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New research finds that smartphone apps are a useful tool for diet monitoring

hands holding cell phones
September 10, 2014

The ability and consistency in monitoring one’s diet improves with the use of smartphone applications, according to new research by Arizona State University health scientists published in the latest issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Researchers Christopher Wharton, Carol Johnston, Barbara Cunningham and Danielle Sterner at ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion authored the study.

The study compared the effectiveness of a popular smartphone application called “Lose It” for dietary self-monitoring and quality to methods such as entering dietary data on the memo feature on a smartphone and traditional paper and pencil entry during an eight-week weight-loss trial. Forty-seven participants were semi-randomly assigned to the three groups.

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, find our way to a friend’s house, and track diet and exercise.

To mimic real-life use of the app, the group using “Lose It” 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.

“While no difference in weight loss was noted between the three groups, we found that participants who monitored their diet with either the smartphone app or the memo function 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 at ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. “This may be due to ease of use.”

“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 the school.

Little research exists on the benefits of health-focused applications from the user’s perspective and 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 (PDAs) as mobile devices for diet monitoring.

“This study will hopefully lead to a number of future studies that can improve the types of diet-based apps available to smartphone users, such as how using smartphones for diet tracking can influence diet choices over time, or whether apps that include feedback – not only in terms of calories, but also in terms of overall quality – could influence health outcomes.”