Fighting fat with smartphone apps

A Toronto-area startup is feeding the growing consumer hunger for smaller waistlines by launching a mobile weight loss app.

Vaughan, Ont.-based Newtopia Inc. will launch its Newtopia Mobile app in mid-October to run on all smartphone operating systems. It will sport a built-in accelerometer (a more sophisticated version of a pedometer with more accurate motion sensors) so users can track their exercise. It will also allow users to have real-time video chats with Newtopia weight loss consultants. And it will feature a barcode scan program tailored to each user’s diet and fitness plan by Newtopia.

“The biggest thing is (the) barcoding,” says Gary Durbach, chief technology officer at Newtopia. “Newtopia already creates a nutrition plan for you. The mobile app allows you to convert that into a shopping list and take it into Loblaws or wherever and actually scan barcodes with your camera (phone) to know what products to buy and it will automatically track them.”

The app can then send users recipes designed specifically for the foods they’ve bought, Durbach adds.

There are plenty of other mobile apps out there already that provide motivational messaging or tips for weight loss. The Weight Watchers mobile app allows clients to track the points value of foods, find recipes, and locate Weight Watchers meetings near them. And thousands of Web sites offer free diet and fitness information.

But Newtopia sells clients on the idea that it can give each one a multi-pronged plan designed just for them. Since the company’s weight loss Web portal opened about 18 months ago, it’s been offering clients the following online services either separately or as a package: an initial assessment to team them up with consultants who match their personality type, eating habits and fitness level; online coaching sessions; DNA testing (based on a saliva sample) to assess clients for what Newtopia calls “genetic tendencies related to weight loss”; and nutritional supplements designed for each client based on their DNA results.

“It’s the difference between generic and personalized information,” says Newtopia founder and CEO Jeff Ruby. “We really want to get to know each individual in terms of personality and how they deal with pressure and relationships. It needs to be totally tailored to the individual. We don’t think you can get that from pre-plugged (apps) out there.”

The mobile app merely adds on-the-go convenience to most of the services Newtopia is already offering customers on its Web site.

“The access to data and to one’s coach is even more readily available than having to log in through the Web based portal. So the thinking and the goal is to redefine the way people access services and care,” Ruby says.

Although total costs vary from client to client depending on how many Newtopia services they buy, it’s $179 for a basic starter service including a genetic assessment, one month of personalized nutritional supplements and an individualized Web portal weight loss plan. Additional supplements are $79 per month, while coaching is sold in bundles starting at six sessions for $99. Newtopia plans to launch a free trial portion of the Web portal services providing all the tracking tools for free but still charging fees for the personalized plan, products and coaching support.

Can mobile technologies really help you shed pounds or is this just a passing fad that will burn out after an initial buzz period like the Atkins diet? Newtopia itself claims that of the 1,000 or so clients who’ve used its services so far, about 80 per cent have achieved their weight loss goal and maintained it for 12 months. When other research on weight loss and wireless help is considered, however, the jury’s still out.

Last month the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise published findings from a University of Pittsburgh study that followed 189 overweight adults for six months. Those who received daily motivational texts on their PDAs were more likely to stay with an exercise program than participants who received no such messages.

A 2008 study at the University of North Carolina found that 82 percent of kids who sent researchers daily text message updates on their exercise and diet habits (and received motivational tips from the researchers in return) stuck to weight management plans, versus only 39 percent who merely logged their progress on paper.

Dr. Gary Goldfield of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute tried to explore whether a Web portal and email support program would help overweight kids aged eight to 12 get healthier, but about 70 per cent of the families dropped out of the study. The top reason for dropping out was a desire for face-to-face rapport instead of virtual support, followed by the annoyance of having to log in online to participate, Goldfield says, adding that a mobile app may have overcome the latter participation barrier.

Still, other studies have shown Web programs and mobile apps to be more effective tools for preventing obesity relapse than in meeting initial weight loss targets, Goldfield says.

“I think there is potential. There are a lot of people with smartphones now,” Goldfield says. “In terms of technology, we haven’t done enough clinical trials (to see) if it’s effective or who it’s most effective for.”

Christine WongChristine Wong is a Staff Writer at Follow her on Twitter, and join in the conversation on the IT Business Facebook Page.

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