In the past, only celebrities and the super wealthy could afford a personal trainer, private chef and inspirational guru. Now the rest of us can have diet coaches in our back pockets—literally. Otherwise known as health and fitness apps, these secret weapons are hot: There was a 19 percent increase in new apps in the last year alone, according to the mobile analytics platform Localytics.
"Newer apps are far more engaging, motivating and user-friendly than the prior generation," noted Bonnie Spring, director of the Center for Behavior and Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. And they work. Experts say that dieters who include apps in their weight-loss efforts score greater success than those who don't. We asked three Health readers to each test a leading digital diet and report back. See how the tools helped them and what they can do for you.
1. The program: Sparkpeople.com
Tester: Amanda Tirado; 36; teacher
Starting stats: 5'3"; 162 lb.
Pounds lost: 11
Her diet history
"I was always able to stay at a healthy weight by working out regularly. But with my family and work obligations, it's more difficult to find time to exercise and eat properly."
How it works
The SparkPeople Diet and Fitness tracker app provides a full weekly meal plan and allows you to record what you eat, along with your physical activity. You get SparkPoints for following healthy habits, such as eating fruits and veggies. Bonus: The companion site offers meal plans, workout videos and message boards, which make it easy to share tips and find social support.
"The best thing is the menu with a grocery list, so everything is planned out. There's a nice variety of fresh food on the menu—not like the processed frozen meals I sometimes eat—and it's all easy to prepare. The 10- to 15-minute workouts are convenient: I can sneak in a kickboxing session before dinner. I also love the app's GPS tracker, which I use for walks and runs."
"The app was a little glitchy: Sometimes when I logged on, I got a message that said I hadn't entered any food that day, even when I had, and my daily meal plans were missing! While I was able to stick to one or two SparkPeople meals a day, it's tough to stay on target when your partner isn't following your plan."
"This is one of the most extensive programs for diet and exercise tools," said Sherry Pagoto, associate professor of medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. "The social support is a crucial way to get motivated." Social-media sharing can also be inspiring; in one study, dieters who tweeted about their weight-loss efforts were more successful than those who didn't. Every 10 tweets corresponded with a roughly 0.5 percent loss of body weight.
2. The program: Weight Watchers Online
Tester: Lyla Naseem Gleason; 45; blogger
Starting stats: 5'2"; 142 lb.
Pounds lost: 7
Cost: Starts at $19 per month; sign-up fee may apply (includes access to all online features and mobile apps)
Her diet history
"Ten years ago, I lost 10 pounds on Weight Watchers, which I regained (and more!) postbaby. I was wary of joining again because I didn't have time for the weekly meetings."
How it works
It assigns every food a numeric value based on its protein, carbohydrate, fat and fiber content. Apps include a food and activity tracker, cheat sheets to help decode menus and find diet-friendly options, a bar code scanner to use in grocery stores to calculate products' point values and a database of more than 4,000 recipes and 266,000 foods.
"It's a cinch to keep track of what I eat—and not overdo it. Using the scanner has saved me from buying overly fattening stuff. The Cheat Sheets app has been especially great. On a family road trip, I used it to figure out a healthy choice when we stopped at KFC—grilled chicken breast and corn!"
"The scanner didn't always recognize every product I tried. So if I wanted to buy a certain kind of yogurt, say, it may not have had all the flavors. The same was true for exercise. While it gave activity points for basics like running and swimming, sometimes I had to break down a workout. For example, I entered my sculpt class as 20 minutes of weight lifting and 20 minutes of aerobics."
"We find the most success occurs when people use these apps as an adjunct to a larger weight-loss program that includes ongoing nutritional counseling and support," said Dr. Robert Kushner, professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Case in point: In one study, dieters with access to Weight Watchers mobile apps, online tools and weekly meetings lost nearly 9 more pounds than those who went a DIY route.
3. The program: MyFitnessPal
Tester: Peggy Romano; 49; stay-at-home mom
Starting stats: 5'2"; 165 lb.
Pounds lost: 15
Her diet history
"I'd lost 30 pounds on a plan a year ago, but after six months I got busy, stopped and regained 15 pounds."
How it works
With nearly 4 million foods, MyFitnessPal has the largest database of any smartphone calorie counter—so there's no excuse not to check fat grams and calories. It also has calorie-burn info for hundreds of exercises. You can even ping friends in case of a diet emergency (oh no, nachos!) and post updates to social media.
"I love how it recalculates your daily calories when you input a workout. When I take a morning walk, it's like I'd never eaten breakfast—I'm automatically allowed 300 more calories! There are tons of foods in the app, too, which makes logging meals and snacks much easier. My favorite part: When you let the app know you're done exercising and eating for the day, you get a message: If you keep this up, you'll be X pounds lighter in five weeks. I find that so motivating."
"Overall, it's easy to use, but it wasn't always possible for me to log food and exercise. When I went on vacation, for example, it became too hard to keep up and I got off track."
"This app is easy to use and has such a large range of food," Pagoto said. "And since it's one of the most popular, I tend to recommend it to people because they are more likely to locate friends who are also using it, which helps keep them accountable." A 2013 Consumer Reports survey of 9,000-plus readers who had followed 13 weight-loss programs (including Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem) found that people reported the most satisfaction with MyFitnessPal. So it's a true BFF—Body Friend Forever.