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Putting your phone to healthy use: Tracking your food on app can lead to weight loss, Duke study suggests

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Tracking your daily food consumption on your phone may help you shed a few pounds. 

A recent study by Duke researchers found a positive relationship between tracking daily dietary intake on MyFitnessPal—a free, commercially available app—and weight loss. 

Gary Bennett, vice provost of undergraduate education and director of Duke's Global Digital Health Science Center, and Michele Patel, Trinity '10 and Ph.D. ‘18, led the randomized controlled trial. The study joins a recent body of literature studying the efficacy of commercially-available mobile apps for weight loss. 

Participants—who were between 21 and 65 years old—were divided into three groups. They were given general advice on healthy eating and asked to monitor what they ate. Participants were not instructed to follow a particular diet. 

The app was a stand-alone digital health intervention and was remotely-delivered, encouraging subjects to participate in this low-intensity treatment from home.

Each group tracked different metrics every day for 12 weeks on the app. One group tracked both their weight and diet, while receiving weekly lessons and feedback from the app. The second group tracked only their weight for a month and then began tracking their food intake for the second month. This group also received weekly emails with lessons on nutrition and tailored feedback. The control group only tracked diet without receiving feedback. 

Three months after the start of the study, participants in all three groups had lost clinically significant amounts of weight.  

“All three groups were given a goal of losing five percent of their body weight, which is considered in the field to be clinically meaningful,” Patel said. 

The group that tracked both diet and weight while receiving weekly lessons and feedback kept the weight off the longest. 

Data were collected either in-person by the researchers, via self report, or through the app itself. 

With around three-quarters of American adults owning smartphones, apps like these can broaden the accessibility of obesity treatment, Patel said. 

“People attend weekly meetings in traditional programs, which may not be a good fit for everyone,” Patel said. “Implemented in a doctor’s office, the doctors could help decide which app to use and set up reminders and give goals to their patients. This could be a low cost solution because counseling solutions are expensive.”

Although the app was effective, the additional nutrition lessons and weekly tailored feedback were not shown to enhance weight loss. Patel said that it could be interesting to add a physical activity log to see how it would interact with the other weight loss components. 

The next step would be to see if these findings are sustainable over 12 month interventions. Patel said that burnout could be an issue, so testing the effectiveness of tracking every couple days over a longer period of time with breaks may be helpful. 

“We have theories for why [the app] works,” Patel said. “It increases accountability, awareness and encourages people to be honest with themselves.” 

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