How Nutrition Apps Are Misguiding Users

The regimens they recommend often leave out key information

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Nov 18, 2016 at 9:39 AM ET

People trying to improve their diet today are often helpless without an app, which is unfortunate, because most nutrition apps are inadequate, according to a new analysis.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an update to its dietary guidelines in early 2016, Tania Dhawan was a third-year medical student at George Washington University working to investigate the effects of diet on heart health. Dhawan discovered that no one was investigating whether smartphone apps designed to help users maintain a balanced diet were incorporating the evidence-based guidelines.

For the analysis, presented Sunday at the conference of the American Heart Association in New Orleans, Dhawan and her collaborators looked at 32 free apps from the “featured” sections in the Android and Apple app stores. To evaluate these apps, the researchers created an index based on five components such as whether they allowed users to track foods, not just calories and whether they informed users of the daily recommended limit of a particular nutrient and warned them if they were about to go over it.

Apps like Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker by MyFitnessPal ranked high on the researchers’ index. Others, such as Calorie Counter by FatSecret, Foodzy, and Calorie Counter by Everyday Health, fell short. Overall, three quarters of the apps received low scores because they didn’t recommend daily amounts of food groups like dairy or carbohydrates, and 84 percent didn’t get into subgroups like leafy greens or whole grains. She also discovered that Android has a wider selection of diet apps (probably because their “featured apps” section was bigger at the time), and the Apple versions tended to have more bugs.

Overall, the choice of diet and nutrition apps alone can be overwhelming—there are 400 apps to choose from, she says. Dhawan didn’t investigate whether the paid versions of these apps are any more helpful or specific, since most people choose the apps that are easiest to acquire.

The choice of the wrong app could put a person’s whole diet out of whack. “I think there is a potential to be misleading to the consumer,” Dhawan says.

She gives the example of a person seeking to lose weight with the help of a calorie counter that didn’t track food groups. He might think that he’s doing great because he’s not going over 1,800 calories per day. “But if you’re having a lot of fried foods, an app like that doesn’t really have the means to call you out on it,” Dhawan says. The dieter may increase his sodium level and not even know it, which could elevate his risk of heart disease.

Some patients of Dhawan’s, especially older ones, tend to follow directions very closely and probably wouldn’t notice if a nutrition app was leading them towards poor health.

If a person wants to change her diet and doesn’t know much about nutrition, Dhawan suggests that simply reading the USDA nutrition guidelines are a good place to start. Having more background knowledge can help users figure out if their free nutrition apps are really helping them maintain a balanced diet. Another good choice? Seek the advice of a doctor or nutritionist.

Dhawan and her collaborators hope to publish a full study of their analysis in early 2017.