Digital health tools, such as diet-tracking apps, increase engagement in weight loss programs, helping users shed pounds, according to a new study.
February 24, 2021 - By Hanae Armitage
Weight loss advice is exasperating. Eat breakfast. Don’t eat breakfast. No fats. Lots of fats. Run long distances. Exercise hard in spurts.
A new study led by a Stanford Medicine researcher makes at least one thing clear: No matter which weight loss tactic you choose, you’re typically more successful if you track your progress with digital health tools.
According to the study, the closer people track their weight-loss efforts with things like smart watches, digital scales and diet-monitoring websites, the more weight they tend to lose.
“We’ve seen this rise of digital health tools in the last decade, and they provide a great way for people to access interventions to better their health,” said Michele Patel, PhD, postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. “We’re also starting to see that more weight loss programs are trending toward digital tools, too. But exactly what is being used, how it’s being used and the impact it has on the user has never been systematically studied on a large scale.”
The analysis also revealed that individuals who tracked their diet or physical activity digitally were more engaged, meaning they were more consistently active in using their digital tools, than those who tracked their behavior through more traditional means, such as handwritten records of exercise routines or calorie intake. In the end, it all comes back to goal-setting and consistency, said Patel, and digital tools can help facilitate both.
A paper detailing the analysis was published online Feb. 24 in Obesity.
Digital is convenient
Patel and her team compared nearly 40 different studies on weight-loss monitoring that were conducted between 2009 and 2019. In each study, participants tracked their behaviors, such as calorie and nutrient consumption, the number of daily bites they took and their physical activity, with digital tools. Three-quarters of the time, those who used digital tools more frequently to monitor themselves lost more weight than those who self-monitored less frequently with digital tools, Patel and her colleagues found.
The finding makes sense, Patel said. Tracking allows us to be aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re moving and how our body weight fluctuates on the scale each day. People can leverage this monitoring feedback to make changes to their daily behaviors. Investigating the grams of nutrients and calories for every meal is burdensome for most people. Digital tools make calorie counting and nutrient tracking easier, she said. Diet-monitoring websites and apps already “know” information about the foods users log — such as the grams of carbs versus fat in a waffle. Some apps even allow users to take a picture of their meal and upload it; the app does the rest of the calorie-counting work.
Digital tools may also ramp up engagement by tapping into one’s competitive side, as some apps allow for networking or provide visual cues indicating how close one is to reaching a goal — for example, how close one is to completing a colorful circle representing step count.
What’s more, the study showed that in-person weight loss coaches weren’t necessary for people to stay engaged in weight loss programs. “I think that's promising for individuals who are seeking to lose weight on their own,” Patel said.
The other important takeaway, she said, is that it didn’t matter what individuals monitored. They could track weight loss, calories or exercise. As long as they did it with digital tools, the more they monitored, the slimmer they became.
Patel plans to dig in deeper to the phenomenon, looking at exactly which behavior —weight tracking, physical activity tracking, or calorie monitoring — seems to generate the most weight loss. She also plans to specifically recruit people from racial and ethnic minority groups to measure the impact of digital monitoring on weight loss, as these groups are often underrepresented in weight-loss programs.
Researchers from the San Francisco VA Health Care System and from Duke University also contributed to the study.
This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health (grant T32HL007034).
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