There’s an App for That!

Using your Smartphone to Improve Your Diet, Exercise and Diabetes Management

Your doctor tells you to watch what you eat, to lose weight, to exercise more. If you are a person with diabetes, your doctor tells you to check your blood sugar, take your pills or insulin injections and monitor your diet. But if you are like most people, you have a busy life and cannot always keep track of these things by yourself.

Luckily, nowadays you no longer have to, as smartphone technology has advanced enough to allow our phones to be useful tools in weight loss and diabetes management. Over 104 million people in the U.S. are smartphone users, and over 40 percent of smartphone users have downloaded a smartphone application (app). Recent behavioral science and medical research has shown that eHealth, or using information and communication technology such as computers, mobile phones, patient monitors, etc., for health services and information, can help patients improve weight loss and diabetes control. This expanding industry offers huge promise to both doctors and patients by providing tools to manage the day-to-day challenges of weight loss and diabetes management. However, reviews and rating of apps can be very biased and unreliable. So how can a person decide which app to use?

Doctors are spending more and more effort to try to answer this question. A 2011 study by University Hospital of North Norway system engineer and research fellow Chomutare and colleagues reviewed over 100 then-current applications for weight loss and diabetes management and found that though many were comprehensive, very few of these applications included educational tools for patients. In a review of smartphone applications for diabetes management in 2012, Demodowich and colleagues found only three out of 42 applications for Android™ phones were at all comprehensive enough to be recommended for patient use in diabetes management.

Because this industry is changing by the hour, it is hard for doctors to adequately study the newest and latest applications, so most recommendations are made based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. With that disclaimer in mind, I can recommend the following apps, with the understanding that by the time this article is printed, there may be something even better out there!

Apps for Weight Loss

My favorite weight loss apps are MyFitnessPal and LoseIt!, which are both available for Android phones and iPhone® operating systems. The number one advantage of these apps is that they are free to download, so anyone can get them. Both of these applications allow you to put in your current weight, your goal weight and the rate at which you want to lose your weight. You are then given a recommended amount of calorie intake for the day. You can log in every meal or snack you eat and label it as well. Both apps have extensive databases of every food you can think of, including meals offered at popular chain restaurants, and you can even scan in foods using barcodes from packaging! If you don’t find the food you are looking for, you can add it into the database or just enter the calorie amount that you have eaten.

These applications also allow you to record exercise activity. You can choose from a variety of exercise activities from “barbell lifting” to “badminton, competitive” and “badminton, social,” and the programs will tally the amount of calories burned for the day. Both apps offer a social media outlet, so you can post your progress to other users, and they link with Facebook and Twitter as well. They both have an associated website you can visit to track your progress and receive feedback. MyFitnessPal is free, but with LoseIt! you can add even more features by purchasing them.

The biggest difference between these applications is layout: MyFitnessPal is based on more free-text searching, whereas LoseIt! has items listed more in categories. MyFitnessPal also allows you to make notes of your food choices in a “diary” format as well. Which one will you like better? My advice would be to download both, try them out and see what you prefer. The only thing you have to lose is the weight!

Apps for Diabetes Management

In my personal opinion, there is yet to be a 100 percent comprehensive diabetes management app, but there are plenty of good ones, some free and some more costly. For the iPhone, the three top apps I can recommend are Track 3 Diabetes Planner, Diabetes App and Glucose Buddy. For Android phones, I would recommend Track 3 Diabetes Planner, Glucool Diabetes or OnTrack Diabetes apps.

Diabetes App for iPhone has a nice layout and allows for glucose and weight tracking, medication tracking, activity and carbohydrate log, and a monthly calendar. You can also link your account to Twitter if you like. It comes in a “lite” version (free) and a full version ($6.99), which offers additional features of blood pressure tracking, unlimited number of logs, charting and emailing of your data.

Glucose Buddy for the iPhone is also a very nice application that allows you to track glucose, medications and sync with an online website. This application also allows you to share on Twitter and Facebook. You need to buy add-ons in order to track weight and blood pressure though, and there is also a Glucose Buddy Pro version ($6.99) that is more comprehensive.

Glucool Diabetes Premium for Android phones ($4.99) also has a nice layout with complete data tracking of blood glucose, weight and blood pressure. You can create reports to email to doctors in personalized graphing forms. There is also an insulin calculator and an alarm system to remind about medications.

OnTrack Diabetes for Android phones is one of the nicer free apps, with great tracking and sharing capabilities. It has an easy-to-use interface, and you can also export data into Excel spreadsheets. It does not have an insulin calculator or the extensive food database other apps have, but for a free version is a nice option.

One of my favorite apps for diabetes management is Track 3 Diabetes Planner, which is available for both Android and iPhone users ($5.99). To me, this app is the most comprehensive, as it allows for glucose and medication tracking, including an insulin calculator based on carbohydrate ratios. In addition, it has a great food and exercise database, as well as great graphing features to track your blood sugar and diet. You can also export data through email as well. There is a lite version (free), but it does not include the nutrition database or the insulin calculator, so for those patients who could use those elements, I think it is worth the purchase.

So Many Options …

The above recommendations just scratch the service of what is out there in the world of smartphone applications for weight loss and diabetes management. As the technology becomes even more advanced, and as physicians investigate even more into what elements are best to include in these apps, the number of tools available to patients will increase and improve even further. This is all good news, as allowing people to keep track of their well-being is one of the most important elements for improving their health.

Dr. Gillian Boyd-Woschinko is an Endocrinology Fellow at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, NY. She attended medical school at Jefferson Medical College and trained in internal medicine at New York Hospital-Weill Cornell in New York, NY. She is board certified in internal medicine. She spoke at the 2012 Endocrine Society national conference in Houston, TX on using mobile health in diabetes management and is currently conducting research on the use of smart phone applications for improving diabetic outcomes.