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.
What the experts say: "There's nothing new here except how you access the information," says Heller. If you need a gadget instead of a book to count calories or carbs, she says, this can help.
Bottom line: If you need to be mildly amused while counting calories, these programs can help you learn what you can and can't eat if you want to reach your goals. They may also help raise your dieting awareness.
The Fitness Phone
Two high-tech programs -- one from Nokia and the other from Siemens -- use cell-phone technology to help you meet your fitness goal. They offer various services, including an electronic coach, a calorie counter, body mass index (BMI) calculator, heart rate monitor, and fitness scheduler. And oh yeah, you can make calls, too.
How it works: The Nokia is preloaded with software that allows you to program in fitness-related information about yourself, as well as your goals. Based on that, your phone will work out a training schedule, and keep track of your workouts, including how often and how long you exercise. With the Siemens, you get an animated fitness instructor that demonstrates various exercises. Extras include various monitors and calculators, including one that tallies your nutritional needs based on what you're eating now. On the way: A fitness phone from Samsung that lets you measure body fat with the touch of a button, and includes quick links to fitness counselors.
The cost: Nokia Fitness Phone -- $199 plus service; Siemens Fitness Phone -- $239.
What the experts say: "For people who want to keep track of how much they did, and to keep organized, these systems can be very helpful," says Todd Schlifstein, DO, a sports medicine specialist at New York University Medical Center. That said, Schlifstein warns that if you need an animated cartoon to figure out how to do an exercise, "you probably shouldn't be doing it."
Bottom line: For the gadget-lover it's a fun way to track workouts. For the weight-obsessed -- someone who wants to count calories, track body fat, and take a pulse count while sitting in a coffee shop or movie theater -- it's heaven. For the rest of us: It won't do those sit-ups for you.
Online Diet Programs
Online dieting programs are the electronic incarnation of the group approach to losing weight. While their offerings vary widely -- from meal plans and cooking tips to counseling, group support, and more -- what they all have in common is the power of a virtual community to support your weight loss goals.
How it works: For a set fee, members get a password to a members-only web site. Here you'll find an eating plan (some but not all are planned by nutritionists and/or medical experts) as well as recipes, and cooking and dieting tips. Depending on which program you choose, extras include everything from email counseling by nutritionists, psychologists, and other weight specialists; to message boards, group chats, and motivational tools; to articles addressing weight loss concerns, and fashion and beauty advice to help you look great while you're losing weight. Some programs also feature meal plans and nutrition information that's downloadable to your PDA or cell phone.
The cost: Most plans charge around $5 a week, billed in monthly installments. If you're not satisfied, most also offer a refund on any unused portion of your membership.
What the experts say: "There are several studies suggesting that Internet weight loss programs can be quite beneficial," says Heller. One study, she says, found that adding personalized counseling via email significantly improved weight loss in adults at risk for diabetes.
"While I don't think that an online program will ever replace in-person counseling with a nutritionist or physician, the anonymity of online dieting, along with the low cost and convenience, do appear to increase compliance and motivation," says Heller. And that, she notes, increases dieting success.
Bottom line: If you can't afford in-person counseling -- or it's not convenient for you -- the online weight loss community could be your new best friend. If you're spending time at your computer anyway, these web sites are bound to prove more productive than games, shopping, or even surfing. And who knows? You might make some great friends, too.
New Age Pedometers
These New Age pedometers measure how many steps you take -- and a lot more!
How they work: Like ordinary pedometers, they strap onto your belt to track your steps. But some of the newer versions go the extra mile to calculate all your activity. The Bell Total Fit Pedometer has both walk and run mode, plus a step counter, and a calculator for total distance, speed, and calories burned. The SportBrain 1 step X1 has a similar setup, plus a computer USB cable that connects you to a web site where you can download software to chart your progress, along with other motivational tools.
The cost: $30-$40
What the experts say: "A pedometer is only going to give you a rough estimate of the number of steps you're taking and if you change your cadence, or stop and go, they all lose sensitivity," says Schlifstein. So, he says, if you're walking around town, or going up and down stairs, they may be a waste of time. "I don't recommend any pedometers for weight loss," he says.
Sandon says pedometers can be good motivators but cautions that accuracy depends on correct placement of the device. "It has to go on or near the hip in order to register the movement of a stride," she says.
Bottom line: One of the best things about pedometers, whether high-tech or the ordinary kind, is that they can shock you into realizing just how sedentary your life is. Even a rough estimate of how much you move, compared to the suggested 10,000 steps a day, could motivate you to get up off the couch.
A number of new software titles have emerged to help keep various aspects of your weight loss regime on track.
How it works: These programs vary widely, ranging from providing simple nutritional data -- like calorie counts, nutrient breakdowns, and meal planning -- to sophisticated tracking of both dieting and fitness goals. Some also offer meal suggestions, exercise regimens, and daily progress reports. Many also work in PDAs.
The cost: Average cost is $35-$49
What the experts say: "By using software to track your progress over time, you can see your accomplishments in print, which can be highly motivating," says Sandon. As with food journals, Sandon says, these computer programs also raise awareness about eating habits.
Bottom line: As long as they don't dramatically increase the time you spend sitting in front of your computer (instead of outdoors moving about), these programs can provide incentive, motivation, and good information that works with most any diet program.
Automatic Portion Control
It's not the newest diet gadget, but it might be the most useful: A vacuum-sealing device that lets you create pre-measured, individual portions of foods.
How it works: You fill specially sized plastic bags with single portions of your favorite treats or meals. Then, you insert the end of the bag into the device, which sucks the air out and seals it shut. Pop it in the freezer to use later, or toss it in a handbag, briefcase, or lunchbox, for an instant portioned treat that won't break your calorie budget.
The cost: Rival Seal A Meal, with extra bags and storage canisters -- about $49 (also available are pre-divided plates that can be filled and sealed, so you always know the right proportions of veggies, meat, and grains). Deni Fresh Lock Vacuum Sealer -- about $30.
What the experts say: "Anything that helps with portion control, anything that draws attention to the size of what we are eating, or keeps you from eating too much, is a very good thing," says Sandon.
Bottom line: If you just can't stop dipping into the cookie jar or candy dish, this is like discipline in a bag. (Hint: If you seal the bags twice, it makes them really hard to open -- a stronger snacking deterrent!)
SOURCES: Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York. Lona Sandon, MS, RD, MS RD, assistant professor/admissions counselor, University of Texas Southwestern; and spokesperson, American Dietetic Association. Todd Schlifstein, DO, New York University Medical Center, New York. WebMD Medical News: "iPod May Jam Off the Pounds." http://my.webmd.com/content/article/113/110942.htm
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