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My New Diet Is An App: Weight Loss Goes Digital

Jessica Holloway-Haytcher uses an app that helps her track meals, exercise and keep in touch with an online coach.
Mark Rogers Photography
Jessica Holloway-Haytcher uses an app that helps her track meals, exercise and keep in touch with an online coach.

As they have with so many other industries, apps are shaking up the weight loss business, including big-name companies like Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers. And it's basically because more consumers feel the way Jessica Holloway-Haytcher does.

A couple years ago, she tried diet shakes and supplements. She hated them. She also hired a former NFL player turned personal trainer — but his schedule never matched hers.

She spent $600 a month for programs that weren't sustainable. She says she couldn't keep up with the "astronomical" costs.

Now Holloway-Haytcher uses an app called Noom. (Noom is an NPR sponsor.) She has shed over 30 pounds so far, by changing her habits. She now prepares healthy meals in the morning, so she's not ravenous at night; she focuses on conversation to slow her eating.

The app also helps her track meals, exercise and keep in touch with an online coach. It's always with her, and works with her busy schedule as the owner of a staffing firm in Kennewick, Wash. Sometimes, it even feels as though the app knows what she is thinking.

"It's kind of funny how I'll open the app one day, and it'll be exactly what I'm struggling with is what they're talking about," Holloway-Haytcher says. Like when she stopped losing weight, and got discouraged. "They talked about how that can affect you and how to work through it and then how to work through the negative self-talk that you have," she says.

When it comes to weight loss, 80 percent of people try to do it on their own, says John LaRosa, president of Marketdata, which tracks the $4 billion commercial U.S. weight loss industry. (The overall market — including diet foods and soft drinks, health clubs, weight loss surgery and diet pharmaceuticals — totals about $72 billion.) He says apps like MyFitnessPal, Fitbit and Fooducate appeal to those consumers.

LaRosa says apps have a downside: Users often tire of them, just as they do gym memberships. But the apps are also cheaper than most commercial programs, and they appeal to the younger demographic that traditional chains have struggled to attract.

"The average age of a customer of Jenny Craig, or Nutrisystem or Weight Watchers is about 48, and it's probably going up," LaRosa says. "It's going to be a shrinking market if they just cater to the baby boomers."

That explains why Nutrisystem, which was acquired by Tivity Health last year, revamped its digital strategy. Tivity President Dawn Zier says that included advertising more on social media and redesigning its NuMi app.

"The younger generation is all about being on demand," she says. "[They will say] 'I want the food when I want it; I want to talk to a counselor when I actually have an issue, which may be 10 o'clock on Saturday night.' "

Weight Watchers also overhauled its brand last year, changing its name to WW.

"Three years ago, millennials told us that this was my grandmother's brand," says Debra Benovitz, a senior vice president for WW.

The 56-year-old company shifted gears. It still champions support groups at its retail locations, a concept that made it and Jenny Craig popular in the 1980s. Having physical stores is still WW's biggest difference from upstarts that are exclusively digital.

Benovitz says WW's own app serves to keep customers in touch between, or instead of, those in-person meetings.

"It used to be that we hesitated to even show the app in our commercials, and that has so shifted," she says. "I think the future is being a really strong science-based technology partner in the health and wellness space."

That trend may have started with the younger generation, but has spread beyond it. Favin Gebremariam, 34, of Boston uses WW's app, as does her mother. They chat daily about their weight and exchange photos with other members.

The interactions occur throughout the day, which helps keep Gebremariam on track, she says.

"You get feedback and you get congratulations, or you get support," all of which keep her motivated to stick with the program, she says. Gebremariam also still considers the in-person workshops essential.

But the app fills in the gaps. "We want to track our food and we want to track our activity and check in on our friends, and that's happening on the phone," Gebremariam says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.