Why Diet Apps Fail

It’s actually not complicated at all. The reason most smartphone diet apps fail has nothing to do with the diet, and little to do with the app. A team of Drexel researchers is working on a solution to the real problem: getting people to stick to their diets.

If it proves to be effective, their new DietAlert app could add a smart layer of psychology to the weight loss app in your pocket.

Evan Forman, PhD, the Drexel psychology professor who leads the team, points out that there are many diets that are proven to help people lose weight when followed; these include most diets that involve consuming fewer calories, whether through reducing carbohydrates (such as the Atkins diet) or tallying calorie consumption as points (such as Weight Watchers), or other means. But it’s extremely common for people to eventually cheat and break the diet’s rules. If they don’t follow the diet, the diet doesn’t work. This happens frequently, regardless of whether people use an app, a book, or guidance from a physician on following their chosen diet.

“When smartphone apps came onto the scene, there was a lot of hype and hope,” Forman says. “Finally, as researchers we can use these tools to see how people follow diets and what goes wrong. But, in terms of helping people adhere to their diets, most apps are not doing more than a book can do—providing information about the diet and about the food you consumed.”

There are more than 10,000 weight loss apps available, Forman estimates. Many have clever features, and apps do have an advantage over other weight loss tools in that they make it easy and convenient for users to track what they eat and compile accurate information about their caloric intake. But, overall, Forman says that such apps’ features are not harnessing the full breadth of function that could proactively help people stick to their diets, in addition to providing information.

So Forman and his team are launching an effort to do better. The aim of their DietAlert project, coordinated by psychology graduate student Stephanie Goldstein, is to develop a standalone iPhone app that can add predictive power and psychological interventions in the moment when a user is about to lapse from their diet. It will track people’s individual patterns of behavior and offer in-the-moment strategies to avoid future lapses based on its informed predictions. For example, if you have a weakness for eating an extra helping on Taco Tuesday, or if you indulge too often in a confectionary coffee on your way to work when you’re tired later in the week, DietAlert will learn your pattern and alert you with psychological strategies to help avoid the lapse before it happens the next time.

In the first phase of their research and development, funded by an award from the Obesity Society and Weight Watchers, Forman, Goldstein and their team will ask test users to try an early version of their new app in conjunction with the Weight Watchers app, and provide feedback about their experiences. Test users will receive a free subscription to the Weight Watchers app for the duration of the study.

For more information about enrolling as a test user, visit the DietAlert information page or contact the team at dietalert@drexel.edu or 215.553.7111.

The team plans to use the initial round of feedback from these first test users to help shape a prototype DietAlert app for wider testing. Just last week, they were awarded competitive innovation funding from the University’s Drexel Ventures enterprise to support the next stages of development and commercialization if it proves successful. This Drexel Innovation Fund Award provides funds to develop promising Drexel technologies or services, as well as funds and mentoring to commercialize those technologies. The interdisciplinary team spans Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, LeBow College of Business and Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.

Ultimately, Forman anticipates that the predictive functions of DietAlert could either be integrated into an existing diet app, or DietAlert itself might be developed into its own full-featured dieting app.