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Download With Care: Fitness Apps May Not Be Science-based

FILE - A woman uses an Android smartphone in Brussels, April 20, 2016.
FILE - A woman uses an Android smartphone in Brussels, April 20, 2016.

You might want to do a little research on that fitness app you just downloaded.

It might look snappy and authoritative, but it's possible there isn't a bit of science to back up any of the claims it makes about getting you slim and fit, and that could be dangerous. Out of thousands of apps that promise to help you lose weight, only 17 were actually certified or developed by a health organization or university.

Clearly the world has a weight problem. The World Health Organization says 39 percent of us are overweight, and 13 percent are obese.

Getting Healthy By Phone

Over and over, science tells us that losing weight is about eating less, and exercising more. But for many people, going to a gym or starting a weight loss regimen isn't an option.

However, it's easy to download all kinds of meal plans or weight loss programs from any app store. In fact, according to new research from a team of European scientists, there are currently more than 3,000 mobile apps that pop up in response to the key words ''weight', 'weight-management', and 'calorie.'

When the team from Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and the University of Glasgow in Scotland studied the apps, they found the content focused mainly on body weight, exercise and calorie intake.

The most popular apps are 'fitbit', 'my fitness pal' and 'Noom weight loss coach.'

Is All Information Good Information?

In presenting their work at the European Obesity Summit being held this week in Sweden, lead researcher Charoula Nikolaou, from Catholic University expressed concern about "the quality of the information provided in each app."

He told VOA, "for example, there are apps advising on extreme diets like 'smoothie diet' or very high protein, low carbohydrate diets" which may not be advisable for everyone.

The other concern, he told VOA, is that "They might be downloaded by an adult but can also be downloaded by a child or a teenager or a vulnerable adult, where following the wrong advice would have more detrimental effects."

But Nikolaou also provided a list of some of the apps that come with the backing of health experts. The Noom weight loss app, he says, was developed by a team of health care professionals. He also pointed out the 'Sugar Smart' and the 'Smart Recipes' apps.

A few others that come with some scientific backing are "eatracker,' 'eatipster,' and 'cookmaster developed by the Dietetic Association of Canada.'

We asked if there was any push to regulate the apps, but Nikolaou said so far he didn't see much push, but he did point to an intriguing website called It's run by "a team of health care professionals that look into developing apps that could be prescribed and would be password protected."

Doctor could use the site to prescribe an app that they think passes muster, just like they write a prescription for medicine.

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    Kevin Enochs

    Kevin Enochs is an award-winning content creator who has been explaining the intricacies of the natural world to television and online audiences for over 20 years.

    He perfected his craft working for CNN and the National Geographic Channel before heading to the Voice of America in 2012.