Watching your Weight on the Web

Tue, Sep 6, 2011, 01:00

The principle of eating less and doing more is the same, but going online can make keeping track of your diet a lot easier

LIKE MOST industries, tackling weight loss is moving online. But does digital media genuinely offer a new weapon in the battle of the bulge?

There are hundreds of websites and phone applications peddling miracle weight-loss solutions and fad diets. However, the proven principles of weight loss remain the same online as offline, with the more mainstream websites offering food diaries, information and support.

“There are different shapes and sizes, all with different reasons to lose weight, but ultimately it’s the same thing, eat less and do more. It’s about the medium, motivation and guidance to do that,” says Dr Ian Campbell, medical director of UK charity Weight Concern and adviser to UK-based weight-loss website, Nutracheck.co.uk.

This conventional model translated online offers a complexity of information and a wide breadth of professional and user support.

“The interactive trackers for nutritional analysis cannot be replicated off-line and this is the basis for accountability,” says Chris Downie, founder and chief executive of US-based weight-loss website, Sparkpeople.com.

The food databases offered by the websites are key to analysing and breaking down the nutritional content of foods eaten into much more detail than can be calculated manually.

Sparkpeople claims to have more than a million foods in its database, from popular brands and convenience foods to basics such as tins of tomatoes or digestive biscuits. Users have the flexibility of adding foods and marking favourites.

Not only does the database mean the end of reading and writing down calories from the backs of packets, it also provides even more information.

Mynetdiary breaks food down into more than 30 values including food score, vitamins, carbohydrates, transfats. Throughout the day users can find out how many calories they have left (based on daily goals) and how many they have burned.

The site also gives a daily report alerting dieters if they haven’t had enough fibre or fruit or have eaten too much salt.

“Being engaged with the information by inputting into a food diary means that people are more likely to absorb it,” Campbell says.

“People become much more educated about their own lifestyles and habits. It’s often a revelation to them when they write it down for the first time.”

Campbell helped Nutracheck to develop its nutritional guidelines to ensure it was both ethical and clinically effective before it launched.

It follows UK guidelines on weight loss, allowing users to eat no fewer than 1,400 calories per day and basing calories according to current weight, activity levels, gender and aspiration, he says.

Downie says the “real advantage” is that people can log on “any time of the day and as many times as they want” to track food, read articles and speak to friends.

Mobile applications for smartphones or mobile-optimised websites allow users to enter what they eat, as they are eating it.

This helps to ease a problem identified by weight-loss psychologist, Suzanne Horgan.

“People are much more likely to lose weight if they use food diaries, but sometimes people don’t write it down because they are bingeing and feeling bad about it or because they forget how much they are consuming if they are looking back,” she says .

The constant access to support from online communities and expert advice also has a unique advantage.

This interaction is “one of the most important” ways the site can help people to lose weight, says Downie.

The support “really inspires people”, and even when they have had a bad day it makes them realise that “real people” can do this and it is motivational, he says.

Community support includes pairings with individuals who have similar weight-loss goals and forums where people can vent and seek advice from fellow dieters.

Dietitians, medical advisers and nutritionists also take part in and monitor forums, as well as posting new advice articles regularly.

“People may find matches on the website that would not be drawn to each other in weight-loss clubs and can enjoy interacting,” says Campbell.

According to Downie, “One of the biggest surprises is how willing people are to share information online.

“They form friendships in the community in which they share a lot of themselves more than they would in person. These very strong bonds are among the biggest and most surprising advantages.”

Privacy is a really important factor in the appeal of online diets, according Horgan.

“The anonymity suits some clients trying to lose weight because of the hugely negative attitude around being overweight and the attitude of health professionals towards weight,” says Horgan, director and founder of the Dublin-based Eating Disorder Resource Centre.

“It can be easier for people to get support while not having to face someone or be in the awkward position of feeling judged,” she adds.

Some people find it easier to communicate honestly over the internet, but online support is not enough for everyone and it depends on the nature of the problem, she says.

“If it’s a matter of bad habits, then people will benefit from it, but if the issues run deeper, it’s not going to be enough, and people will need a more hands-on approach and treatment,” she says.

So while diet websites can offer round-the-clock advice, anonymity and detailed nutritional information, they are only a useful tool to help with weight control and not a miracle answer.

PICTURE THIS: ‘WHEN THE PHOTOS CAME OUT, IT HIT ME HARD HOW MUCH I HAD LET MYSELF GO’

Dubliner Wesley Quinn lost four stone using free website Sparkpeople.com.

He began using the site at age 19 after he was groomsman for his brother’s wedding at 17.5 stone.

“When I was asked what size waist I needed I embarrassingly said a size 40 would do . . . I ended up not fitting into it and had to take a size 42,” he says.

“When the wedding photos came out, it really hit me hard how much I had let myself go.”

Quinn says the resources on the website helped him to track his weight loss and encourage him to change his eating habits.

“I ate limited types of food, normally white bread, pasta, chips, sausages and eggs,” he says.

“I had no idea how much saturated fat and sugar I was eating, but the website breaks this down, and using the recipes I began eating chicken and fish dishes,” he says

He also used others in the online community to give him support.

“If I speak face to face, I might not say something I had done, but online there wasn’t the embarrassment factor of what the person might think of me,” he says.

“So if I was having a bad day and had junk food I could leave a message and someone would tell me to keep up the good work so far,” he says.

It also helped him to change his exercise habits. He began by walking home from work for an hour twice a week and gradually built it up.

Quinn even went on to study fitness and leisure management.

“I am now a qualified fitness instructor. I also turn a few more heads now compared to my former self!” he says.

TO DIET FOR: THE WEBSITES

* Nutracheck.co.uk

The UK-based website offers 45,000 food and drinks in its database with a large range across UK supermarket brands. It has a very active and close-knit UK-based community, with regular goals set to lose weight and updates from experts.

Cost:Free five-day trial and €6 to €8 per month.

Mobile:Mobile-optimised website and iPhone app.

* Sparkpeople.com

The website has accumulated more than a million foods in its database over the past 10 years. Its size and longevity means it also offers advice on almost every diet topic imaginable, from fitness during menopause to the glycaemic index (GI). However, recipes and foods tend to sway towards US products, although there are many UK brands on the website thanks to user contributions. It also offers a meal plan option.

Cost:Free, with ads. Founder Chris Downie funds it using money made from selling another company to eBay.

Mobile: Free android and iPhone apps accompany the website.

* Mynetdiary.com

This US website offers 102,000 foods in its database, including many UK brands. Its big appeal is the amount of detail it offers in breaking down foods (36 nutrients) and the updates on where users are going right or wrong each day.

Cost: There is a free version, but serious users will pay between €4-€6 per month for the pro version.

Mobile: iPhone, iPad and android apps.

* Tescodiets.ie

This website from the supermarket giant offers meal plans which can be personalised rather than a blank food diary. Users can pick meal options such as low GI or dairy free, can swap meals and can add unexpected foods. Suitable for those requiring a more prescriptive diet. It allows users to order their week’s diet ingredients online.

Cost:Between €8 and €20 per month, with additional fees for recipes and fitness clubs.

Mobile: Mobile optimised website.