A Focused Review of Smartphone Diet-Tracking Apps: Usability, Functionality, Coherence With Behavior Change Theory, and Comparative Validity of Nutrient Intake and Energy Estimates

JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019 May 17;7(5):e9232. doi: 10.2196/mhealth.9232.


Background: Smartphone diet-tracking apps may help individuals lose weight, manage chronic conditions, and understand dietary patterns; however, the usabilities and functionalities of these apps have not been well studied.

Objective: The aim of this study was to review the usability of current iPhone operating system (iOS) and Android diet-tracking apps, the degree to which app features align with behavior change constructs, and to assess variations between apps in nutrient coding.

Methods: The top 7 diet-tracking apps were identified from the iOS iTunes and Android Play online stores, downloaded and used over a 2-week period. Each app was independently scored by researchers using the System Usability Scale (SUS), and features were compared with the domains in an integrated behavior change theory framework: the Theoretical Domains Framework. An estimated 3-day food diary was completed using each app, and food items were entered into the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Composition Databases to evaluate their differences in nutrient data against the USDA reference.

Results: Of the apps that were reviewed, LifeSum had the highest average SUS score of 89.2, whereas MyDietCoach had the lowest SUS score of 46.7. Some variations in features were noted between Android and iOS versions of the same apps, mainly for MyDietCoach, which affected the SUS score. App features varied considerably, yet all of the apps had features consistent with Beliefs about Capabilities and thus have the potential to promote self-efficacy by helping individuals track their diet and progress toward goals. None of the apps allowed for tracking of emotional factors that may be associated with diet patterns. The presence of behavior change domain features tended to be weakly correlated with greater usability, with R2 ranging from 0 to .396. The exception to this was features related to the Reinforcement domain, which were correlated with less usability. Comparing the apps with the USDA reference for a 3-day diet, the average differences were 1.4% for calories, 1.0% for carbohydrates, 10.4% for protein, and -6.5% for fat.

Conclusions: Almost all reviewed diet-tracking apps scored well with respect to usability, used a variety of behavior change constructs, and accurately coded calories and carbohydrates, allowing them to play a potential role in dietary intervention studies.

Keywords: behavior and behavior mechanisms; diet; nutrition assessment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Behavior Therapy / instrumentation
  • Behavior Therapy / methods*
  • Diet Therapy / standards*
  • Diet Therapy / statistics & numerical data
  • Energy Intake
  • Humans
  • Mobile Applications / standards*
  • Mobile Applications / statistics & numerical data
  • Nutrients / administration & dosage
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States
  • United States Department of Agriculture / organization & administration
  • United States Department of Agriculture / statistics & numerical data