Weight Loss Apps Are Forcing Industry To Embrace Digital Alternatives The popularity of weight loss apps, especially among younger people, has forced the traditional weight loss programs to revamp their models to include online, on-demand support.
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My New Diet Is An App: Weight Loss Goes Digital

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My New Diet Is An App: Weight Loss Goes Digital

My New Diet Is An App: Weight Loss Goes Digital

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Our phones help us do so many things. And you can add one more thing to that list - losing weight. Health apps are gaining popularity, and that's forcing older weight loss companies to adapt, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Like many consumers these days, Jessica Holloway-Haytcher uses words like mindful and wellness when talking about weight loss.

JESSICA HOLLOWAY-HAYTCHER: In our household, diet is, like, a four-letter word. We don't use it. It's about a lifestyle change. It's about trying to figure out what is the healthy way for us to live.

NOGUCHI: Holloway-Haytcher owns a staffing firm in Kennewick, Wash. Two years ago, she tried diet shakes and supplements. She hated them.

HOLLOWAY-HAYTCHER: Even though they say they have a lot of flavor, all I taste is salt.

NOGUCHI: She also hired a personal trainer, but his schedule never matched hers. She spent $600 a month and wasn't able to keep the weight off.

Now Holloway-Haytcher uses an app called Noom. She says it's taught her new habits. She's shed over 30 pounds by preparing healthy meals in advance or focusing on conversation to slow her eating. The app - Noom is an NPR sponsor - helps her track meals, exercise and keep in touch with an online coach.

She says sometimes it even feels like the app knows what she's thinking.

HOLLOWAY-HAYTCHER: It's kind of funny how, like, I'll open the app one day, and it'll be exactly what I'm struggling with is what they're talking about. Like, I hit a plateau, so 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.

NOGUCHI: John LaRosa is president of Marketdata, which tracks the $4 billion U.S. weight loss industry. He says apps like MyFitnessPal, Fitbit and Fooducate appeal to do-it-yourselfers who make up 80 percent of people trying to lose weight. He says the downside of apps is that users often tire of them just as they do gym memberships. But they're also cheaper than most programs. And LaRosa says they appeal to the younger demographic that traditional chains have struggled to attract.

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

NOGUCHI: Nutrisystem, which was acquired by Tivity Health last year, revamped its digital strategy. Tivity President Dawn Zier says this is why.

DAWN ZIER: The younger generation is all about being on demand. 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.

NOGUCHI: Weight Watchers also overhauled its brand. Debra Benovitz is senior vice president for the company, which last year changed his name to WW.

DEBRA BENOVITZ: Three years ago, millennials told us that this was my grandmother's brand.

NOGUCHI: The 56-year-old company shifted gears. It still champions support groups at its retail locations. Those physical stores made it and Jenny Craig popular in the 1980s and are its biggest difference from the digital upstarts.

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

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

NOGUCHI: And that has broad appeal. Thirty-four-year-old Favin Gebremariam uses WW's app along with her mom. They chat daily about weight and exchange photos with other members.

FAVIN GEBREMARIAM: And the interactions - they happen all day. You get feedback, and you get congratulations or you get support. We want to track our food, and we want to, you know, track out activity and check in on our friends. And that's happening on the phone. And so I think that that's been a crucial element to my success, for sure.

NOGUCHI: Success Gebremariam measures in lower weight and higher self-esteem.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

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