Leveraging Smartphone Applications for Health

Leveraging Smartphone Applications for Health

Despite the incredible potential and recent emergence of smartphone apps meant to promote user health, very few have actually encouraged sustainable behavioral change. “SmartAPPetite” addresses common challenges to apps by incorporating validated behavior change techniques and principles from behavioral economics to “nudge” users into healthy dietary habits.


An emphasis of public health researchers is decreasing nutritional inequity stemming from geographic, educational, economic, and behavioral constraints. SmartAPPetite combats these barriers through a direct “push notification” method that delivers specialized food messaging to help both participants and local food vendors.  These “info chains” are delivered through healthy eating tips, recipes, and local food vendor coupons/spotlights. All messaging is carefully designed to be both instructional and encouraging to participants, and is linked to recipes to encourage participants to act on their new knowledge.

An inherent problem to health promotion is catering to a wide audience. Researchers addressed differences through creating messaging appropriate to self-reported food literacy. The messages themselves are composed of sub-160 characters along with links for further information. The research team also worked with local food vendors to create vendor “spotlights,” whereby participants would receive messaging about featured/discounted healthy foods when near a relevant vendor.


Whereas most smartphone applications for health have single-tiered interventions, a unique component of the app is its holistic approach to health. The app to addresses the concern that “health promotion approaches to changing behavior have focused on giving information and largely ignored the role of motivational, social, and environmental factors which predispose people to making such suboptimal choices.” Message chains are also hypothesized to be more effective because they link information desired by consumers and reinforce healthy behaviors through persistent messaging.

Given issues of inferring causality in quasi-experimental study designs, the goal of this research was to gain further information on how we can leverage smartphone applications for health purposes. Despite that overall goal, it was significant that an analysis of the 123 follow-up surveys revealed that 80% of participants believed they had benefitted from the study in some way, while 46% believed the messaging had changed their food purchasing, eating habits, food knowledge, and/or health. As the researchers stated, “SmartAPPetite was effective at creating a sense of improved awareness and consumption of healthy foods, as well as drawing people to local food vendors with greater frequency. This work serves as a storehouse of methods and best practices for multidimensional local food-based smartphone interventions aimed at improving the ‘triple bottom line’ of health, economy, and environment.” A future application of this research involves moving from individual behavioral change to increasing profitability and job opportunities in the local food economy. This will likely involve a system that constantly updates vendor information in order to compile data on an in-house website.



Gilliland, Jason, Richard Sadler, Andrew Clark, Colleen O’Connor, Malgorzata Milczarek, and Sean Doherty. “Using a Smartphone Application to Promote Healthy Dietary Behaviours and Local Food Consumption.”BioMed Research International 2015 (2015): 1-11. Web.


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