Two weekends ago, when I had friends over and served ice cream for dessert, I really, really didn’t want to tell Melissa. Same thing happened when I ate a serving size of potatoes usually reserved for Thanksgiving dinner (it wasn’t Thanksgiving). I knew what Melissa would say: Not enough greens. Also, size matters.
I don’t even know Melissa. I’ve never met her. But we text-message throughout the day, and she has a comment for every meal I eat.
I found Melissa, a certified dietician, through a mobile app called Rise. Rise is part of a growing trend around “personal coaching” apps for health and fitness: Rather than just log what you’re doing or what you’re eating, apps like Rise and Noom Coach connect you with actual human beings who will provide guidance and motivation.
These apps aren’t cheap to use — they can range from $10 to $50 per month, or as much as $15 per week. The companies behind them argue that this is still less expensive than regularly scheduled appointments with a personal trainer or a weekly appointment with a dietician or nutritionist.
In some ways, the pricing models are more comparable to Weight Watchers, which charges around $10 per week for unlimited access to in-person group meetings and online and mobile tools.
While the rise of diet- and food-logging apps may pose a legitimate threat to weight-loss companies, regular in-person meetings are still a valuable proposition for dieters: A study commissioned last year by Weight Watchers found that participants who attended weekly meetings lost significantly more weight than those who went the “self-help” route.
So personal coaching apps attempt to offer the best of both worlds, by combining food-journaling with some human interaction — even if you never see that person in the flesh.
For basic food-logging, apps like LoseIt! or MyFitnessPal might do the trick (MyFitnessPal claims a whopping 65 million registered users, though the company won’t share how many are active). But as I expanded my search for the perfect app, I quickly realized that it’s too easy to fall off the wagon with food journaling, whereas I felt much more accountable to the people I was interacting with while using Rise and Noom Coach.
I had a more personalized experience with Rise, but the downside is cost. While Rise plans to introduce different pricing models in the near future, right now it costs $10 to $15 per week. It’s also only available on iOS. Noom Coach is available on both Android and iOS and is less expensive to use — $10 per month. But rather than one-on-one guidance from a licensed professional, you’re assigned to a support group within the app.
After downloading Rise on my iPhone, I filled out a personal profile, indicated what my goals were, and selected my coach from a handful of people the app suggested for me. Melissa and I began chatting via the app’s messaging function, a kind of friendly, what-are-you-looking-to-get-out-of-this talk that is probably not unlike chatting through a dating app. (I asked Suneel Gupta, the founder and CEO of Rise, what would happen if I wanted to “break up” with my coach at some point. Right now there’s no simple way to do it within the app, but Gupta says you can email support, and they’ll make a switch for you.)
The Rise app is refreshingly uncomplicated. There are three sections: Your food journal, your private messages, and a profile page where you can view your own profile as well as your coach’s. In the Journal section, the app encourages you to log your food consumption five times a day — three meals and two snacks. It also suggests times and recipes. For example, an ideal 10 am snack would be something like sliced vegetables with hummus.
You can snap a photo for quick meal-logging, or you can manually type in what you’re eating. Then your coach can comment on the meal, or offer modifications. My conversations with Melissa were consistent, but not annoying. She would comment directly on my meals (“Looks good, but try to limit to one egg”), and also use the private messaging function to offer encouragement or praise. She even sent me YouTube workout videos to try while I was traveling.
For fastidious food-loggers, however, there’s one rather notable feature missing: Rise doesn’t estimate calories consumed. Gupta says Rise is trying to build good habits for users, and while calorie counting can be effective, it can be difficult for users to stick to that forever. Another big difference with Rise? Whether you’ve gone on a brisk walk or run a 10K race, there’s no way to record exercise in the app, aside from privately telling your coach that you did it.
Noom Coach takes a slightly different approach (and also offers a free version of the app, although that won’t include access to support groups).
Each day in the Noom app is broken down into a list of tasks, only one of which is food-logging. The other tasks might include walking 10,000 steps, trying a new vegetable, weighing in, scheduling some R&R time, or reading a health-related article that Noom Coach has suggested for you. The company says these guidelines are drawn directly from the curriculum set forth by the CDC for diabetes prevention.
Unlike Rise, Noom Coach estimates calorie consumption — and is quick to tell you when you’ve gone over an established limit. It also color-codes “good” and “bad” foods for you as you’re logging. And it records exercise, whether passively through the “10,000 steps” section of the app, or through manual entry.
I found the support group feature of Noom Coach slightly less engaging than my one-on-one interaction in the Rise app. After filling out a quick survey about my lifestyle and habits — including whether I have kids — the Noom app placed me into a small group of like-minded food-loggers.
My Noom group facilitator is a woman named Cathy. She isn’t a registered dietician or nutritionist, but a volunteer who receives guidance from the experts at Noom. Cathy has done a good job of sparking conversation among the group, encouraging us to log our meals and sharing healthy recipes. If I forget to log food, the Noom app reminds me — either through a timed reminder, or because Cathy has urged us all to do so. But admittedly, I’m still getting used to the semi-anonymous group structure, and haven’t shared as much as I do with Rise.
Still, I like the precision of Noom, and find some of the health articles interesting.
Food-coaching apps are worth a try if you’re looking to jump-start a diet or stay on track this holiday season, but only you can determine whether they’ll fit into your budget in the long run.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.