The Most Popular Smartphone Apps for Weight Loss: A Quality Assessment

JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2015 Dec 16;3(4):e104. doi: 10.2196/mhealth.4334.


Background: Advancements in mobile phone technology have led to the development of smartphones with the capability to run apps. The availability of a plethora of health- and fitness-related smartphone apps has the potential, both on a clinical and public health level, to facilitate healthy behavior change and weight management. However, current top-rated apps in this area have not been extensively evaluated in terms of scientific quality and behavioral theory evidence base.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to evaluate the quality of the most popular dietary weight-loss smartphone apps on the commercial market using comprehensive quality assessment criteria, and to quantify the behavior change techniques (BCTs) incorporated.

Methods: The top 200-rated Health & Fitness category apps from the free and paid sections of Google Play and iTunes App Store in Australia (n=800) were screened in August 2014. To be included in further analysis, an app had to focus on weight management, include a facility to record diet intake (self-monitoring), and be in English. One researcher downloaded and used the eligible apps thoroughly for 5 days and assessed the apps against quality assessment criteria which included the following domains: accountability, scientific coverage and content accuracy of information relevant to weight management, technology-enhanced features, usability, and incorporation of BCTs. For inter-rater reliability purposes, a second assessor provided ratings on 30% of the apps. The accuracy of app energy intake calculations was further investigated by comparison with results from a 3-day weighed food record (WFR).

Results: Across the eligible apps reviewed (n=28), only 1 app (4%) received full marks for accountability. Overall, apps included an average of 5.1 (SD 2.3) out of 14 technology-enhanced features, and received a mean score of 13.5 (SD 3.7) out of 20 for usability. The majority of apps provided estimated energy requirements (24/28, 86%) and used a food database to calculate energy intake (21/28, 75%). When compared against the WFR, the mean absolute energy difference of apps which featured energy intake calculations (23/28, 82%) was 127 kJ (95% CI -45 to 299). An average of 6.3 (SD 3.7) of 26 BCTs were included.

Conclusions: Overall, the most popular commercial apps for weight management are suboptimal in quality, given the inadequate scientific coverage and accuracy of weight-related information, and the relative absence of BCTs across the apps reviewed. With the limited regulatory oversight around the quality of these types of apps, this evaluation provides clinicians and consumers an informed view of the highest-quality apps in the current popular app pool appropriate for recommendation and uptake. Further research is necessary to assess the effectiveness of apps for weight management.

Keywords: behavior change techniques; evaluation; obesity; quality; smartphone apps; weight management.