Recording every bite of pizza, nibble of Rocky Road and dollop of whipped cream is the only nearly foolproof way to drop the pounds, dietitians have long said. Now there's an update to that old-fashioned technique -- an array of convenient, portable, high-tech ways to document dessert (or lack thereof).
Weight Watchers has been in the forefront of the trend, offering a version of its point-tracking system for use on Palm hand-held devices through a service called Weight Watchers On-the-Go.
"We surveyed our customers, and they made clear that they [wanted to] carry something with them to make smart choices," says Scott Parlee, director of product development for WeightWatchers.com. On-the-Go contains a full list of point values for various foods as well as for products at dining establishments such as Subway, Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery.
And though the company doesn't release user data, it says On-the-Go's success has sparked plans to develop applications for alternative technologies in the near future.
Palm also hosts "Diet & Exercise Assistant" ($19.99 for a one-time download), one of the company's most popular downloadable applications, which calculates a daily food budget in addition to allowing users to track their food intake.
And MyFoodPhone, a service offered through Sprint, allows dieters to photograph meals and snacks with their camera phone before they eat, then instantly upload the pictures to their online MyFoodPhone account. Every two weeks a "nutritional advisor" checks the account and delivers feedback via the Web about portion sizes, nutritional content and general eating habits in the form of a video clip or notes.
The service, which costs $9.99 a month in addition to the cost of a user's phone plan, has existed since late 2004, but its Quebec-based distributor only established a U.S. partnership with Sprint in February.
But though MyFoodPhone, which according to a company spokesman, is the first service to use mobile phone cameras as a diet aid, it's just the latest addition to a growing number of mobile services that offer food logging and nutritional encyclopedias.
Verizon Wireless hosts two applications, Diet Fitness Diary ($1.99 a month) and Diet TinyAssist ($5.49 for a one-time download), both of which allow users to track every last cheese puff they pop in their mouths through encyclopedic databases of nutritional information.
Although the latest mobile diet devices offer certain obvious advantages, namely convenience, low cost relative to personal nutrition counseling and the ability to record reams of information, they're not entirely worry-free. Some nutritionists and dietitians say there may be some hidden drawbacks.
Most pressing is the health risk associated with programs that need to be self-administered and don't involve direct contact with a certified nutritionist, nurse or doctor. (Though the MyFoodPhone nutritional advisors are trained by the company in portion control and general nutrition information, they aren't certified nutritionists.)
As a result, some experts say the programs should be supplemented with professional care. "As people lose weight, some conditions, such as diabetes, can be affected by dieting and may require a diet that's tailored to them," says Emily Marcus, a nutritionist at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System's Center for Weight Management in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
Marcus says a few of her patients have inquired about the new applications. "Before anyone starts any type of weight-loss program, they should visit their physician," she advises.
But the less obvious pitfall of such programs is that they ignore what for many people is a crucial component of dropping pounds: overcoming the emotional and mental barriers to success. "Discussing food issues and relationships with food is a challenge and an intimate thing, so sometimes there's a benefit to speaking to a real human being, face-to-face," says Rebecca Appleman, a nutritionist with Joy Bauer Nutrition in Manhattan.
Though Appleman endorses keeping a detailed food record, she says that the emotional components of dieting can prevent clients from reaching their goals just as much as their portion control or overall calorie consumption may influence their success. "My clients can discuss other behavior or other choices that might be affecting their nutrition," she says. "I'm not sure they're getting that supervision with these services."