- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

There’s the ever-popular grapefruit diet. And let’s not forget the cabbage soup diet, the caveman diet and the Russian air force diet. Now make way for the cell-phone diet, a timely pairing of technology and nutrition with potential appeal for gabby, chubby Americans.

The phone has become the newest weight-loss nag, a notion that has attracted the attention of the National Institutes of Health.

“How much do we really and truly eat in a day? Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” said Carol J. Boushey, a nutritionist at Purdue University whose upcoming four-year research project has participants snapping images of their daily meals with their cell-phone cameras and sending them to a waiting team of analysts.

The shots of all those goodies will be analyzed for portion size and appearance by sophisticated computer software as well. Ms. Boushey has received $452,000 from the federal agency to fund the first year.

“There is plenty of work for us to do,” Ms. Boushey said. “It’s going to be difficult to tell the difference between, say, lamb and a pork chop. There’s the difficulty of discerning between 3 cups and 1 cup in a photo.”

With complicated diet journals and calorie counters, people have become downright confused about dieting, she said.

“Combining two of our favorite things — eating and cell phones — to counter obesity is a good thing,” she said. “We want to create an accurate new tool for the public so they can stop throwing up their hands and saying, ‘I’m going to eat whatever I want.’ ”

The idea could resonate with the 45 million Americans on a diet, though Ms. Boushey frets that the participants might have trouble juggling their regular cell phone with their special diet cell phone, which will be supplied as part of the program.

Doctors at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, meanwhile, are into “diet texting.” Researchers also have received NIH funding — $200,000 this time — for a 16-week study that began Sunday using cell phones to reinforce good eating habits.

“We are trying to make this as pain-free as possible. People won’t stick to something that’s too difficult, and they’re all multitasking anyway,” said Dr. Kevin Patrick, professor of family and preventive medicine and lead investigator.

Essentially, 60 plump participants receive prompts by way of text messages and pictures throughout the day, reminding them to opt for the apple and not the candy bar or to watch portion sizes.

“We want to see if we can use technology to get people to think differently,” said Lindsay Dillon, who is coordinating the program.

Perhaps attuned to the $35 billion a year Americans already spend on weight-loss products, Canadian-based My Food Phone is providing “camera phone food journaling feedback services” for such cell-phone carriers as Sprint, Verizon and others for $10 a month. Hopeful dieters send pictures of their meals for periodical evaluation by a nutritionist. The service now boasts more than 5,000 customers.

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