Are Mobile Health Apps Helpful?

Keri Gans

'Tis the time of year that many of us will receive gifts revolving around mobile technology. Whether it's the newest iPhone or iPad, or some other smart phone or tablet, those of us interested in health and fitness will likely start searching for related apps to download. This can be an overwhelming process--just consider the sheer number of apps that currently exist. There seems to be a new one every week.

I constantly ask my patients what they use and how happy they are with the program. Most are initially excited about any new app, and then their enthusiasm wanes. Some admit to downloading an app and never actually using it because it required too much information to get started, or it ended up seeming irrelevant. I probably fall into this category. I've read, however, that in some instances apps have been very helpful with weight loss--typically in conjunction with nutrition and fitness education.

So should you bother with health apps or not? The answer depends on your goals. If you're solely interested in weight loss, give it a try, but you may still be missing a crucial education component. If your intention is simply being more mindful of your health, then you certainly have nothing to lose (no pun intended). Below are three apps I consider helpful:

1. Fooducate (iOS and Android, free). Maybe you have every intention of buying healthy items at the supermarket, but find food labels confusing and misleading. Fooducate allows you to scan the barcode of whatever item you want to purchase, and then the program automatically assigns it a grade from A to D. (Be patient; even if the scanning process seems difficult at first, it becomes really simple.) The app makes deciding whether to put something back in your cart or returning it to the shelf much easier. I was surprised that a lot of my favorite foods didn't get a high grade, especially in the snack category. In these instances, I'm going to stick to my guns and be thankful that an actual debate in the supermarket will never happen.

2. JUICE (iOS, free). JUICE is a fun, easy-to-use energy and activity tracker that helps connect the dots between your daily routine and how energetic you feel. Keeping track of your sleeping, diet, and exercise habits, for example, helps you identify and change the behaviors that zap your energy. Unlike other health apps that require so much time and effort to use, JUICE is simple and can be completed in under a minute a day. There are many great tips from health experts (including 20 that I created) that can be scheduled as reminders throughout the day.

3. Lose It! (iOS and Android, free). This app is mainly for people who want to lose weight. Enter your current profile and goal weight, and it spits out your personal daily caloric budget. Every day you'll record how much you ate and exercised, and the app will tell you how well you did. If tracking your daily caloric intake is your goal, Lose It! can be a great tool with a huge database of foods to choose from. However, I recommend double-checking whether the calculation of calorie needs is accurate. For example, when I entered mock information to lose weight, I was given a daily calorie budget of 793 calories, which is way too low for anyone. So either I made a grave error somewhere, or the app did.

Other great apps that my patients have used and responded positively to are MyFitnessPal Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker, and Fitbit Activity and Calorie Tracker. By next week, there will probably be another one or two to explore. Meanwhile, I'm going to enjoy my iPad mini and pray that a new version isn't released before I even finish downloading my latest apps.

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Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.