Not just fun & games: mobile apps get serious about obesity

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

MyNetDiary was rated well among a plethora of apps demonstrating 'suboptimal in quality, given the inadequate scientific coverage and accuracy of weight-related information and the relative absence of behavioural change techniques'. Image: MyNetDiary
MyNetDiary was rated well among a plethora of apps demonstrating 'suboptimal in quality, given the inadequate scientific coverage and accuracy of weight-related information and the relative absence of behavioural change techniques'. Image: MyNetDiary

Related tags: Nutrition

Smart phone apps could play a role in tackling the obesity crisis, although there needs to be more clarity around the way values and results are calculated, says a nutrition academic.

Sigrid Beer-Borst, research associate at the University of Bern’s Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (ISPM), is working with researchers from Bern University of Applied Sciences to develop a new smartphone app that should make dietary counselling more efficient. Branded SmartSOL, the app essentially enables real-time logging of diet synchronised with physical activity analysis.

We know that dieticians have limited time during appointments with clients, so dont always have the opportunity to assess in great detail what people are eating and drinking, nor is this data usually captured and analysed in a systematic manner. The idea is that our app will help dieticians to work more efficiently with clients; they can use technology to obtain better insight into peoples dietary behaviour,​ Beer-Borst told NutraIngredients.

Whats app with the rest?

SmartSOL won’t be the first nutrition app to market - there are numerous weight loss and calorie counting apps out there. However, a recent review of 28 weight-loss apps found that overall the most popular commercial apps for weight management were suboptimal in quality, given the inadequate scientific coverage and accuracy of weight-related information and the relative absence of behavioural change techniques​.

The two apps that came out best in this review - carried out by a team of UK and Australian researchers - were Noom Weight Loss Coach by Noom Inc and Calorie Counter Pro by MyNetDiary.

One of the differences with SmartSOL is that it involves dieticians rather than being completely consumer-led.

We think it is necessary to have that link with the dietician at certain points,​ said Beer-Borst.

Another difference is that the data used to calculate energy intake are science based.

Numbers founded in nothing

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People want to see numbers, but on some apps you have to question where they are getting their numbers from - it is not clear how they are calculated and there are question marks over whether they are correct. Validation studies need to be carried out to see how accurately the apps measure energy intake,​ noted Beer-Borst.

Beer-Borst is currently preparing such a validity study for the SmartSOL app, then an intervention study will test the effectiveness of smartSOL-based dietary counselling in overweight/obese people compared to traditional counselling without an app.

We need to run our intervention studies to determine whether the app helps or doesnt help with weight management, but my gut feel is that it has a role to play in tackling obesity, by allowing dieticians to go into greater detail with their clients about their eating habits,​ said Beer-Borst.

The SmartSOL app is designed to be Swiss-based, but Beer-Borst said she saw no reason why the app couldn’t be adapted to work in other countries, as long as the database was specific to that country.

Industry involvement

Asked whether there was scope for the food industry to get involved with the project, Beer-Borst said: So far weve worked with the federal government, but havent addressed industry. We have been approached by an international food producer and theoretically, sponsorship may be an option, as this would help with the very high development and maintenance costs. However, we have to maintain our independence, and so any decision to partner with industry would require careful consideration as we would have to be sure there wouldnt be a conflict of interest.

Related topics: Markets and Trends

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