Yesterday, at the American Heart Association’s 2016 Scientific Sessions conference, researchers from the George Washington University’s School of Medicine presented the findings of a study that determined that “healthy” eating apps—those that allow you to track exactly what you consume and berate you when you eat, say, pizza—don’t comply with "evidence-based scientific guidelines."
If you're wondering what those precise guidelines are, the methodology involved researchers picking 32 health and fitness apps featured on the Google Play and iTunes stores and mapping them against the U.S. Government’s 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines rather exhaustively detail what existing eating patterns across the country are, the manner in which they need to shift, and how community-wide efforts can aid Americans in achieving the goals of eating more mindfully.
The online summary of the study declines to name which apps, exactly, researchers chose to hone in on. Though I don't have any of these fitness apps myself, I've gleaned anecdotally that the Weight Watchers app and MyFitnessPal are especially popular, and people lean on these apps to keep abreast of their own eating and exercise rhythms. These apps convene around a shared purpose of enforcing more conscious eating habits, giving dietary upkeep a sense of urgency. In addition to the two aforementioned, peruse the App Store and you'll find DietController, Perfect Diet Tracker and iFoodFit are among some of the more popular offerings; the Google Play store offers Lose It! and Calorie Counter.
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Among the study's findings were that 72% of the apps surveyed (that's roughly 23) did, in fact, include the five tenets of healthy eating enshrined by the Dietary Guidelines: establishing "healthy eating patterns" (which includes limiting consumption of saturated and trans fats, sugars, and sodium), maintaining an appropriate calorie limit, consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages, having a variety of food and beverages, and engaging in community outreach and social support. The last of those, per the USDA, is stressed in the final chapter of the Dietary Guidelines, which expounds upon how engaged community members can encourage healthy eating through participating in food banks, community gardens, and co-ops.
But the bad news was a bit more damning: 75% (24) of the chosen apps failed to address the recommended daily amounts of each food group (which ranged from vegetables to fruits to grains to dairy to protein), while 84% (roughly 26) were insufficient in addressing recommended daily intake of such food subgroups as dark-green vegetables or whole grains.
Based on their findings, researchers warned that it's "important that application developers address this information gap so as to safely and effectively achieve the applications' stated goals."
Yet there's of course some risk inherent in deploying these Dietary Guidelines as an unassailable metric: They've attracted sharp criticism for their susceptibility to outside influences of the food and agricultural industries. This loophole wasn't addressed in the online documentation of the study. Being beholden to such interests creates some limitations—these guidelines can only go so far in providing a useful standard for the study's aims. But perhaps it's the best we've got for now.
Do you use any healthy eating apps? What's your experience been like? Let us know in the comments!
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.