Health Column: Can your phone keep you healthy?

They’re inexpensive — often free — and quite literally in the palm of your hand. But can smartphone apps really help you lose weight and get in shape?

With hundreds of apps now available for iPhone and Android devices, the options are seemingly endless when it comes to picking one designed to track all the different elements that go into being healthy. 

And according to a recent study, more than 40 million smartphone owners have already used at least one of them.

Registered dietitian and nutritionist Lara McNeil of East End Nutrition in Riverhead said she encourages patients to use apps, because they encourage people to use tried-and-true weight loss approaches, like tracking daily calorie intake.

“I am a big fan of food logging,” she said. “It is something that I do with my patients for monitoring. When they come in, I can say, ‘Pull up your food log,’ and we can go through it.”

There are several apps that allow users to look up the number of calories they should consume per day to drop pounds, the amount of calories in the foods they eat and the amount of exercise they need to burn the calories off.

Apps can help you reach your fitness goals as well. In fact, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that smartphone apps are just as accurate as wearable devices such as pedometers when it comes to tracking your activity.

Wellness apps, however, are not a magic bullet.

“I think apps can be very, very helpful and are a great resource … but they’re not the be all, end all,” said registered dietician Deborah Berman, president and CEO of The Berman Group for Wellness and Nutrition in Riverhead. “Some apps just give you a number — and you need to know how to use that information for it to work. For example, you’re given a certain amount of calories, but if you’re racking them up with Skittles, that is not healthy.”

And as a recent American Journal of Preventive Medicine study points out, one major problem is that smartphone apps don’t help people modify their behavior enough to lead to successful long-term weight loss.

For instance, an app cannot teach you how to stop overeating.

“Some people aren’t aware of mindless or emotional eating,” Ms. Berman said. “It’s important to understand and have a healthy relationship with food. Apps don’t address that.”

At the end of the day, experts agree apps can be a great resource for weight loss if you’re committed to achieving your fitness and nutrition goals.

“Apps work really well as an awareness tool,” Ms. McNeil said. “The tool only works if you do.”

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