'Personalized' online weight loss? It's still about the food

An Australian study on Web-based weight-loss programs found that personalization and support from medical or nutritional experts had little effect on the amount of weight participants lost. However, those features tended to engage users with the site longer and those who used the study's weight tracker tool shed more pounds, according to the research, published this week in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.  

Participants were divided among three groups: information only, supportive and personalized-supportive. Both supportive sites included tools such as a weight tracker, meal planner and social networking platform. The personalized site also included an algorithm that made meal-planning suggestions based on the user's preferred foods.

Attrition was high among all groups in the 12-week program, but users stuck with it longer for the supportive and supportive-personalized groups. In all, 435 people reported their weight at the end, with an average of  2.76 percent of body weight lost and 23 percent losing 5 percent or more of their initial weight.

The work echoes a similar study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine that found that tracking food intake on a mobile device, combined with in-person counseling, led to more weight loss than the counseling alone. Tracking the food is key.

"The app is important because it helps people regulate their behavior, which is really hard to do," said Bonnie Spring, lead investigator of the latter study and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Most of us have no idea how many calories we consume and how much physical activity we get. The app gives you feedback on this and helps you make smart decisions in the moment."

Weight-loss apps are proliferating in the overall explosion of health-related mobile offerings. University Hospitals MacDonald Women's Hospital in Cleveland is testing whether a food-tracking app called Lose It! can help new mothers return to the pre-pregnancy weight.

FierceMobileHealthcare's Greg Slabodkin, after last week's mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C., wrote about mHealth's potential for preventing chronic illnesses.

"Now, it seems, we have the perfect storm of consumer-driven mHealth app development," he said. "Armed with their smartphones, people can make smarter food choices and exercise more on the path toward weight loss--no small fete in today's healthcare environment of epidemic levels of diabetes and obesity."

To learn more:
- read the study


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