Monday, March 05, 2007

EATracker, your new Weight GAIN Weapon

Every once and a while I get a phone call at my office asking if I can help someone gain weight. Now that I've found the Dietitians of Canada's new EATracker site, I've got somewhere to send them.

Now I can't say that this is an entirely unbiased review of EATracker given that the site was created by the Dietitians of Canada - an organization that has come out in strong support of a Food Guide with nutritionally indefensible positions like advocating chocolate milk to children, refined carbohydrates and red meat to all, the inclusion of juice as a fruit, and the limitation rather than the elimination of trans-fats.

That said, I was hopeful that at the very least EATracker would succeed where Health Canada failed - Calories.

Before I get to the Calories, let's start with the site itself. It's slow - painfully, frustratingly, dysfunctionally slow, but perhaps that's just growing pains.

It's laid out into 5 sections:

  1. Select a Day - an easily navigable calendar that lets you scroll through your entries
  2. Eating Diary - this is your food journal area.
  3. Activity Diary - this is your exercise journal area.
  4. Daily Assessment - their summary pages
  5. My History - where you'll find out how close the Food Guide you're eating.
The eating diary is truly terrible.

The food database is incomplete and challenging. For instance if you want to enter a banana you won't find one under banana. Instead you have to search for bananas plural. For the day that I tried to enter, I was unable to find egg whites or scotch and given that there's no means to enter your own food items, they got dropped off my list.

I was also disappointed to find that the only way to adjust your portions is through Canada's Food Guide serving sizes - apparently there are no in betweens and no means to account for things accurately like simply inputting an exact weight or measure, and therefore if you don't buy and eat your food in Canada's Food Guide servings, there is no accurate means to account for your intake.

You can also forget about adding in anything from a restaurant. No Tim Horton's, no Swiss Chalet, no McDonald's, no restaurant information at all - this despite the clear availability of chain restaurant Calorie information and the Dietitians of Canada explicit knowledge that Canadians eat out a lot.

The activity diary works easily enough, you search for your activity and then enter the number of minutes that you participated.

It's in the daily assessment where the weight gain magic begins, as it's in the daily assessment where they provide you with their, "Energy (Calorie) Feedback"

Firstly I'll point out that despite clearly having a food database somewhere, EATracker only displays the total amount of Calories it estimates you've consumed for the day, not the itemized breakdown by food, thereby preventing you from learning from your choices.

Where it really falls apart is when EATracker estimates how many Calories you should be consuming each day.

EATracker told me that I should be eating 2,900 Calories daily based off my age, weight, height and reported activity levels. I generally eat in the neighbourhood of 2,200-2,400 Calories. Were I to eat 2,900 Calories daily I'd gain roughly 1lb weekly.

I was at work when I was playing with this and so I grabbed some patients from the hall and had them complete the EATracker demographic collection and activity diary so as to see what it told them to consume.

Patient number 1 is in her early 40s, 5'5", weighs 148lbs and is a runner. She's currently consuming 1,600 Calories daily and in so doing has lost nearly 50lbs this past year. She's still losing weight, albeit at a slow rate. EATracker told her to consume 2,700 Calories daily - an amount that would have her gain back the weight that she lost in roughly 6 months at an initial rate of close to 2lbs weekly.

Patient number 2 is in her early 50s, 5'3", weighs 128lbs and is also a runner. She's currently consuming 1,600 Calories and in so doing has lost 30lbs. She's been maintaining her weight loss now for more than 6 months. EATracker told her to consumer 2,160 Calories daily - an amount that would lead her to gain roughly 1lb per week.

So what does all this mean?

If you want to gain weight, if you want to ignore careful weights and measures, if you want to forget about the fact that most Canadians eat out multiple times per week, if you want to adhere to a nutritionally flawed Food Guide, then by all means use EATracker.

I don't understand the notion of putting out such a subpar product. There are fabulous, free food diaries out there. Sparkpeople is great. It's customizable in terms of weights and measures, allows you to input your own foods, and includes restaurants in its database. Why release a product that's clearly less expansive, less user friendly, less customizable and more misleading than the ones that already exist?

The release of EATracker is analogous to a pharmaceutical company releasing a drug for blood pressure that's not even remotely as good as the ones already on the market. Frankly in the free market, that would never happen which is why to me, EATracker, heavily promoted on Health Canada's Food Guide website, looks like a collusion between Dietitians of Canada and Health Canada to promote our substandard Food Guide. I would be shocked to learn that Health Canada, and therefore you and me, didn't foot the bill for the creation of this useless tool.

I grade it an F.