High-Tech Weight Loss

Do electronic devices and services designed to help you drop pounds actually work? The experts weigh in

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic

Reviewed By Michael W. Smith, MD

Once upon a time, we were told losing weight required nothing more than a good diet and exercise plan and the motivation to stick with both.

While those things are still true, an entire industry has sprung up to help us achieve those goals. And over the past few years, dieting has gone high-tech, with an assortment of devices and services designed to help us shed the pounds. Many attempt to turn electronic items we use already, like cell phones, MP3 players, computers, and personal digital assistants (PDAs), into weight loss aids.

But is this high-tech approach for you? More important, could it really help you lose those extra pounds or build those six-pack abs?

The answer, it seems, depends on the gadget -- and on you.

"If something helps you make healthy lifestyle changes, and you can maintain those changes, then it's always a good thing," says New York University nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD.

In fact, a study presented at an obesity meeting in October 2005 showed that listening to music while you work out may help you stick to a fitness plan and boost weight loss.

That said, Heller cautions that many of the devices on the market may be unrealistic, not only in terms of cost but also in what they can accomplish -- particularly when it comes to helping us make permanent changes in our eating and exercise habits.

Other experts agree.

"Clearly, some of these devices and services are better than others but in the end it still comes down to you, how much you eat and how much you exercise -- that's what matters most," says Lona Sandon, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

To help keep you up to date on the world of high-tech weight control, WebMD asked several experts to help us investigate the possibilities. Here's what we found.

The Food Phone

Keeping a food journal is one of the oldest and best-known ways to launch a successful diet. By writing down everything we eat, experts say, we can clearly see how much and how often we're eating -- and take steps to deal with bad habits. The Food Phone service takes it one step farther by providing you with instant "live" feedback on every meal.

How it works: Dieters pay a monthly fee to stay hooked up, via cell phone, to dieticians who are available 24/7. Whenever you get the urge to eat, you snap a digital picture of what you want to chow down on, and send it electronically to a food phone coach. The coach phones back with an instant "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" along with suggestions for what to do instead, such as eating half a portion of your desired treat.

The cost: $149 a month.

What the experts say: "The good thing about this service is it does help you stop and think about what you're eating, so it increases awareness of portion sizes and even choices," says Heller. On the down side, she wonders how many people are really going to photograph all their food every day -- and how many have $150 a month to spend on this luxury.

While Sandon says the Food Phone can be motivator, "it's like having someone watching over everything you eat." She notes that pictures don't tell the whole story.

"You can't tell how much fat, sugar, salt, or calories are in a dish," she says, "so it may be most helpful in setting people straight on what a portion should look like."

Bottom line: It's a good choice if having "Mom" on your case 24/7 is what you need to help you stay on your diet. It's a bad choice if "Mom" being on your case 24/7 is why you're overeating in the first place!

Cell Phone Diet Coaches

Still using a cell phone just to make calls? Now comes University of North Carolina (UNC) Healthcare with a variety of applications that turn your cell phone into a diet coach.

How it works: By downloading various weight loss programs (including a calorie counter, carb counter, personal trainer, and personal pedometer) you can turn any Java-enabled cell phone or PDA into a dieting encyclopedia. By entering personal information (like height, weight, and dieting goals), you can further customize each program to provide detailed information to help you meet your goals.

The cost: Prices vary from $5 to $7 per application. For an additional $2 per month, you can hook up to the online health link, which lets you monitor your progress and further customize your reports. If you agree to be a beta tester (that is, to test how well the program performs), the application is free and the fees are waived for 90 days.