Mr Epidemiology: Today, I’m welcoming Natalie Causarano to the blog. You can find out more about Natalie at the end of this post.

The summer is finally on its way, bringing us BBQs, cottages, and …wait for it…the often dreaded BATHING SUIT SEASON! That moment of truth when we must face the effects of our winter hibernation (which might make us want to stay in hibernation).

Vanity aside, the benefits of maintaining a normal weight is a long-championed public health message. Yet the combined effects of increased portion sizes and our increasingly sedentary lifestyle are making it difficult for us to maintain a healthy weight. So, where should we start to lose? The diet industry seems to be growing as fast as the obesity epidemic and the price of weight loss products is even more discouraging.

One inexpensive weight loss strategy is to self-monitor with a food and / or exercise diary, which has been found to be an effective weight loss strategy by numerous studies (1). I know what you’re thinking, there’s no more room in your purse or murse for a food journal!

Fear not, the internet has the solution!

There are many FREE websites that allow you to track, such as’s MyPlate and MyFitnessPal. These websites estimate the daily amount of calories required to lose x number of pounds per week.  It’s easy to search for the foods you’ve consumed and the exercises you’ve performed. Even better, there’s an app for that…making it convenient to record wherever, and discreetly – your friends will just think you’re becoming the mayor of the restaurant. For example, here’s a sample day on MyFitnessPal:

An example diary entry on MyFitnessPal: This day included pizza and chocolate. (click to enlarge)

An additional component of these websites is social interaction; you can connect with other people who are actively trying to lose weight. Both MyPlate and MyFitnessPal have discussion forums and groups, while MyFitnessPal also has a very similar interface to Facebook (ability to comment on status updates, etc.). Support from the online community can be very motivating, especially if you feel uncomfortable discussing your weight loss goals with friends and family. Alternatively, if you think that sharing personal information with random people on the internet is too invasive (read: creepy) you can keep your profile anonymous and not use the social aspects of the sites.

The scientific community is also taking note. In 2011, a study of 3621 people using the Nutracheck program (2) was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. This program uses a website that charges consumers for services such as food and exercise tracking, and provides the social component of online forums. The study found that the number of days that a food diary was used was positively associated with percentage weight loss in both men and women, while the number of days that an exercise diary was used was positively associated with percentage weight loss in men but not women. The use of social forums was positively associated with percentage weight loss in women, but not in men. Furthermore, the study looked at clinically significant weight loss ( > 5 %) in overweight and obese people. They compared the most active users of food and exercise diaries with less active users by grouping the participants into tertiles (high, medium and low user groups).  In overweight/obese men and women, the most active users of both food and exercise diaries were more likely to have a clinically significant weight loss, compared to the least active users.  For women, use of the social forums compared to no use was also a predictor of clinically significant weight loss.

So what’s the catch? The biggest downfall to these websites is their self-motivated nature. You have to be committed to accurately documenting what you’re eating; writing off your three glasses of wine because they’re liquids or pretending that 3 a.m. pizza falls in a special non-tracking world between Friday and Saturday isn’t going to cut it (I know, we live in a sad, sad world). Additionally, while tracking and portion control is useful for weight maintenance,  you still need to be conscious of what you eat. You won’t have the face-to-face support of a group such as the Weight Watchers program, the help (or fear) of a personal trainer or pre-packaged ‘safe’ foods like on the Jenny Craig program. Additionally, while tracking and portion control is useful for weight maintenance,  you still need to be conscious of what you eat. You will however have an accessible, proven, and cost-effective weight loss strategy, the latter which brings joy to us recently graduated and unemployed students.


(1) Burke LE, Wang J, & Sevick MA (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111 (1), 92-102 PMID: 21185970

(2) Johnson, F., & Wardle, J. (2011). The association between weight loss and engagement with a web-based food and exercise diary in a commercial weight loss programme: a retrospective analysis International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-8-83

Natalie Causarano is a recent graduate of the M.Sc. in Epidemiology program at Queen’s University. She’s interested in a large range of health topics, including health promotion and prevention. When she’s not actively seeking employment in Toronto, ON you’ll find her body attacking at GoodLife Fitness and re-reading the Hunger Games trilogy. Follow her @Ncaus on Twitter.