Post-pandemic weight loss: There’s an app for that

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With obesity rates continuing to rise in the United States, and with more than 40% of Americans reporting undesired weight gain since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are seeking tools to help them shed the extra pounds. While the focus on dieting and weight loss has historically been on what and how much to eat, many companies are now turning their attention to the why and how of our eating behaviors: they are taking a more nuanced approach to help people understand why they eat the way they do, and how to make improvements in their eating routine.

A search for “weight loss” in any web browser or app store reveals hundreds of apps and programs designed to help people lose weight. While by no means a comprehensive review, the following weight-loss apps and programs are notable for some of the nuances in the features and program options they offer:

  • Noom uses artificial intelligence, cognitive behavioral therapy, and evidence-based principles of physiology and psychology to help people improve their eating behaviors with the assistance of support groups, daily educational activities, and interactive psychology-based challenges.
  • myWW+ (an app from WW, formerly Weight Watchers) uses their SmartPoints system — a numeric value assigned to every food item based on calorie, protein, sugar, and fat content — in combination with a flexible color-coded range of food plans. Each member is assigned to a plan after taking a personal assessment, and all plans have a personalized SmartPoints budget and list ZeroPoint food options. The MyWW+ app features 24/7 access to a health coach, guided workouts, meditations, and a sleep tracker.
  • Eat Right Now combines mindfulness training with an evidence-based, guided approach to help users rewire their brains to identify emotional triggers, recognize cravings, stop negative habits, and develop emotional resilience to help stop binge and emotional eating.
  • Reset offers a particular variation of the popular intermittent fasting protocol where users track food intake and follow a strict eating plan for only two “reset” days out of the week, and receive guidance and 1:1 coaching to help them sustain long-term healthy habits.
  • Livongo is an employer-based virtual telemedicine and health coaching service that provides patients with chronic disease management through consultation with health coaches who provide dietary and lifestyle advice, as well as medical providers who prescribe appetite-suppressing medications to those who qualify. They provide smart Bluetooth-connected scales and other medical devices for monitoring and transmitting health data.

What’s the evidence that these tools work for sustained weight loss?

A 2016 study of data analyzed from nearly 36,000 Noom users determined that 77.9% of participants reported a decrease in body weight while using the app, and 22.7% of users experienced greater than a 10% body weight reduction compared to their baseline weight.

WW was found to be more effective for sustained weight loss (up to 12 months) compared to physician counseling, professional behavioral programs, and other commercial programs.

A 2017 study of Eat Right Now demonstrated a 40% reduction in craving-related eating, which correlated with weight loss.

There is a plethora of data on the effectiveness of intermittent calorie-restricted eating, such as that recommended in Reset for effective weight loss and improved metabolism.

A 2018 study of Livongo participants demonstrated significant improvements in blood sugar and weight loss for participants with type 2 diabetes, with weight reduction proportionate to the level of coaching intensity.

How do psychology-based weight-loss apps and programs compare with traditional ones?

These programs take a more holistic and mindfulness-based approach to weight loss, whereas traditional apps such as Lose It or MyFitnessPal tend to focus solely on food tracking. Rather than simply providing caloric and nutritional data, psychology-based tools seek to guide subscribers’ understanding of their own eating habits and behaviors, from the initial trigger to the craving that follows, to the ultimate result of eating a particular food or treat. The premise is that, if people can understand the cognitive processes that drive their eating behaviors, perhaps they can interrupt those processes and improve those behaviors.

Who might benefit from using a psychology-based weight-loss app?

The above-mentioned 2016 study of Noom users determined that certain factors were associated with better weight loss: male gender, younger age, higher baseline body mass index (BMI), higher weight input frequency, breakfast and dinner input frequency, and exercise input frequency.

Although you can’t change your own personal demographics when embarking on a weight-loss plan, psychology-based weight-loss programs can provide you with some insight, structure, and accountability — key advantages when it comes to weight-loss success.

The most important thing to keep in mind when considering any weight-loss program is the fact that obesity is a chronic disease, and weight management is a lifelong endeavor. If you’re comfortable with technology and willing to engage consistently and honestly with the platform of your choice, you may find it to be a useful tool. Whatever approach you decide to take, it must be sustained long-term to successfully lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.

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