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Mobile apps that track calories and activity can help weight loss

By Kathy Oxtoby

Using a mobile app that tracks eating and physical activity can help people lose an average of about 7 kilograms (15 pounds), and keep it off for at least a year, new research suggests. But this technology only helps weight loss when users also attend regular classes about nutrition and exercise.

What do we know already?

Being obese (having a body mass index of 30 or above) is not only about being overweight. It can also have an impact on your health, putting you at increased risk of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and cancers.

There are many weight loss programmes available. While we know that some of them work, there’s little good-quality research into some of the new products on the market that are designed to boost weight loss, such as weight loss apps on mobile phones.

To find out more, researchers looked at whether using a weight loss app together with weight loss classes can help people to lose weight and keep the weight off.

The 12-month study involved 69 overweight and obese adults. The average age of those taking part in the study was 58 and most were men. Everyone in the study was offered health education classes on nutrition, exercise, and behaviour change twice monthly during the first six months, and once monthly for the remainder of the year.

Each person received weekly calorie goals based on their current weight and weekly activity goals based on their current level of activity.

People receiving treatment as usual recorded their eating and activity on paper. Those people using the weight loss app sent their information to a behavioural coach who monitored their information and provided scheduled telephone coaching for 10 to 15 minutes about twice a month.

What does the new study say?

The study found that people who used the mobile phone app and who attended 80 percent of the health education sessions lost about 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and maintained that loss for one year. The average weight loss for those using the mobile phone app - including those who did not attend the education sessions - was about 4 kilograms (eight-and-a-half pounds).

However, those who took part in the education sessions but who did not have access to the mobile app had not lost any weight after 12 months.

The study also showed that using a phone app to monitor weight loss, but still had access to other forms of weight loss support, such as diet and exercise classes was more effective at supporting people throughout that 12-month period than those who did not use that technology.

How reliable is the research?

This is a good quality study, if quite small, and one of the first to look at the benefits of using a phone app to help people to lose weight.

However, this does not mean that using this type of technology can help people with their weight management. There are many other reasons why people who took part in this study may have lost weight. Having regular coaching may have also helped those taking part in the study who used the app to lose weight.

The study focused mainly on men so we don’t know whether women who use mobile apps alongside exercise and dieting may find it a more effective way to help them with their weight loss exercise and diet alone.

What does this mean for me?

This study shows that using a phone app for support, combined with a calorie-controlled diet and exercise could help you lose weight. But more research needs to be carried out to show whether using a weight loss phone app together with more traditional approaches, such as exercise and a calorie controlled diet, is more effective at helping you to lose weight than exercise and dieting alone.

If you think you need to lose weight, talk to your GP or practice nurse. They may be able to suggest sources of support, or refer you to talk to a dietitian.


Spring B, Duncan J, Janke A, et al. Integrating technology into standard weight loss treatment: a randomized controlled trial. Archives of Internal Medicine. Published online 10 December 2012.

Dec 13, 2012