Can a Virtual Nutrition Coach Really Help You Lose Weight?

An in-depth look at an app that pairs you with a personal dietitian

There are currently something like 40,000 health and fitness apps available in the iTunes app store right now.

From calorie-counting and working out to meditation and sleep-tracking, for any health-related topic you might want help with, there’s not just one app for that, but probably three or four.

As a former personal trainer, a health and fitness writer and a runner, let’s just say I’ve had a hand at putting my fair share of those apps to the test. I’ve done calorie-counting, run-logging, heart-rate-monitoring, grocery-scanning, sleep-tracking, music-pacing, step-counting and even “fit-snapping.”

But never before had I done nutrition-tracking. And by “nutrition-tracking” I mean, have a trained professional—a real, live human dietician—evaluate everything I eat.

So, when I learned about Rise, an app that pairs you one-on-one with a qualified nutrition coach, I was curious: could this app, or rather, a virtual nutrition coach, actually help me lose a little bit of weight?

How It Works

When you sign up for Rise, (plans are $19 per week, $48 per month or $120 for three months) you start by filling out a short survey, explaining what motivated you to join (I want to feel healthier, I want to look better, I’m training for a race, etc.); how ready you feel to make changes to your diet ( I’m pumped, I’m kind of ready, not sure); your eating style (I eat everything, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc.); and some stats about yourself like your gender, age, current weight and goal weight, and what time your day typically starts.

After you finish the survey, you then get to pick your coach from a list of about five different options. You can read about their background and education, as well as their philosophy and coaching style. Once you decide who you’d like to get paired up with, you create your account, select a subscription and can then get started once you hear from your new coach.

Since I agreed to review the app, Rise helped me set up my account, so I didn’t get to pick my coach, but they did a good job of matching me with a compatible coach. (I knew this right away when I learned that we shared the same name. I’ve never met a Katie that wasn’t cool.)

Once everything is set up, you’ll get an intro message from your coach. When he or she gives you the 411, you can start logging and they’ll start evaluating.

You can log your meals by taking a picture, describing them through text or a combo of both.

Your coach will weigh in with a green (good), yellow (ok) or red (not the best) rating and usually a bit of feedback about what was good or what you could have done better for each meal at least once every 24 hours.

In addition to your journal, the app also includes a progress tab, so you can keep track of your weight loss and other goals, the messaging center, where you can connect with your coach and a “CoachLine” feature that lets you connect with any rise coach when you need help making a food choice (like when you’re at the grocery store or out to eat) so you can get nutrition advice basically 24-7, even when you’re coach isn’t available.

Also, at the end of each week, you’ll get a visual breakdown of your meals indicating the percentage of green, yellow and red ratings you were given. (Personally, I found this extremely motivating. I always wanted to get a higher percentage of greens the next week.)

Is it helpful? Can it really help you eat better, reach your fitness goals and even lose weight?
The short answer to this question is yes. At least my experience makes me think so.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical about it at first. Like I said before, I’ve tried almost every type of fitness app out there, but none had ever created a lasting impact for me. Most tend to lose my interest after a few days or weeks, which is the same basic issue that so many people have with working out or following a diet.

Throw a real, live human being into the mix, though, and voila! Everything is turned upside down. You’re not just interacting with your phone and pre-set algorithms. Instead, you’re connecting directly with a helpful, expert who will keep you accountable and teach you how to maintain a healthy, balanced diet in a practical way.

The best part about it for me is that there is absolutely no talk of calories involved. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve used calorie-counting apps as a way to “journal” my daily food intake in the past, and honestly, there is nothing in the world more tedious and mind-numbing. Not only that, but it’s really not an effective strategy for weight loss.

In fact, using Rise eventually led me to throw my “weight loss” goals out the window.

I’m serious.

What I mean by this is that the experience and my coach eventually helped me to disregard the number on the scale. I’ve been working with Katie for a month now, and even though when I weighed in last week the number on the scale wasn’t where I was expecting it to be, I wasn’t upset, discouraged or angry at all.

Even after just a month, my pants fit better (in particular, I can now button a pair of shorts that I had to fight my way into four weeks ago), my eating schedule is more regular and best of all, I feel incredible during my workouts. To me, all of this is progress. So honestly, who cares about a stupid number on a stupid scale? Not me.

If you’re looking for proof that’s a little bit more definitive in terms of weight loss, though, xoJane executive editor Emily McCombs lost 10 pounds using Rise. She described the app, as "somewhere between total genius and complete nightmare,” which I think is right on point, because yes, it is quite nerve-racking to have everything you eat judged so critically.

Katie was more helpful than I could have ever imagined (especially since I stubbornly thought my diet was pretty on point before I got started with Rise), but even though sometimes I felt like, “Why can’t you just let me enjoy my pizza?!” ultimately, she helped me realize what my diet really looks like and worked with me day by day to make it better.

Here are a few of her best tips:

Switch it up every now and then. Introduce your body to some new nutrients!

Don’t be so damn hard on yourself.

There’s no reason for anything to be off limits. Enjoy in moderation.

Pay attention to your portions, even for healthy foods.

Smart snacking is good!

Carbs are OK. But don’t overdo it.

Veggies are king. Always eat more veggies.

Ultimately, I see Rise as a tool that can create lasting change in someone’s eating habits. Can it help you lose weight? Based on my experience, I think it can. But it goes way beyond that.

More importantly, it has the power to help you change the way you think about nutrition and your relationship with food. Instead of restricting calories or cutting out certain foods (diet methods that continue to fail us time and time again), working with a coach teaches you how to make smart choices and gently guides you into becoming more conscious about them.

To me, it’s like learning to ride a bike without training wheels. I’ll continue to work with Katie until I feel like I can balance on my own.

Whether I’m using the app or not, my diet won’t ever be perfect, (no one’s will and it shouldn’t have to be), but the new habits I’m building while using the app will likely stick with me for life

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