Quarantine weight gain bringing you down? You may want to turn to tech for help. An analysis published in the journal Obesity in February 2021 suggests that if you use digital tools to log what you eat, when you exercise, or how much you weigh, you’re likely to crush your weight loss goals — at least temporarily.
Researchers examined results from 39 clinical trials that followed more than 8,000 adults with overweight or obesity to see whether using digital self-monitoring tools aided weight loss. These tools were based on a variety of platforms — examples included websites, apps, wearables, smart scales, and text messaging — and encouraged users to record a variety of variables including weight, exercise, food intake, and calories.
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Across all the trials in this analysis, consistent use of digital self-monitoring tools was associated with weight loss 74 percent of the time. This success rate didn’t change much with the type of tool people used or which types of weight-related outcomes they tracked. But people did appear to be more engaged with tracking consistently when they used digital tools than when they used pen and paper.
“At the end of the day, any form of recording can help people lose weight,” says the lead study author, Michele Patel, PhD, a researcher in cardiovascular disease prevention at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
“However, we found that digital tools like apps and websites often keep people engaged for longer, which often translates to more weight loss,” Dr. Patel says.
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Apps May Not Necessarily Help You Keep the Weight Off
This study didn’t track how much weight people lost, or whether they kept off any pounds they shed. It focused only on whether using digital tools was associated with weight loss.
And, because most of the trials included in the current analysis gave people a choice of whether to track their progress online or on a mobile app, researchers weren’t able to determine whether one form of digital self-monitoring might be better than another.
It’s also possible that people who consistently use digital tracking tools to lose weight are more motivated to shed excess pounds than people who track less often, Patel says. But tracking can be one of the strongest predictors of success when people make lifestyle changes to lose weight, Patel says.
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Digital Weight Loss Tools Have a Mixed Track Record
Some previous studies have also linked digital self-monitoring to more successful weight loss efforts. For example, a study published in November 2015 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that people who used digital tools to track weight and exercise lost an average of 2.3 pounds more than those who didn’t use these tools.
Another study, published in June 2016 in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, followed people who used a digital tracking tool for three months to see whether weight loss was influenced by how consistently people engaged with the app. Participants reduced their body mass index (BMI) by 1.9 points on average, and each 10 percent increase in adherence to the tracking tool was associated with an additional 2.6-point reduction in BMI.
But other studies have painted a different picture. Another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, found that people who used an app for six months lost an average of about 5 pounds — roughly the same amount participants lost without using the app.
And a two-year-long study found that a smartphone app helped people lose weight only when paired with in-person coaching sessions and phone calls to keep dieters on track. The app, with coaching, helped people lose about 8 pounds on average by six months, compared with less than 2 pounds for people who didn’t use the app. After the study period, participants regained most of the weight they lost and there was no longer a difference between the groups.
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How to Find a Tool That Can Help You Lose Weight
“The best tool is the one that you are most likely to actually use,” says Kathryn Ross, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the department of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
So, if you cook most of your meals at home, you may want an app that makes it easy to upload and save your favorite recipes for easier tracking, Dr. Ross suggests. Or if you eat a lot of prepared foods, you may want to look for an app with a barcode scanner to make it simple to track these items.
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Similarly, some tools work better than others for tracking different types of activity, and you should focus on the one that best meets your needs, Ross says. Walkers will get the most accurate step counts from traditional pedometers worn at the hip, Ross says, but a smartwatch or another device on your wrist is a good option, too, especially if this is easier for you to keep with you throughout the day.
And if apps aren’t your thing, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with recording your eating and exercise habits the old fashioned way — by putting pencil to paper, says Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD, a lifestyle intervention specialist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the author of Cured: A Doctor’s Journey from Panic to Peace.
“People should pick their preference,” Dr. McTiernan says. “While digital self-monitoring may be easier for many people, others might prefer paper and pencil.”
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