Need to count calories? Figure out a meal plan? There’s app for that. These days, for every problem, there seems to be a digital solution. For most of us, a personal dietician is an unaffordable luxury that’s rarely covered by health insurance. Enter: online nutritionists. Over the last few years, online nutrition programs have been popping up, offering menu design, diet strategizing and even an online trainer to help you plan your workout—all with the click of a mouse. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Sure, hiring a virtual nutritionist may save you money, but can they help you make long-lasting health changes?
Offering a huge range of experiences, from a simple calorie-counting, weight-loss app like MyFitnessPal to a personal diet coach integrated with online tools like Enthrive, the current market is expansive and accessible to many budgets. Some sites charge for services by the hour and others demand a monthly sum, and offerings vary from a team of nutritionists to one-on-one video chats. Programs like FitDay offer both free online programs such as diet journals and calorie trackers as well as paid services, charging up to $99 a month for unlimited online messaging with a personal RD.
It may be affordable to get coached by someone in cyber space, but it doesn’t compare to working face-to-face with another living, breathing human, according to Larry Kaskel, MD, Medical Director of Northwestern Wellness Center. “There is something about having a real ‘one-on-one’ relationship with another human being that transcends a virtual encounter,” he says. But, Kaskel acknowledges, “there is a paucity of data showing these apps are inferior or superior to the real thing.” Though the cost of an online nutritionist is likely a fraction of the whopping $75 to $150 an hour charged by an office visit, he believes it is the interpersonal relationship that really makes the difference.
Since evidence of whether online nutritional assistance works is, at best, anecdotal, potential customers should evaluate their own capacity to enforce lifestyle changes. Kaskel points out that tracking your behavior has short-term benefits that are often equally as short-lived. “It usually helps [subscribers] make changes in whatever they are tracking once they see it in cold hard data… but in my 25 years of seeing patients, very few sustain those changes and usually slip back into old habits and addictions.” Some employers have jumped on the bandwagon and started integrating wellness-tracking apps and gadgets like FitBits into their employees’ health insurance coverage. “For insurance companies, there are obvious huge benefits of decreased cost to their subscribers using online nutritionists, but the long-term effects are unknown,” says Kaskel.
Like many things in life, relationships are the key to success, and it may be no different when it comes to nutritionists. “All and all, it is the relationship that cures most conditions not the pill,” he says. Along the same lines, many health experts advocate working out with a partner or in a group for an extra boost of motivation. However, a 2012 Michigan State University study found that a virtual workout companion was also effective for getting women to work out longer. While an online nutritionist may be better than going it alone, you’re sure to get what you pay for in the end.