Counting Calories? There Are Apps For That

For decades, people who wanted to get serious about losing weight joined Weight Watchers. They used paper and pen to help keep track of their calories with a point system. But today, people have much easier ways to track their calories — using weight-loss apps. How many calories in an avocado? 300. The mobile apps take away your excuse for not counting calories. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports on the Boston-based company called Lose It!

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And it's time for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Today, technologies for shedding pounds. In a moment, we'll go back in time to when chemicals produced in the laboratory started to compete with natural sweeteners in the name of weight loss.

First, though, we are very much in the present tense with NPR's Anthony Brooks.

ANTHONY BROOKS: Want to lose weight? Well, it turns out there's an app for that. Charles Teague is the CEO of FitNow, a Boston-based startup company that's developed a weight loss program for the iPhone. It's called Lose It.

Mr. CHARLES TEAGUE (CEO, FitNow): The concept is really, really simple. Get a budget, watch your calories and you'll lose weight.

BROOKS: Lose It is free. You can download it to an iPhone as Teague does in about a minute. Then he enters his age, his weight and his weight loss goal.

Mr. TEAGUE: And then basically Lose It lays out a calorie budget. And so for me today, I can eat about 2,000 calories. And as I eat those calories I just add them to my log. As I exercise, those calories actually get subtracted.

BROOKS: The process is relatively easy. A database counts the calories of thousands of foods from an apple to a steak, potatoes and pie. Throughout the day you just enter whatever you eat or how much you've exercised and the program tells you if you're staying within your caloric budget.

Blackberry and other smartphones have similar apps. And since Lose It was launched 18 months ago, more than five million people have downloaded it, making it one of the most popular apps on the iPhone.

Mr. WADE FALLON: My name is Wade Fallon(ph). I'm 56 years old now. I live in Jacksonville, Florida.

BROOKS: Wade Fallon says he struggled for years with his weight and then he tried the iPhone app.

Mr. FALLON: So I started off at 275 and I stayed with this thing until March of this year. I had lost 65 pounds in roughly six, seven months.

BROOKS: Fallon wants to lose a total of 100 pounds and get down to about 175.

Dr. JASON BLOCK (Harvard Medical School): I think it's very promising and for some people it's going to work very well.

BROOKS: Jason Block is a doctor at the Harvard Medical School who does obesity research. He says these mobile programs could make people more aware of what and how much they actually eat. But he says it's too soon to know if they're more effective than traditional weight loss programs.

And he says they're not for everyone, especially those who don't want to be tethered to their smartphones all day. And while many users are reporting initial success with these programs, Block says keeping those pounds off is another matter.

Dr. BLOCK: You can't just lose weight and then go back to eating the same way that you did before. You have to make changes that you're going to be able to sustain.

Mr. FALLON: And I learned that.

BROOKS: In fact, that proved to be a challenge for Wade Fallon, the man who lost 65 pounds. After his initial success, he stopped using the program.

Mr. FALLON: Those few months that I stopped using it and I started eating the wrong things again, and I wound up putting that 65 pounds back on.

BROOKS: But Fallon says now he's counting calories again with his iPhone and has shed 15 pounds. That leaves 85 to go.

Anthony Brooks, NPR News, Boston.

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