Diet and nutrition

Best DIY diet? MyFitnessPal app, says Consumer Reports

Jan. 4, 2013 at 1:59 PM ET

Hoping to see less of yourself in the new year? Then grab your smart phone and start typing.

Consumer Reports surveyed more than 9,000 of its readers, asking them to share their diet experiences, weight loss results and overall satisfaction with various diet plans. While people lost "significant" weight on all 13 diet plans in the survey, the highest reader score came from do-it-yourself dieters who used a free calorie-counting/calorie-burning smart phone app called MyFitnessPal.

"It's basically just a very convenient way of keeping a food diary and we know from lots of research that that's a very effective way of cutting calories," says Nancy Metcalf, senior program editor at Consumer Reports. "MyFitnessPal has a huge data base of food, recipes, even recipes that users have submitted. Or if you're eating a packaged food, you can scan the bar code and it will suck in the nutritional information. It keeps a running daily total of your calories and can even roll it backwards if you exercise. It makes it very easy."

The 77-year-old independent nonprofit organization asked their readers -- whose age and income are a bit higher than that of the average American -- to rate various diet plans, including commercial plans which offer replacement meals.

Weight Watchers and its point system netted the highest reader score in the commercial diet category with a 74 (a whopping 43 percent of the people surveyed had signed up for Weight Watchers), followed by Medifast with 70, Jenny Craig with 66 and Nutrisystem with a reader score of 56.

When it came to do-it-yourself diet plans, however, the diet app MyFitnessPal received the top score of 83, reflecting readers' overall satisfaction with the diet plan with regard to cost, ease of use and weight loss.

The Paleo diet, which encourages dieters to "eat like a cave man" with lean meat, fish, fruits, nuts and non-starchy vegetables followed closely with a score of 80. The Mediterranean diet (think olive oil, nuts, fish, fruit, veggies, yogurt, and low-fat cheese) received a score of 77, with Spark People, another diet app and website, close behind with a score of 76.

"People ... pretty much lost weight on all of them even though they were extremely varied in terms of what you eat, how they work and what's asked of you," says Metcalf. "What it says to me is there's a diet for everybody and if you don't like the one you've tried, try something different."

Other important takeaways from the survey include the following:

Accountability is key.  "It's a huge factor," says Metcalf, adding that people who attended in-person Weight Watchers meetings lost more weight than those who simply used the online tools. "People who went to the meetings were more satisfied, lost more weight and felt they had learned more behavioral management things," she says. "We talked to researchers about this and they said it makes total sense. Behavioral reinforcement is huge. We're social beings."

Find what's right for you. When it comes to diets, it's all about your own preferences, says Metcalf, citing one reader who didn't like the SouthBeach diet because she felt like she spent most of her time chopping vegetables. "She might be somebody who would do better with Jenny Craig or Medifast or one of the other diets where they give you food," she says. "Other people would be fine with chopping vegetables and not feel right about eating pre-fab foods. There's no right or wrong. You can lose weight with all of them. It's the one that fits with you."

You don't have to spend a ton of money. While four of the diets involved springing for a membership or food replacement plan, nine of the diets readers cited were low or no-cost DIY plans, such as Paleo, glycemic index, Atkins, or other low-carb diets. "All you have to do is buy a book or download an app or go to a website and do what it says," says Metcalf. "You don't have to necessarily spend a lot of money to lose weight."

Tools rule. Techie tools like MyFitnessPal are "very reinforcing" says Metcalf. "It's no surprise that it got our top rating for 'how did this diet make you aware of calories.'" But Consumer Reports readers aren't the only ones who've lost weight using calorie-counting apps and websites. Cooking Light editor Scott Mowbray raved about MyFitnessPal in the July issue of his magazine, jokingly referring to it as "My Pocket Tyrant." The high reader satisfaction score even inspired Metcalf to give the app a try herself. "My daughter's getting married in the spring so I'm on the mother-of-the-bride diet," she says. "I've lost 12 pounds so far."

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