The Weight-Loss App-ortunity

19 October 2018

Obesity is a ticking time bomb for the UK. But we knew that already. It seems that the deluge of education and information is doing nothing to stop the epidemic. According to the NHS, half the UK population is estimated to be obese by 2030.

It’s understandable that the Department of Health is trying to change people’s behaviour – it estimates that health problems associated with being overweight or obese cost the NHS more than £5 billion every year. It is also predicted that by 2035, diabetes, a major consequence of obesity, could cost the NHS £17 billion a year. But we knew that as well.  

So the hefty price tag isn’t putting us off either. And why can’t we have our cake and eat it too?  Surely all these associated health issues can just be addressed with medication – why say no to those tantalising treats today for the sake of something that may or may not happen until the distant future? 

Well unfortunately that isn’t the case. In fact, you aren’t running a risk of getting one or two health issues. Our excess affects the whole body, today. It causes wear and tear that saps our energy and cognitive ability, leading to the whole system breaking down. To put it another way, it’s ageing us prematurely, from the inside out.  And unfortunately medicine, our 20th century saviour, can’t address the issue - it can only support a system mid-breakdown. The problem is still there.

So there’s no getting away from it. The UK needs to address its expanding waistline. But it appears that giving people information, scare stories and trying to make them feel guilty about the impact their behaviour is having on public services just isn’t working. So what will?

To think about what will work, you need to understand the cause. Obesity is a complex behavioural issue linked to more than just a penchant for chocolate. It involves physical activity, sleep and stress. That’s why the last government wanted to move beyond education to one-on-one engagement with health trainers who were allocated to overweight individuals. Alas with the current epidemic numbers this isn’t logistically or financially possible. But they were on to something.

Changing the way we eat requires us to change our lifestyle – and this is behavioural. It requires us to break lifelong habits and form new ones. It requires us to constantly think and act in a way that does not feel natural. For that reason, it is not surprising that there has been a huge rise in the use of weight loss applications – smartphone “apps” that are always with us. It’s the evolution of the food diary.

And I believe that technology is the future albeit we aren’t there yet. In fact, in a Female First report on a recent Tesco Mobile survey 16% of Brits have never used their weight loss/fitness app more than once.

That’s not to say there aren’t a number of good apps out there. AXA PPP healthcare has reviewed many apps and its favourites are:

  • Change4Life Healthier Recipes: A colourful app by NHS Choices that provides over 100 calorie counted recipes, with a search function, vegetarian options, recipes grouped by meal (breakfast, lunch, evening meal and puddings) – and a handy meal mixer function
  • British Heart Foundation Recipe Finder: Really helpful if you are looking for some healthy recipe ideas. Recipes are conveniently grouped in a number of different ways – by main ingredient, by cuisine and by meal occasion  
  • MyFitnessPal: A comprehensive food and exercise tracker, MyFitnessPal recently came first for user satisfaction in a Consumer Reports magazine survey of 13 popular weight loss approaches in the US

However, in the future, I believe the apps that will yield success will be those that are even more aligned to behaviour. My predictions for these apps are:

  • They will sync with the individual’s mind-set of the moment – food consumption will need to be logged at the moment of intent  - not after it has been eaten
  • Psychologically designed apps will be launched, which support people to adopt and reinforce new behaviours
  • They will draw on a broader range of behaviours – for example, the quality of our sleep has a big impact on what and how we eat
  • There will be live calorie and fat trackers, which will be updated prior to consumption so that the user can see where they fare, compared with suggested daily amounts
  • They will use image recognition to quickly link food to its nutritional and calorific value (early efforts exist but improvements will be made)
  • For every clinically credible behavioural app there will be a dozen making big claims on little data – consumers will have to be careful.
  • They will be part of larger services, rather than a standalone app to manage the complexity of the behaviour change needed. After all there is more to our phones than screens and more to life than phones.

To really change and then reinforce a behavioural change, people need to feel supported. Now it may not be feasible for everyone to get a personal trainer but I do believe that there will come a time when apps become much more sophisticated – and will then become the weight-loss partner of choice to those who want to change.

By moving away from a broadcast of information, to behavioural engagement, we may very well see the tide turn in the UK’s obesity epidemic.