Background: Healthy eating interventions that use behavior change techniques such as self-monitoring and feedback have been associated with stronger effects. Mobile apps can make dietary self-monitoring easy with photography and potentially reach huge populations.
Objective: The aim of the study was to assess the factors related to sustained use of a free mobile app ("The Eatery") that promotes healthy eating through photographic dietary self-monitoring and peer feedback.
Methods: A retrospective analysis was conducted on the sample of 189,770 people who had downloaded the app and used it at least once between October 2011 and April 2012. Adherence was defined based on frequency and duration of self-monitoring. People who had taken more than one picture were classified as "Users" and people with one or no pictures as "Dropouts". Users who had taken at least 10 pictures and used the app for at least one week were classified as "Actives", Users with 2-9 pictures as "Semi-actives", and Dropouts with one picture as "Non-actives". The associations between adherence, registration time, dietary preferences, and peer feedback were examined. Changes in healthiness ratings over time were analyzed among Actives.
Results: Overall adherence was low-only 2.58% (4895/189,770) used the app actively. The day of week and time of day the app was initially used was associated with adherence, where 20.28% (5237/25,820) of Users had started using the app during the daytime on weekdays, in comparison to 15.34% (24,718/161,113) of Dropouts. Users with strict diets were more likely to be Active (14.31%, 900/6291) than those who had not defined any diet (3.99%, 742/18,590), said they ate everything (9.47%, 3040/32,090), or reported some other diet (11.85%, 213/1798) (χ(2) 3=826.6, P<.001). The average healthiness rating from peers for the first picture was higher for Active users (0.55) than for Semi-actives (0.52) or Non-actives (0.49) (F2,58167=225.9, P<.001). Actives wrote more often a textual description for the first picture than Semi-actives or Non-actives (χ(2) 2=3515.1, P<.001). Feedback beyond ratings was relatively infrequent: 3.83% (15,247/398,228) of pictures received comments and 15.39% (61,299/398,228) received "likes" from other users. Actives were more likely to have at least one comment or one "like" for their pictures than Semi-actives or Non-actives (χ(2) 2=343.6, P<.001, and χ(2) 2=909.6, P<.001, respectively). Only 9.89% (481/4863) of Active users had a positive trend in their average healthiness ratings.
Conclusions: Most people who tried out this free mobile app for dietary self-monitoring did not continue using it actively and those who did may already have been healthy eaters. Hence, the societal impact of such apps may remain small if they fail to reach those who would be most in need of dietary changes. Incorporating additional self-regulation techniques such as goal-setting and intention formation into the app could potentially increase user engagement and promote sustained use.
Keywords: adherence; control theory; food journaling; food photographing; healthy eating; mobile app; peer feedback; self-monitoring.