Smart phones helping many to manage diets
by Stacy Finz [original link]
Forget about Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem. People are turning to their smart phones to shed pounds.
Using as many as 50 diet apps on the market, they're counting calories, logging time spent on the treadmill and keeping diaries of what they eat.
Market analysts predict that smart-phone apps will generate $15.1 billion in revenue this year, nearly tripling 2010's numbers. So it was inevitable that app developers would glom onto the multibillion-dollar diet industry.
And consumers are gobbling it up. Recently, iTunes ranked Meal Snap - Calorie Counting Magic, a $2.99 DailyBurn app that estimates calories simply by taking a photograph of a meal, as the 20th best-selling app in the nation. The Livestrong.com Calorie Tracker, which not only tracks calories but also gives nutritional breakdowns, was ranked the 49th most popular paid iPhone app of all time by iTunes. In January, it became the top-grossing paid app in the health category, according to the company.
"When a lot of other diets have failed, we feel this is the one that works," said Dan Brian, general manager of Livestrong.com, whose app provides nutritional analysis of 800,000 grocery brand and restaurant foods.
The reason for its success is its portability, Brian said. Most of the answers to sensible nutrition - including a breakdown of each food's fat, protein, fiber and carbohydrate content - is in the palm of the user's hand.
"You can be standing in line at a fast-food restaurant and quickly check what your best option would be to order," he said. "We've found that most diets aren't sustainable or affordable - who can afford to buy Jenny Craig meals for any length of time? Our system doesn't cost a lot ($2.99 for the application) and doesn't take a lot of time."
Some are even free, such as Loseit by Fitnow Inc.
"We wanted to reach as many people as we could, and free was the way to do it," said Charles Teague, the company's chief executive officer.
Teague and his partners already had success as software developers, so they could afford to experiment. Their experience was mostly in desktop software, so they wanted to play around in the smart-phone field, launching Loseit in 2008. Why was their debut into the smart-phone arena a diet app?
"We wanted to work on a problem with depth, and being overweight is a big problem in this country," he said. "We've known how to lose weight for 50 years. But we're still failing."
With Loseit, users not only count their calories through the apps' large database of foods, but also can factor in exercise by tracking how many calories are burned. Teague said that since using the app, he's lost 15 pounds.
After Apple advertised it in an iPhone commercial, Loseit became the second most popular free app downloaded by users, Teague said.
The co-founder admits that the project wasn't completely altruistic. Now that Fitnow has seen how popular Loseit is, they can use the brand to manufacture and sell health and fitness products.
Diet apps are a new enough phenomenon that market analysts haven't yet determined their impact on the diet market. But Mintel International Group Ltd., a market research company, found that because of the recession fewer people are joining pay diet plans such as Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers.
The company conducted a study last year that showed 38 percent of adults polled were more likely to diet using online calorie counters or calculators and 35 percent using online weight or body mass index trackers, compared with 24 percent who were interested in diets from commercial food delivery services, such as Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem, and 21 percent who leaned toward diets with group meetings like Weight Watchers.
"I love the diet apps," said Heather Schwartz, a dietitian with Stanford Hospital and Clinics. "My patients use them and many of them send me their weekly results. For health care providers they're great."
Schwartz said that besides people who are watching their weight, the apps are an effective tool for diabetic patients and people who are looking to lower their cholesterol and sodium.
"It's a great teaching device," she said, adding that most people have no concept of the nutritional breakdown of the foods they're eating. Most people think they're eating less than they really are and overestimate the number of calories they're burning, Schwartz said.
"More important than tracking the number of calories people are taking in is tracing eating trends," she said. "Are you eating too many fatty foods, too many carbs, not enough protein?
"It's about being accountable," she said. "Using these apps is in effect keeping a food diary. Food logs are hands down the most integral part of sustained weight loss."
But, for the segment of the population with eating disorders, diet apps can be dangerous, she warned.
"It's the perfect device for people to get obsessive over and miss the big picture," Schwartz said. "So I never recommend it to people with disordered eating habits or to people with eating disorders."
Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford psychiatrist and author of "Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality," echoes those sentiments.
"Are we trading our food obsession for the obsession of counting calories?" he said, fearing that diet apps could be selling an unobtainable quick fix to people who need more than a smart phone to battle their bulge.
Aboujaoude said, "I worry about these apps accentuating the problem."