Using technology to shed pounds

Health: Some dieters have weight management in the palms of their hands.

Health & Fitness

September 16, 2001|By Darryl E. Owens | Darryl E. Owens,Special to the Sun

Lauriel Dowers is deep into the lesson when she instructs her class to use their noodles.

Not their noggin noodles, but the flexible flotation devices that look like a tangle of Technicolor spaghetti ready to be plopped into the chlorinated pot.

Like the other serial snackers standing hip-high in this water aerobics class at Celebration Health in Orlando, Fla., Doris Roberts grabs a foam noodle and starts working it. She bends it into a horseshoe, waves it overhead, arching her body, swiveling her hips, working up a sweat.

When the workout ends, she grabs her towel and her Palm Pilot.

Roberts removes a stylus and touches it to the screen, summoning a bar graph that displays her caloric intake so far today. She grins. She's on pace for calories to spare -- maybe on a hunk of cake.

Like the others enrolled in Celebration Health's Healthy Weight Management program, Roberts uses the electronic device to track her weight. Employing Palm Pilots in dieting surveillance is part of a trend of using technology to shed pounds, the latest weapon in America's raging battle of the bulge.

There are 91 million Americans considered obese, meaning they are at least 20 percent above their ideal body weight.

Weight management authorities say technology such as personal data assistants can lighten the paper pile associated with diet journals, offer a bite-by-bite replay of progress and suppress the urge to sample something decadent.

"In the past, people had to write down what they're eating and would have to look things up in a book to figure out how many calories and fat they're eating," says Tara Geise, program director of Celebration Health's weight manager center.

Now dieters can "just whip out their Palm Pilots, punch it into the computer and it automatically has the nutrition information for what they ate."

Consumer use of technology in weight management is booming. Dieters use bare-bones meal-planning software available as free downloads on the Internet. Others buy programs that integrate meal planning, diet and exercise logs and calorie counting.

Dieting Web sites are proliferating. Chat rooms and online discussion groups are clotted with weight watchers seeking a virtual shoulder to cry on after surrendering to temptation.

Even weight-loss graybeards such as Weight Watchers are using online dieting aids. The program's Web site, weightwatchers.com, offers its fee-based program, eTools, which includes an online journal with access to 16,000 foods, recipes with point values and personalized meal plans.

It seems dieters are game for "anything high-tech, user-friendly and available any time of the day," says Cynthia Saff, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "It's been slowly building over the past years. I've seen more and more software products marketed to the consumer."

And recent studies conclude that online support seems to help dieters slim down.

Baylor College of Medicine researchers, for example, found that patients lost an average of 6 pounds in six weeks. Patients charted their weight, chronicled their meals and communicated with dietitians through an online message center. Not only did the pounds melt away, participants said the process kept them focused.

Even so, dieters can't just point and click the pounds away. Cybertechnology "can be helpful in noticing patterns in [eating] and giving red flags in areas you might work on," says Saff, a registered dietitian at the University of South Florida. "It should be used as part of a comprehensive program."

That's exactly how the Palm Pilots fit into the weight loss puzzle at Celebration Health. The gadgets were introduced in April to complement nutrition classes, exercise and group support elements.

Sold by the weight-loss program for $189 or rented for $40, the devices are loaded with Diet Logsoftware, which features a food database and detailed nutritional breakdowns of foods. For those who already own Palm Pilots, the software alone can be had for $55.

Alfred Werner took to the Palm Pilot straightaway. At 6-foot-2 and 271 pounds in stocking feet, Werner is a stout man with an appetite to match. He tried fad diets, but none worked.

After enrolling in the program with his wife, Lorraine, he took the Palm Pilot and diligently logged his meals and used the device to examine calories. What impressed him most was the way he could strike a button and generate a graph of his progress -- good and bad. Using the device as a cyberconfessor helped him make better choices, he says.

The Palm Pilot "puts it right in front of your face, that what you put in your month counts as calories," says Werner, 70, who lives in Davenport, Fla. He has lost 23 pounds since April.

Indeed, dieting technology's best use may be as a dieter's virtual conscience. The buzzword now in weight management circles is accountability. Seeing your dieting slip-ups splashed graphically on the cold screen of a Palm Pilot can provide the kick in the pants some dieters need to stay on track.

Darryl E. Owens is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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