How useful are online health apps?

Caviarlieri | Published September 21, 2022


With a steep current rise in non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases,
health consciousness is finding a crucial place in people’s minds and on priority lists. The general
recommendations to avoid chronic diseases are lifestyle suggestions encouraging healthy diets,
physical activity, and the reduction of tobacco use and alcohol consumption.


A critical challenge faced by health enthusiasts is checking their food intake, exercise pattern, sleep
quality and stress level.


The adoption of mobile phones has created an opportunity for assessing and improving nutrient intake
as they can be used for digitalizing dietary assessments and providing feedback. Hence there is a huge
demand for eHealth personalized guidance.


With the increase of mobile phones and tablets, there has been a rise in the number of software apps
aimed at improving nutrition and physical fitness. In the last few years, hundreds of nutrition-related
mobile apps have been launched and installed by millions of users.


Health devices have been developed with built-in capabilities to increase the accuracy of data
collection and decrease the time burden of the process and possible biases. The global positioning
system (GPS) has been used to measure PA. Cameras are used for image recognition to recognize
foods and estimate portion sizes. One of the main goals of nutrition intervention is to modify
unhealthy habits and there are available diet apps that combine health behaviour theories and
persuasive technology.


Due to a large number of nutrition-related apps, it is difficult to understand what these apps are
offering and how the apps compare with each other.


It is very important to analyse and get aware of the main features, scientific authenticity, and
technologies used by popular nutrition-related apps available in the online market. This will help
health followers to take correct advantage of the benefits of technology in improving their health
status and long-term quality of life.


What are nutrition apps?
These apps are categorized as “health and fitness” apps or “medical” apps in terms of their content.
Apps are self-contained programs for smartphones designed to fulfil a particular purpose. A mobile
app is a software application developed specifically for use on small, wireless computing devices, such
as smartphones and tablets, rather than desktop or laptop computers.


There has been a continuous expansion of mobile health (mHealth) in recent years and is a growing
area that holds the potential to deliver health-related behaviour change interventions. More than
100,000 apps are falling into the health, fitness, or medical categories. Smartphone users can
download applications or ‘apps’ to their devices.


They offer functions like “calorie counting” and keeping food diaries, used as supportive tools in
nutritional therapy. They are designed to bring the individual to a lifestyle change since they intend to
make users think about food choices by demonstrating food’s nutritional content. Besides that, the
main goals of these apps are providing feedback, goal-setting for healthy eating, healthy cooking, selfmonitoring of energy and nutrient intake, weight tracking, planning social support and change’ and
the choice of places to eat.


Benefits
• Sometime shows effectiveness in influencing eating habits positively
• Increases health documentation and helps in self-monitoring, individually tailored feedback,
and providing periodic summaries
• Can be used by both professionals, and customers and accessed by an unlimited group of
users
• Provide high customer reach potential and with greater effectiveness provide interventions
like goal setting and incorporate evidence-based behaviour change
• User-friendly, easy to operate, with available expert consultation, fast syncing with other
health and fitness apps, devices, and computers, allow easy review, better statistics sharing
and social networking support
• Include Internet-based online food databases and promote easy individual dietary data
collection and personal recording
• Have diverse features like diet, weight, and physical activity tracking and resource sections to
learn more about specific diseases
• Can be downloaded and updated manually or automatically from the app store


Disadvantages
Despite the recent viral growth of apps to promote positive lifestyle changes, there is a dearth of
research evidence regarding their effectiveness
• Offer improper search options and lack clear categorization
• The information provided in app stores is not very meaningful
• Limited indicators of information sources used, available evidence and authentic supportive
studies
• Mostly offered by persons and institutions with no related expertise but often with a
commercial interest
• Do not convey any scientifically sound content
• Lack of professional expertise and necessary clinical studies regarding the evaluation of apps
• Aimed at laypersons, which is why very few users critically examine the content conveyed by
the apps
• Poor app-search engine optimization, inadequate information to guide users’ decisions in
obtaining diet and nutrition apps from electronic store platforms
• limited evidence exists on evaluating the effectiveness of apps based on user satisfaction or
ratings
• Do not offer correct inclusion of unverified information and open questions regarding data
protection


Conclusion
In today’s technology and health inquisitive era, there is significant opportunity for improvement in
terms of personalized nutrition, which could include individualized feedback, diet plans, or nutrition
education.


The mobile apps for nutrition currently available are not supported by authentic appropriate
nutritional guidance as most of them are not based on reliable sources of information. A trustworthy
app could be highly appreciated if it seriously scientifically helps to bring lifetime positive lifestyle
behavioural change and the user is oriented by trained expert healthcare professionals continuously.
References

  1. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth 2016, 4(3); e85 -p. 1
  2. Public Health Nutrition,2018;22(7):1209–1214
  3. Healthc Inform Res. 2018;24(1):38-45