Fitness apps not the way to lose weight, shows NIN study

Majority of popular apps hardly rely on scientifically-approved data

July 02, 2019 12:19 am | Updated 12:19 am IST - HYDERABAD

Woman using calorie counter application on her smartphone

Woman using calorie counter application on her smartphone

Those depending on smartphone apps to track their calories and activity level should do a double check.

A National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) study of 20 most downloaded and calorie counting apps available on Google Play store shows many do not use authentic scientifically-approved data.

Confusing advice

In the study, the apps were assessed on a 55-point scale considering the authenticity of scientific information and databases, inclusion of cognitive behavioural aspects, content accuracy, technological features etc.

Any app that scored more than 70% was considered ‘good quality’ but 13 out of 20 apps scored below 70%.

“If the same person uses all 20 apps, he or she will obtain 20 different kinds of suggestions which might be confusing. For example, a 22-year-old female with a sedentary lifestyle, with a height of 163 cm, weighing 66 kg, and a weight loss goal of 500 grams per week, was suggested 20 different calorie requirements varying between 1,191 and 1,955 Kcal by 20 apps”, said NIN scientist SubbaRao M. Gavaravarapu, who led the study team.

Loose ends

The study conducted in 2016-17 and recently published in ‘Health Informatics Journal’ found that healthy eating practices like inclusion of fruits and vegetables, limiting saturated fatty acids and inclusion of high fibre fruits were encouraged by only by 40% of apps. Regular physical activity was encouraged by just half of them.

All apps kept track of weight change, but waist or hip circumferences were recorded by only a quarter of them.

When some overweight volunteer subjects were asked to use any of the top three downloaded apps for eight weeks, no significant reduction in weight or waist to hip circumference was found. Food data base of many apps lacked common Indian recipes and also showed large variation in calorie calculation when compared with Indian standards. Either they overestimated or under estimated the calorie content of common Indian meals, said Dr. Rao.

“For development of a useful and good quality app for Indians, app developers must consider Indian standards recommendations and cultural aspects. It is precisely this reason that has prompted us to launch ‘Nutritfy India Now’ based on well researched India specific data bases, foods, recipes and their nutrition information”, said NIN Director Dr. R Hemalatha.

Effectiveness doubtful

The study concludes calorie counting apps may not be very effective as stand-alone tools for weight loss or dietary modification.

Apps with provision of user-friendly features of logging food consumption data, well defined portion sizes and authentic databases can be useful for self- monitoring when supplemented with other behaviour change interventions.

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