By Lindsey Zink, Executive Coordinator, Validic

It’s no secret: America has a weight problem. We’ve all heard the statistics. Roughly two-thirds of adults in America, and nearly 30 percent of children, are overweight or obese. So, it may come as no surprise that an estimated 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, resulting in an almost $70 billion weight loss industry.

This weight crisis – in conjunction with the increase in smartphone ownership – has resulted in the release of a multitude of nutrition apps. With about 120,000 health and fitness apps currently on the market, their prevalence and usage shows no sign of slowing down. According to an NYU Langone Medical Center study conducted in 2015, 58 percent of US smartphone users have downloaded a health-related app. Of those apps, fitness and nutrition were the most prevalent categories of health apps used.

Nutrition Apps of Today

One of the most common use cases for nutrition apps is tracking food intake, which research shows to be an effective means of weight loss management. In fact, the results from a Kaiser Permanente study suggest that keeping a food diary can double a person’s weight loss. Nutrition apps capitalize on this finding by encouraging their users to document the food and drinks they consume throughout the day. These apps create more awareness and hold you accountable for what you eat, in addition to helping you to learn more about your eating habits. By documenting every morsel you put in your mouth, you are inherently becoming more mindful about your eating behavior and habits.

It should be noted that people with obsessive personalities or with a predisposition or history of eating disorders should steer clear of these apps, as they can be triggering and cause people to become dangerously fixated on counting calories.

In addition to apps that serve as virtual food diaries, there are other nutrition apps available that take a more educational approach. HealthyOut, for example, helps people to identify nutritious options while dining out at restaurants, allowing users to filter based on their dietary goals/restrictions. Shopwell helps users make healthy choices at the grocery store by informing them of whether or not a specific food matches their personal dietary needs, just by scanning the barcode. These apps make nutrition information accessible in a way that it never was before and are creating a greater understanding of nutritional principles among a wider audience.

Nutrition Apps of Tomorrow

Nutrition apps have been helping people identify and shift their eating habits for years now. But what’s next? Two words: artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has already started to make its mark on the world of nutrition. In recent years, various machine-learning meal planners have begun popping up in the market. FitGenie, an iOS app billed as a “smart calorie counter,” applies machine learning algorithms to simplify nutrition planning for individuals aiming to reach a certain weight or fitness goal. Co-founder Keith Osayande explains that rather than serving as a simple calorie counter, this app takes a more holistic approach by taking “all aspects of dieting into account including body composition, adherence, weight change rate trends, hunger, fatigue, and a handful of other metrics.”

AVA is another app that harnesses AI’s power to analyze the types of meals that will help its users to manage their health. It screens for allergies and food sensitivities as well as stress, sleep, and physical activity to formulate personalized recipe recommendations and meal planning tools, as well as daily coaching and guidance.

Through this more holistic, comprehensive approach, leveraging AI enables nutrition apps to take a more personalized, customized strategy to meal planning and weight loss. After all, if losing weight was as simple as calories in vs. calories out, the obesity epidemic would, theoretically, be easy to solve.

The reality is that there is no one-size-fits-all meal plan that works for everyone. We all have different caloric and nutritional needs, different energy levels, and different relationships with food. Having a meal planning app that can take some (or all) of these factors into consideration can serve people in a more personalized way.

Artificial intelligence will only increase in value as a tool in the future of nutrition and meal planning. With the greater ability for program personalization that AI offers, improved adherence from app users will likely follow. AI can offer deeper insights into users’ experiences and changes in behavior, and then support them on their journey. And, in case you still aren’t convinced, Beyoncé is using it.

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