Have you ever heard the saying “the future is now”? Well, it’s true. The world has gone digital (1), and more and more people are picking up their smartphones to better manage their health. With chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and lung disease accounting for over two-thirds of global deaths (2;3), the mobile health app market is keeping pace with the need to find ways to manage such diseases.
Tackling nutrition—through education, counselling by registered dietitians, or changing the foods we eat (1;4-7)—is a tried and true approach to chronic disease prevention (2;8) and care (1;4-7). But in practice, people with chronic diseases face many daily hurdles that interfere with their ability to stay on top of their diet (1;9).
Imagine that you’re an older adult living with heart disease. You’re scheduled to meet with a registered dietitian for nutritional counselling several times over the coming months. Each appointment will take 30-45 minutes, plus the one-hour bus ride that you must take to get there…and back. Amidst your busy schedule—and the bouts of dizziness and shortness of breath that come on at any time—you’re worried about your ability to keep these appointments.
Clearly, managing a chronic illness is difficult. Issues like time, resources, and access can quickly derail even the most effective management strategies (1;9). The good news? Living in the digital age means there are a number of dietary mobile apps available that put nutritional help at our fingertips (2). But, with these apps obtainable at the ‘click of a button’, we must ask—do they work, and…are they safe?
What the research tells us
A recent systematic review found that, in the short term, dietary mobile apps may help adults with chronic diseases lose weight, trim their waistline, and reduce their calorie consumption. The apps that led to these successful results allowed for self-monitoring—giving users the ability to track things like diet and exercise. Most of these apps also incorporated or were based on some form of behavioral change theory, and in some cases delivered counselling through the app.
While dietary mobile apps currently appear to hold some promise, the review’s authors did make note of something very important—that many of these apps haven’t undergone rigorous testing to evaluate their effectiveness and safety before becoming publicly available (2). Therefore, consumers are encouraged to do their own homework to find out which apps are backed by good quality evidence that they are both safe and effective. Speaking with a health care provider about plans to add new tools to one’s chronic disease management strategy is also recommended.