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

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Due to the increasing rates of obesity in the United States, along with more than 40% of Americans reporting unwanted weight gain since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are searching for ways to lose weight. While the traditional focus of dieting and weight loss has been on what and how much to eat, companies are now taking a more nuanced approach to help individuals understand why they eat as they do and how to make improvements to their eating habits.

Numerous weight-loss apps and programs can be found through a web browser or app store search. Although not an exhaustive review, some weight-loss apps and programs stand out for their unique features and program options:

Noom uses artificial intelligence, cognitive behavioral therapy, and evidence-based principles of physiology and psychology to improve eating behaviors. Daily educational activities, support groups, and interactive psychology-based challenges are available to users.

myWW+ (formerly Weight Watchers) utilizes a SmartPoints system that assigns a numeric value to every food item based on its calorie, protein, sugar, and fat content. In addition to a flexible color-coded range of food plans, members receive a personalized SmartPoints budget and access to 24/7 health coaches, guided workouts, meditations, and a sleep tracker.

Eat Right Now combines mindfulness training with a guided approach to help users rewire their brains to identify emotional triggers, recognize cravings, stop negative habits, and develop emotional resilience to stop binge and emotional eating.

Reset offers a unique variation of the intermittent fasting protocol. Users track food intake and follow a strict eating plan for only two "reset" days out of the week while receiving guidance and 1:1 coaching to maintain long-term healthy habits.

Livongo is an employer-based virtual telemedicine and health coaching service that offers chronic disease management through consultation with health coaches and medical providers. They provide smart Bluetooth-connected scales and other medical devices for monitoring and transmitting health data to those who qualify for appetite-suppressing medications.

Can these tools lead to sustained weight loss?

A study conducted in 2016 analyzed data from nearly 36,000 Noom users and found 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. A comparison between WW and other weight-loss programs, including physician counseling and professional behavioral programs, found that WW was more effective for sustained weight loss for up to 12 months. A 2017 study of Eat Right Now showed a 40% reduction in craving-related eating, which correlated with weight loss. There is an abundance of data that supports 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 differ from traditional ones?

Psychology-based weight-loss apps and programs offer a more holistic and mindfulness-based approach to weight loss, while traditional apps such as Lose It or MyFitnessPal tend to focus solely on food tracking. 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. By helping users understand the cognitive processes that drive their eating behaviors, these tools aim to interrupt those processes and improve those behaviors.

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

Pandemic weight gain is very common from person to person. The 2016 study of Noom users revealed that the male gender, younger age, higher baseline body mass index (BMI), higher weight input frequency, breakfast and dinner input frequency, and exercise input frequency were associated with better weight loss. Psychology-based weight-loss programs can provide insight, structure, and accountability, which are all important factors for weight-loss success.

However, it is essential to keep in mind that obesity is a chronic disease, and weight management is a lifelong endeavor. No matter which approach one decides to take, it must be sustained long-term to achieve successful weight loss and maintain a healthy weight.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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