July 23, 2008 -- The usual weapons in the diet wars are a gym membership, sneakers and an often wavering will. Try adding a computer.
Documenting your diet is known to aid weight loss. Studies have shown that food diaries help people lose twice as much weight as they would have had they not kept track of what they ate.
And online calorie trackers, many of which are free to use immediately or following free registration on the website, can be powerful additions to the weight loss arsenal.
"How people choose to keep track will vary depending on lifestyle and personality," said Connie Diekman, director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "Having websites as an option is very helpful."
The benefits of sites that track your food, compared to a simple, pen-and-paper food diary, are that they categorize and display what you are eating every day. By offering caloric and nutritional information about specific foods, an online calorie counter aids the weight loss battle by pinpointing areas of nutritional improvement.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the average American adult should eat 2,000 to 2,600 calories each day to maintain their weight. Most people must slash their daily intake to 1,500 calories if they want to lose weight.
But diet experts caution that online calorie counters are tools that can only help approximate how healthy your diet is and reiterate that exercise and an overall healthy lifestyle are essential to weight management. All calorie counters are not created equal, and it may take some trial and error -- and a lot of food-related data entry -- to find a site that is a good match.
"To use them wisely, you need to be honest. That's not as easy as it sounds -- people notoriously underestimate what they eat," said Keith Ayoob, nutritionist and associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Decide what you need... The best bet is to get educated about eating healthfully, decide on an activity regimen, then turn off the computer, get up from your desk, and go do it."
The following are a few sites that could be strong weapons against weight gain.
My Pyramid Tracker is the yardstick against which experts measure other calorie counting sites because it was created using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Particularly in cases where boutique sites are not forthcoming with the source of their nutritional information, doctors recommend verifying the numbers with the values on this site to confirm the correct amount of calories in particular foods.
"This site is good for anyone who really wants to know where their diet stands, nutritionally," Ayoob said. "It can be a useful ongoing tool for the person who has lost weight but 'plateaued' and who needs a brush-up to find out how daily eating has changed."
Also beneficial, My Pyramid Tracker emphasizes physical activity and overall health.
But some are less impressed with the food selection available at My Pyramid Tracker, saying that it is not as large and varied as other sites. This can be a problem when people are not comfortable approximating or substituting what they actually ate for something that could be similar, thus cheating themselves out of a complete dietary picture.
"Consumers will not take time to hunt for foods or, if foods aren't on the list, they will skip it and not have a complete look at their intake," Diekman said.
Although the advertisements occasionally get in the way of the content, diet experts gave this site high marks because of its ease of use and its ability to track diet and fitness plans.
"I loved the goal range for calories and macronutrients," said Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh. "There is no perfect number but you want to fall within a certain range... [There is] structure, but not rigidity."
SparkPeople also has a huge database of foods with accurate nutritional data. Part of this database is culled from the USDA's food data, but a large portion is generated from verified user submissions. Grant Miller, a spokesperson for SparkPeople, said that, to date, the site has verified nutritional information for about 15,000 foods in its databse.
"It's a very positive, upbeat site," Ayoob said. "Big on motivating you, but many people will like the motivation aspect."
The WebMD diet assessment is a detailed questionnaire about daily food intake and, once finished, it gives you a break down of what was eaten by nutrient groups: calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fibers, lipids and cholesterol, as well as a list of how many vitamins and minerals you are getting.
Although the assessment is best for catching of-the-moment trends in eating habits, which is most useful if you are eating a standardized diet each day, it can point out trends and glaring insufficiencies in your diet and their potential results. Deficient in iron? You risk fatigue and anemia. Do you drink a glass of wine four to five times a week? That is acceptable and may help protect against heart disease.
Coupled with WebMD's vast health resources, the assessment can help show you how to proceed with changes in diet and exercise to reach your goal weight.
But the sheer volume of information on such websites may make visiting them a daunting or distracting venture. Restricting time on the site might help users stay focused.
"There's so much information here you really have to be focused and keep your eyes on your goal," Ayoob said. "Keep your visits short and spend more time being physically active -- not just reading about physical activity on the internet."
My Calorie Counter was deemed serviceable, if a bit underwhelming, by experts. The food selection is good and the breakdown includes the most essential nutritional information (fat, carbohydrates, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, sugars, proteins and calories), although vitamin and mineral contents are not included.
"I do like it that there are some blogs," Fernstrom said.
Blogs can be an effective way to get specific information or network in order to stick to weight loss goals. "It's part of a package of things to do."
The site also allows users to track their exercise habits as well as their diets, a major component of the weight battle.
Surfer, beware. Diet experts warn against sites that appear to be pushing agendas other than health or nutrition.
"The site tempts you with bits of information, but the real story is only revealed with the purchase of the e-book written by the author," Ayoob said. "I'd pass on this one."
In addition, tracking food at My Food Buddy is a complicated process. Daily food intake must be submitted to the site along with detailed nutrition information from the food labels. Beverages get counted separately.
"People won't do this for long," Diekman said.