Losing Weight the Smartphone Way, With a Nutritionist in Your Pocket

FOR most of us, the formula for losing weight is a simple one: eat less, exercise more. But humans are anything but simple, and the majority of Americans struggle endlessly with losing pounds and keeping them off.

“We really haven’t come up with one good weight-loss solution,” said Dr. James A. Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. “If we had, everyone would be using it.”

Consuming fewer calories is perhaps the most difficult part of the weight-loss equation; many dieters are daunted by the prospect of tabulating their daily intake. That’s why many experts and consumers are excited about the new weight-loss programs available for iPhone, BlackBerry and other smartphones.

The apps — which are simple, fun and often free — help users track the number of calories and nutrients they consume, as well as the number of calories they burn. Users learn to balance calorie intake and activity in real time.

Though there is no data on whether mobile apps are more effective than joining a traditional dieting program (apps are too new for long-term studies), their popularity is telling. Since LoseIt, now one of the most highly rated free apps, hit the iTunes store in November 2008, more than five million people have downloaded the program.

“We’re linking weight loss to the coolest gadgets in the world,” said Dr. Levine, who helped develop the Walk n’ Play app, which calculates the total calories one burns each day.

Dennis Dodge, 67, and his wife, Carolyn, 68, recently started using LoseIt to shed weight and control their diabetes. The retired couple, who live in Hampden, Me., tapped their age, weight and goals into their iPod Touches, and the app told them how many calories they should eat each day. Every day they record what they eat and how much they exercise.

The couple, who are using LoseIt as part of a diabetes program run by a local hospital, said they were intimidated at first by the technology but had found the app remarkably easy and even fun to use. “I am now more cognizant of my habits,” Mr. Dodge said.

Mrs. Dodge added: “With other diets you follow their regimen. With this, you set your own goal.”

When you track calories closely, you lose more weight, said Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, associate professor of health, behavior and society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But dieters who simply write down their intake at the end of each day tend to underestimate the calories they have consumed (call it wishful thinking).

The beauty of mobile apps is that they work in real time. You eat lunch and immediately log in your meal on your phone. The apps rely on databases to record the calorie counts of thousands of foods, whether a single item like an apple or a prepared meal like a sub sandwich, which takes the guesswork out of totaling calories.

Weight-loss experts are hopeful that apps will help turn chronic dieters into healthy eaters. If you’re looking at a menu wondering whether to order pasta primavera or a Caesar salad, an app can tell you on the spot which option has fewer calories.

Over time, this information becomes part of your own internal database and, the thought is, dieters begin to make healthier choices.

Dana Green, a diabetes specialist at St. Joseph Healthcare Diabetes Institute of Behavioral Medicine in Bangor, Me., has been testing the LoseIt program with a small group of his patients, including the Dodges. Since April, almost all of the 17 patients, ranging in age from 48 to 76, have lost weight and lowered their blood sugar. One man lost six pounds; two of the women in the program were able to reduce their insulin intake by 20 percent, Mr. Green said.

“Patients begin to see their patterns and habits and so make better decisions,” he said. “I’m extremely optimistic.”

With mobile apps, dieters also can better visualize the relationship between exercise and eating. A 30-minute walk burns about 100 calories, they learn, while jogging for the same time at 6 miles per hour burns four times that.

When the user realizes she’s almost hit her daily calorie limit, she can opt to go to the gym — or to eat carrots for dinner. “We’re teaching people to think like economic consumers,” says Charles Teague, the chief executive of FitNow, which produces LoseIt.

If want to give a weight-loss app a try, there are a few things to bear in mind before you get started.

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE It is always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a weight-loss plan. Your primary care physician can help you set reasonable goals and also take a look at the app you’ve chosen to make sure it seems legitimate and reasonable.

“Apps are not regulated,” said Dr. Joseph Kim, founder of the Medical Smartphones blog. “There is no certification process to vet which weight-loss apps are better than others.”

SIMPLICITY COUNTS Opt for an app that is basic and intuitive. “The interactive part of these programs is what makes them successful,” said Mr. Green, the diabetes specialist.

Losing weight is hard enough — you don’t also need to contend with a program that has an annoying interface, is slow or too complicated.

SHARE YOUR PROGESS Some apps, like LoseIt, let you share your dieting progress with friends or other users via Facebook or Twitter. Many apps are linked to Web sites where users can chat on forums and blogs. If human support is important to you, choose an app that has social networking built in.

Not all experts are convinced that will be enough, however. “What we’ve learned over the years is that support from a real human, face-to-face, is essential to keeping weight off over the long term,” said Dr. Cheskin of Johns Hopkins.

“It’s worth trying something new,” he added, “but don’t expect miracles.”

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