I am famous for once telling a child I was looking after that the more contact I have with humans the more I learn. Through the years that statement still applies, and the latest example is my quick reaction to advice posted in John Scalzi’s blog just a few days ago (Scalzi, in case you don’t know, if a science fiction writer and a blogger whom I follow). Scalzi was recommending an iPhone app to help people keep track of their calories’ inputs and outputs, which made me think that if there is any chance of me losing weight it’s got to be through the integration of a gadget and the internet in the process of doing so.
Thus I dipped into dieting waters by registering myself at the LiveStrong website and buying their $4 iPhone app, Calorie Tracker.
So, other than a silly named website, what does LiveStrong offer?
The site's name seems to come from Lance Armstrong, but let's not delve into the matter of the use of drugs in sports. Once you create an account and provide the website with slightly too much private information about yourself than it should require, Livestrong will tell you how many calories you need to be eating each day in order to sustain your weight and activity lifestyle. You can then tell it how much weight you want to lose each week in order to receive an estimate of the number of intake calories per day required to manage that.
Then you get to the active part. Each time you eat or exercise you need to go back to the website (or the iPhone) and tell it what you’ve been consuming. LiveStrong’s power comes from its large database of foods, including many Aussie branded ones, as well as a large collection of exercises. Thus far my experience indicates I can always find what I ate or an acceptable alternative, including for restaurant food; I was also able to find entries for my type of exercise, which mostly come down to “grocery shopping” and “walking with a pram” (no, this is not a joke).
Couple the accounting of intake and consumption together, and you got a pretty good idea of what’s going on in your diet, as well as where you are and where you should be in the weight loss department.
As one can imagine, the website has many weaknesses. For a start, it’s heavy on PC resources, which is usually an indicator for less than perfect design. Then there’s the site’s typical American centralist attitude; you know the type I’m talking about, those that give you their phone number but neglect the +1 international code at the beginning, or those that give you their address and forget to add “USA” at the bottom. Yes, it’s a website that thinks there is only one nation to this world, theirs. This rather centralistic view manifests itself in the website defaulting to American time instead of your time, causing me to enter my breakfasts at yesterday’s date if I don’t pay too much attention to what I’m doing. I don’t understand why the website can’t look at your own PC's clock. Surely they can afford to program that, given the vast number of intrusive ads on the page.
Another annoying factor is the almost exclusive use of silly measuring units: while the credit goes to LiveStrong for me now knowing that a pound is roughly half a kilo, I would have preferred a life to remain solely in the metric domain. The same goes for their definition of “cups” and “bowls”, which are far from internationally recognized.
The iPhone app is a story on its own. For a start, it requires an internet connection and doesn’t add any functionality over the website's, which means that if you have a decent mobile browser at your hands (that is, if you have an Android phone) you don’t need the app. The app is also limited in rather annoying ways: for example, when you specify what you ate by choosing from its extensive list of meals it will not allow you to change serving units. Whereas the website occasionally allows you to change from consumption units, say from oz to grams, the iPhone app forces you to stick to the often confusing default units. It’s good if you want to exercise your fractions algebra.
Despite my criticism, my own experience thus far indicates LiveStrong is a very useful tool. There is absolutely no valid reason why I am not ten kilos lighter than I am now, therefore making a tool that shows me why that is so is not as bad an idea as it may sound.
The use of LiveStrong for just a few days has already helped me come up with some revelations. It showed how me how much of a difference digesting fewer or more snacks makes. It shows how eating out at a restaurant is usually a much more calorie intensive affair than eating at home, mainly due to the size of the serving and the more fatty nature of the stuff I tend to eat outside. Yes, it also shows how critical the size of the portion is: eating too much food makes you fatter regardless of whether the food is good for you or not.
There is a tragic nature to this engagement, too. On Saturday night I was sad to see there is no room for negotiations with regards to me having my popcorn together with Sense and Sensibility. Another day I witnessed how the mere fact of eating out meant there is no room for a night time snack. Last, but not least, on Friday night I had to settle for the smallest portion of ice cream in my living memory.
For now, the tragedy of not eating stuff I used to gobble unconsciously is somewhat offset by the joy of toying with a gadget and making elaborate calculations, but I’m sure perseverance would be high on the agenda shortly. If anything, it would pop up there due to a simple reason: all this effort I’m making will only go as far as helping me lose half a kilo a week. At this rate, it would take me a year of torturing myself to lost those ten kilos I can do without!
It is clear the battle would be won before that year is over: I’m either going to make a habit of eating as much as I should (I suspect that quickly enough I won’t need the internet to tell me how much that is), or I’m going to capitulate to the cookie monster in me. One thing is clear, though: having metrics on my side helps, and it helps a lot; knowing exactly what you eat and what it counts for is way better than having a shootout in the dark with some mysterious diets that are often based on pseudoscience. Having the challenge of managing your own diet, together with the tools to manage it with, takes you a long way.