Saturday, January 22, 2005

Use It to Lose It

As the new year once again mellows into something non-Jetsonesque, we are all left with the realization that any change to ourselves and our lifestyles must come from within. No modern miracle of medicine or technology is going to make us happier or smarter or thinner at the drop of a pill or the push of a button. So it’s back to those hastily made resolutions, as we all promise that this will be the year we’ll finally get our act together.

Once again, surveys show the number one objective for most Americans is to slim down their physique. This might have something to do with the seasonal overindulgence that takes place every year like clockwork. Studies show that the average American gains seven pounds from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and as a result, nearly 40% of us make losing weight our New Year's resolution.

In spite of a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania that found that most diet programs don't work, there is no shortage of different nutritional schemes aimed at reducing our waistlines. From Atkins to South Beach, from Jenny Craig to Weight Watchers, a variety of programs promise results if only devotees will adhere strictly to the letter of their law. To that end, they offer classes and books and web sites aimed at helping fellow travelers trim the crusts where appropriate.

For busy people, carting around a two inch thick guidebook isn’t a realistic approach. And so technology has been pressed into service, offering tubbies everywhere a portable conscience to keep them on the straight and narrow. Thousands of tech-savvy dieters long ago turned to handhelds for help, using mobile applications already on the market to keep track of their fat intake, gauge how many calories they just burned or chart the proximity to their target weight. At Handango, a popular Web site that sells applications designed for cell phones and PDAs, about 400,000 people have paid $20 to download the Diet & Exercise Assistant, one of the best sellers in the health category.

But the big names are weighing in with their own custom offerings. Weight Watchers International leads the way with a recently released program for Palm-based gadgets that works hand-in-hand with the company's online services. It helps record a dieting disciple's progress, eliminates the need for carrying a weekly logbook and shrinks the 25,000-item food database into a pocketable gizmo.

Not to be left waddling behind, Atkins Nutritionals says it will begin offering Atkins 2Go, a carbohydrate guide and weight-loss tracker for cell phones. A version for Palm-based PDAs is expected out shortly as well. Other diet purveyors, including the South Beach Diet, say they hope to offer similar nutritional guides and weight-tracking services for mobile devices soon. "We love this idea that a consumer could be shopping and use their phone to help them decide what they should buy," said Michael Bernstein, a senior vice president at Atkins. "It's much more palatable to pick up their phone to look up stuff than to carry around books."

Since it helps to have a game plan before you step out into the calorie laden world, you might want to check out the BodyGem, marketed by HealtheTech of Golden, Colorado. The $179 device, which is the size of a soda can, has you breathe through a mouthpiece. Sensors then figure out your oxygen intake and your resting calorie-burning rate. Based on that info, users can determine how many calories they can eat a day and how much they need to exercise to lose weight.

And since a scale is ultimate arbiter of success, perhaps you might want to consider the Tanita TBF-612 body fat monitor. Using bioelectrical impedance, this hi-tech device determines the amount of body fat you're carrying. Using a "leg to leg" analysis, you simply step on the scale after you've programmed in your gender, height and current exercise lifestyle (normal or athlete). The TBF-612 then weighs you, and sends a safe, low level electrical signal thorough the metal foot plates to measure your body fat. The entire process takes less than 30 seconds. No more using the “I'm not fat, I'm big boned" excuse.

But it still all comes down to eating less and exercising more. While nothing can force you to get up on the treadmill in the morning, several new devices are aimed at tackling the first problem. For instance, there’s the Powerseed. The size and shape of an egg, it sits on the table and blinks every 30 seconds. That indicates that it's O.K. to take another bite, the idea being to eat more slowly and avoid overeating. Think how much fun it could be to use this gizmo at dinner parties, so that paired with the proper background music, everyone can munch to the same beat.

Then there’s the DDS system, an uncomfortable merging of dental wear and a diet aid. This custom-fitted retainer is designed to reduce the amount of food the wearer can chew by 25% for every bite. Since this sounds more like a medieval torture device than a lifestyle approach, it begs the obvious question: why not just cut portions by 25%? No, that would be too easy.

This summer, Sharp Electronics will unveil an oven it claims can reduce the fat content in food by turning water into steam heated to 500F. A combo of steam and heat cooks food and melts fat without losing moisture. Sharp says the oven is selling well in Japan and will cost $1,399 in the U.S.

They say that obesity is an epidemic in this country, and all of these devices are aimed at making a dent in the problem. H. L. Mencken famously said that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” A new corollary is in order: no one ever lost money underestimating the weight of the American public, either.


Marc Wollin of Bedford notices that his waistline is increasing at the same rate as his hairline is receding. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.