A couple of weeks ago, Consumer Reports declared Jenny Craig as the best commercial diet plan. Not big news to non-dieters like myself – no one would look at me and think "What a fudge ball!" But age, gravity and a metabolism that has slowed to sloth speed has dragged what excess body fat I carry down into one annoying lump just above my belt line, and neither my self-esteem ("Damn, gotta get a bigger belt!") nor my back ("Did you take your lumbar pillow?") is thrilled. So, I donned a pair of sunglasses, pulled a hoodie hood over my head and sneaked furtively into a local Jenny Craig retail store to get a preliminary quote.
Quite separately, I started looking for an App of the Week topic and ran across an app from an outfit called SparkPeople. I'd never heard of it, but with 10 million users, apparently SparkPeople is the largest dieting social network in the country.
Being the reasonably well-informed journalist and pop culture watcher that I am, I assume if I haven't heard of it, it's likely many others haven't either. So I checked 'em out, and SparkPeople looks totally legit.
Like most weight/diet services, SparkPeople proscribes and/or helps you keep track of what you eat and how you exercise to help you lose weight.
Unlike most weight/diet services, SparkPeople is free – they don't sell food or advice or anything. According to a statement on the site from founder, Chris Downie, "SparkPeople can be free because my wife and I were very early eBay employees and are now using our earnings from its success to make the world a healthier place."
What's the catch? There isn't one. SparkPeople is mostly ad supported – oddly, there's an ad for Jenny Craig on the SparkPeople blog site. SparkPeople isn't pure altruism. It's a for-profit company. The profit's just not coming from dieters.
Where are the diet apps?
This is not a review of SparkPeople, however. I leave that to some of the other far more capable diet experts at LifeGoesStrong.
I am concerned with technology and, specifically, SparkPeople's apps – and the surprising paucity of apps from the other commercial diet companies.
Jenny Craig has only an iPhone dining out app, for instance. Both Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers have mobile apps, each offering similar services as SparkPeople's apps – but with one important difference. While the apps from Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers are free, you have to join (and pay) to get all the benefits.
Since SparkPeople is free, you get full functionality – sort of.
SparkPeople actually has more than one app. It just released a Healthy Recipes app for iPad, which complements its Diet & Fitness Tracker apps for iPad, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.
What's in the app
When you sign in, you supply your age, gender, current weight, goal weight, desired weight loss speed and some other personal body and lifestyle info. The apps then create a daily menu – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks culled from a two-million item library – designed to fit those personal characteristics and goals.
Your daily calorie limits are listed and your calories consumed is recalculated each time you tell the app which menu items you've consumed. You can even add your own menu items, and the app will figure out how those calories fit in.
Under "Fitness," you let the apps know what kind of exercises you've done so you can track how many calories you've burned. To help you exercise correctly, the iPad app offers 250 animated exercise demonstrations, with instructions.
I'm definitely no expert on dieting/fitness apps or regimen, but this app seems clean, clever and comprehensive. In fact, there is so much data to view and enter, keeping up with it may prove as demanding as your diet.
You also get a daily "Inspirational Quote of Day" (no comment), and a link to SparkPeople's Healthy Lifestyle Blog, which takes you out of the app to the SparkPeople blog Web page.
Where are the people?
But the apps are missing an important SparkPeople ingredient – the people. Fortune has called SparkPeople the "Facebook of dieting," and SparkPeople assumes 10 million heads are better than one where dieting advice, recipes and support are concerned – there are more than 250,000 user-submitted healthy recipes, for instance.
But nowhere in the app is a link to this vibrant dieting community, or even to SparkPeople's Facebook page.
SparkPeople's apps are version 1.0. I was told by some people at SparkPeople (it's called "SparkPeople" because the founder wants to spark people to enjoy a healthy lifestyle) that several improvements are planned to these first-try apps well before next year's diet season begins (January is the Christmas of dieting, apparently).
One of these improvements will be getting links to the SparkPeople people into the varying apps. SparkPeople also plans to incorporate your smart phone's camera into the apps' functions, to let users snap photos of meals, exercises and other support aids – hopefully not to post a bikini photo of yourself and ask "Do I look fat to you?" Because if you have to ask…