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Do weight loss apps really work?


A weight loss app that promises you personalised plans to track food, workouts, water intake, sleep, and weight loss. Doesn’t it sound like the best thing ever?

As a society, we are inspired by the strength of the masses, so when we see an app telling us that it has 10 million downloads or more, we can feel immensely reassured. Some of the most popular apps even tell you that weight loss is not hard. By tracking your food and calories, and following the diet charts and nutrition calculator guides, the apps encourage you to “easily” lose weight.

If you have used a weight loss app, or feel inspired to do so, one of the first things that you will do is to go to the app store, scroll through some of the most popular ones, and most likely download the one which has the most downloads or promises the most in terms of top features.

The promise made to you is that you can easily lose weight with a personalised plan, which the app will create for you based upon your health data and BMI.

But, how do you gauge results of any health plan?

When it comes to health and weight, the first thing that you need to understand is that there are, or should be, several parameters by which you can gauge your results. This is a combination of patient experience and visible hard data.

1.   When you begin any programme targeted at health improvement and weight loss, you should write out a list of all your symptoms. No weight loss plan should result in you losing weight and ultimately affect your health. If you lose 10 kilograms and find yourself needing B12 or iron injections post the programme, that should concern you.

2.   I like to look at symptoms and serum labs, before and after intervention. I use them to correlate with each other and provide guidance. This provides for a holistic viewpoint. Obviously with an app, you are removing one of these altogether, which is personalised interpretation of serum blood markers. This is very important to weight loss, as it provides a picture for level of insulin resistance, hormone status, inflammatory markers, and nutrients status, all of which play a role in optimal weight loss.

3.   Towards the conclusion of your health programme, look at your own symptoms and compare them to those you had before you started. If you have lost weight effectively, but have more pains, acne, hair fall, fatigue, insomnia, or anxiety, that is an indication of a poor programme.

4.   You should be looking at weight, symptom improvement, and better serum labs. All three should be correlated to gauge the effectiveness of the app that you were using. Since no app is going to personalise these aspects, it can only help if you become your own advocate.

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Weight loss depends on so many things. Can an app really personalise this?

Weight loss can happen for a few people with observing calories and monitoring through an app. However, for several more, the health complications underlying weight loss resistance are so many. Let’s look at what some of the common health apps promise and dig a little deeper.

1.   Most popular apps promise a personalised diet plan based on health data and BMI. Health data only include parameters like height, weight, ideal weight, and BMI. Parameters of crucial importance such as blood sugar status, hormones, menstrual cycle details, and inflammatory markers are not even used. It is impractical for an app to integrate such data, but it promises you personalised plans. Do you ever wonder at this irony?

2.   Another common promise is that you can eat healthy by using this app. Eating healthy is a phrase that encompasses several hidden aspects. The truth is that food sensitivities are more common today. What is one person’s healthy food might be another’s poison. Integration of such personalised data to protect every person is out of the question.

3.   Counting calories is the common promise across all these health apps. Calorie counting has been busted as an outdated approach to nutrition several times over. Globally, it is not redundant and cannot be used effectively to support a patient centric approach. It is also a stressful practice of eating, where you must keep counting and tracking every food that you eat. It is an approach that is cumbersome, stressful, and impossible to manage long term. Let’s not forget that it does not include anything to support health.

4.   Some health apps do promise a specialised diet plan to manage conditions like diabetes, hypothyroidism, PCOS, cholesterol, and hypertension. Within each of these conditions the root causes for everyone can be unique. Two people with hypothyroidism can have two totally different set of root causes. What you are getting is a cookie-cutter meal plan built vaguely to support each of these conditions, and then making you think that it has been created especially for you.

5.   Finally, nutrition and weight loss are more than knowing the ideal proportion of macronutrients. Any health plan should consider the food that you are eating based upon the optimal functioning of body systems. Suggesting a high fat plan for someone based on their weight, when they have elevated liver markers or fatty liver can result in them developing further health complications.

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Do weight loss apps work?

It is impossible for an app to personalise a plan for you just based on a few inputs. Not taking lab results into account can be an injustice to the person. What goes into creating a truly personalised plan for someone, which will support improvement with labs, symptoms, and weight, cannot be done through a health app. It can be useful to track your food and get some sense of accountability.

However, if you are looking at long-term health improvement and symptom relief, it is better that you make an investment in your health.

Preventive healthcare through working with a qualified nutritionist is a fraction of the cost of managing a chronic health condition. This is also where the missing piece lies. Most people are hesitant to support preventive healthcare.

Your choice of these apps should not be based upon how many downloads they have. You should still be watching all these key areas for yourself, to understand if it is helping you positively.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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