influence health outcomes,” said Wharton. “We also hope that continued research will improve the choice of diet-based apps available to smartphone users, especially ones that focus on how using smartphones for diet tracking can influence diet choices over time.”

The research was published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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