Breaking Health warning : beware of weight-loss smartphone apps

Health News

New Delhi,
13th October 2019 : Food, nutrition and health-related
decision
making in urban areas is increasingly becoming digital. People
order food through apps, seek health related advice online, keep a track of
their physical activity via digital devices and so on.

But not all
health and nutrition information being dished out on digital platforms and
mobile apps may be reliable, as scientists at the Hyderabad-based National
Nutrition Institute (NIN)
have found in the case of calorie-counting or
weight loss apps available on smartphones.

A scientific
assessment of the quality of information provided in 20 top ranking weight
management apps available in Google Play store and their use by a set of
volunteers revealed that most of apps did not provide authentic information and
had no significant impact on weight or eating behaviour of those participating
in the study.

The apps
selected for the study claimed to calculate both calorie intake and
expenditure, were available in English language and free to download. The apps
were ranked according to their popularity in the app store, based on the number
of downloads and user ratings. The first three most popular apps were selected
for the first phase of the study. The effectiveness and user perceptions of
these apps were noted.

In the
second phase, the quality of information provided by all 20 apps was examined
using a 55-point scale which was modified for Indian conditions. Of them, 13
apps scored below 70 percent on this scale. It was found that practices such as
consumption of high fibre fruits and vegetables, limiting saturated fatty acids
were encouraged by only 40 percent of the apps. Regular physical activity was
promoted by only half the apps ranked in the study. While all of them kept track
of weight change, waist-to-hip circumference was included in just 25 percent.

Most of
the apps had no significant impact on weight or eating behaviour

Most of the
apps did not provide authentic information and had no significant impact on
weight or eating behaviour of those participating in the study.

A set of 30
healthy, young adults with a body mass index (BMI) of 23 kg/m2 or above,
willing to reduce weight but not undergoing weight loss programme was included
in the study. They were told to download an app of their choice and track food
intake and physical activity on a regular basis for eight weeks. Another set of
healthy adults with a similar BMI followed their routine lifestyle.

At the end
of the study period, no significant change was noted in both the groups in
terms of weight and other parameters, but those using the apps indulged more in
intentional physical activity and ate less of sweets and deep fried snacks.

“Participants
mentioned confusion with portion sizes, unavailability of data of commonly
consumed foods or burden of manual entry as major deterrents for usage of the
apps. The only positive impact seen was an increasing trend of physical
activity which was probably an effect of motivation to be active because of the
‘pedometer’ feature. It does not require manual entry and can automatically
track exercise of users,” pointed out researchers in their study published in
Health Informatics Journal.

“If a person
uses all the 20 apps, he or she will get 20 different kinds of suggestions
while might be highly confusing. This is because these apps do not use
authentic and scientifically approved data and do not take into consideration
important determinants of calorie requirement such as the user’s activity
levels,” pointed out SubbaRao M Gavaravarapu, who led the study, while speaking
to India Science Wire.

The study
team included Paromita Banerjee, Damayanthi Korrapati, SubbaRao M Gavaravarapu
(National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad); and Vishnu Vardhana Rao Mendu
(National Institute of Medical Statistics, New Delhi).

By Dinesh
C Sharma

India Science Wire

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