Future Tense

Weight, Watched

Smartphone apps let us fixate on every aspect of our diet. Is that good for us?

iPhone and croissant
We’re all a little amnesic when it comes to food, and food-tracking smartphone apps aim to correct that.

Photo by Thinkstock

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Thursday, Future Tense will host an event on how technology affects obesity at the New America office in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

You’re probably overweight. More than 60 percent of Americans are—including the 26.2 percent who are obese—and that number is only climbing. By 2030, 42 percent of Americans are projected to be obese, a number that could reach 60 percent in some states. Fatness can no longer be measured as “heavier than average.” Fatness is average.

Not that most overweight people are resigned to their fate. More than 100 million Americans are currently on diets—each dieter will make an average of four to five attempts this year—and their efforts help the weight-loss industry pull in about $20 billion a year. But not all that money comes from Weight Watchers’ smoothies. Canny tech companies have begun developing apps that transfer traditional diet techniques to your smartphone. Need to count calories? Log exercise hours? Trick yourself into learning about healthy foods? There’s an app for that.

Need to be continually reminded exactly how much food you’ve already eaten? There’s an app for that, too.

This last app, as yet unnamed, was developed by British researchers to help dieters remember how much they’ve eaten by photographing their meals before and after they eat them. Users are then prompted to look at pictures of their past meals before consuming their next one. The doctors hope this will strengthen something they call “food memory.” The term is made up, but the phenomenon is not: Hunger involves both cognitive and physiological factors, meaning it’s largely dependent on memory. Studies suggest that if you remember how much you’ve already eaten, you’re less likely to eat more—not because you feel guilty, but because you feel fuller. In one such study, two amnesic patients were offered a new meal as soon as they ate, and forgot, about their previous one. Both remained hungry, meal after meal. The amnesiacs weren’t insatiably ravenous—their brains just overrode their stomachs in gauging hunger.

In a sense, we’re all a little amnesic when it comes to food. Most of us pay little attention to the amount we chow down, which means we end up hungrier, faster. If you’re distracted during mealtime, you’re likelier to eat more—and who isn’t distracted during mealtime? But with the app, you’ll remember how much you ate, whether you want to or not. And with your brain and your stomach in perfect synchronicity, the pounds will fly off.

Or so the app’s developers suggest. Not all researchers, however, see strong food memory as a silver bullet for obesity. Memory may play a major role in weight control, but so does self-esteem. And being constantly confronted with reminders of your meals might begin to drive would-be dieters to despair—and greater weight gain. According to Rebecca Puhl, the director of research at the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, a negative self-image can actually lead obese people to become more obese. When weight loss attempts are unsuccessful, obese people may get trapped in a cycle of shame and self-loathing, leading to a greater fixation on—and intake of—food. She believes a food memory app would only contribute to the trap, forcing obese people to stare at what they might perceive as a manifestation of their own failure, fostering a sense of hopelessness and, perhaps, a trip to the snack cabinet.

Luckily for the tech-savvy dieter, the food memory app is far from the only one on the market. Many diet apps relegate body weight to a relatively minor factor, focusing instead on exercise, fitness, and general health. Weight Watchers famously converts calories into points, turning dieting into a game. Perhaps the most popular calorie-counting app is Lose It, which helps users count calories then creates a weight-loss goal based on their average intake. Lose It doesn’t peddle a specific diet regimen or even a particular weight-loss strategy. It’s a high-tech form of a time-honored tradition: losing weight by eating less.

If Lose It is old-fashioned, though, it also has a thoroughly modern twist: social media. “Reducing,” as they used to call it, needn’t be a wholly solo venture; as long as there’s been a dieting industry, there’s also been a dieting support community. But dieters seeking community support no longer need stressful, Alcoholics Anonymous–like group meetings. Lose It, like many weight-loss apps, plugs users into a vast community of dieters all striving toward the same goal. Positive encouragement is a key to successful dieting, and these apps grant users near-instant access to it, letting them connect with friends and strangers to overcome diet stress and celebrate successes. Small non-food-related rewards, like badges for meeting weight-loss goals, also give users psychological motivation to continue to turn down that second doughnut.

This community support helps walk users through the darker moments of dieting as well. A single slip can often prompt a flood of shame and hopeless, prompting a person to give up altogether. With a built-in social network of fellow calorie-counters, however, a dieter need not let a brief blunder lead to a binge. Everyone who’s ever dieted has also messed up at some point; by relying on a community of supporters, a dieter can complain, commiserate, and, eventually, move on, without sliding back into overeating or discouragement.

Still, because weight and calories remain at the core of these apps, not all researchers are convinced that they’ll lead to lower weight and good health. Deborah Lupton, an expert on obesity stigma, believes responsible dieting should focus on nutrition rather than weight. An app that “focuses only on body weight,” she believes, “misses the point that body weight is not the only marker of health.” Instead, any dieting regimen should focus on nutrition and exercise, replacing the single-minded focus on pounds with a broader exploration of healthy lifestyles.

A number of weight-loss apps do let users log exercise hours along with calories, but few use workouts as the main metric of health. (Specifically fitness-oriented apps tend to be directed toward gym bunnies, not dieters.) Most, moreover, fail to strike a balance between caloric and nutritional content; a bowl of almonds may contain more calories than a fudge Popsicle, but it’s also far better for your body. These distinctions are difficult to log and track in an app: Setting and meeting a calorie limit is easy, but it’s far more challenging to monitor your daily intake of thiamine or gauge its effect on your overall health.

But dieting, for better or for worse, has always been more of an art than a science, and no app is likely to change that. Body image is subjective, ideal weight is highly personal, health is notoriously difficult to gauge, and fat may be virtually impossible to shed. If staring at pictures of your meals helps you lose weight, go for it—and if the mere mention of weight thrusts you into a cycle of shame, perhaps it’s best to forget about pounds and focus on being healthy at your current weight. Smartphones have changed the way we communicate, the way we navigate, even the way we think. But it’s far from certain that, in any fundamental way, they’ll truly change the way we diet.