For all the hype over quantified self, sometimes the old answers are still the best

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 8, 2015

From The News Desk

All month we've been publishing a series about the quantified self. It's provided some glimpses into the struggles of wearables, the still untapped (if creepy) potential of them, and the very real privacy concerns. But what we haven't gotten much into is their effectiveness at actually making you-- yunno-- thinner and healthier.

After all, that's what this quantified self is really all about. Even super data nerd Max Levchin said he wasn't into data for the sake of data, only how that data could make him 3%-5% more efficient and effective as a human being. We wear things on our wrists in a hope of a new answer to fitness-- and it's telling that the message behind FitBit, UP and the rest is more about getting fit while you go on with your life, rather than making real substantial changes to it. Or at least showing you some data that makes you feel like you are making changes.

Likewise, people have sounded off about the focus on calorie logs and calorie counters, as all calories aren't the same. Sadly, I can't get the same impact from a shot of whiskey that I can from a stick of lowfat mozzarella, even though the calorie counts are roughly the same. To the degree that apps like MyFitnessPal allow better ways of keeping calorie logs, is it giving us a false positive of progress? Just making us feel better?

I'm a big fan of MyFitnessPal (and we've got a Q&A with its founder coming up in this series) and have used it pretty reliably for more than a year. But even I have to admit, the "estimates" of what my weight should be in five weeks are always sadly and laughably off. Probably because I'm miscounting calories somewhere or eating the wrong kind. Or maybe it's just my own unique body chemistry.

But at least FitBit, UPs, MyFitnessPal, and the like aren't lying to us. Don't even get us started on outright scammers who pretend that magical, fictional technology will help you lose weight if only you'll donate to their Indiegogo campaign!

Short of injecting ourselves with permanent needles and trackers, is it possibly that technology just can't hack weight loss and health? That this is one area where atoms are stubbornly resisting the power of bits? That software can't eat this world unless we dramatically just stop eating so much shit?

Despite dramatic growths in health and fitness industries-- these apps and the rise of boutique fitness-- two thirds of Americans are still overweight.

With all of this on my mind, I was fascinated to hear about a study this week published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on NPR. It did 39 rigorous studies of 11 popular diet plans and found that the most effective were good old, unsexy Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Not a fad diet. Not pressed juice. Just the strip-mall, stand on a scale and defrost your frozen food for a monthly fee classics that your mother and Kirstie Alley used.

Why? The diets are heavily structured, easy to stick to, and have the real world social component of a coach checking in with you each week. And if you are serious about losing weight, they're pretty affordable.

I should know: After giving birth to my youngest daughter, I lost 40 pounds on Jenny Craig and have mostly kept it off for almost two years. And yeah, I also wore an UP band to coax me to walk more-- behavior that stuck as I frequently do calls on walks between meetings. And I tracked all my calories in MyFitnessPal because I liked the app better than Jenny Craig's. I also did Soul Cycle 5-7 times a week to keep the weight off, lose even more inches, and keep my sanity. But it was really those six months of religiously eating frozen meals that dropped the weight.

Unsurprisingly, when I first went on Jenny Craig, I was mocked by all my techie, hip pals for using such a dated, suburban approach to weight loss in an age of such quantification and nutrition hacking. It was as if I'd suggested weight loss by Jane Fonda workout.

"Is it organic?" someone asked me. Um, no. But it's cheap, easy to stick to and doesn't taste bad at all.

Until all this quantification actually produces better results, I'll keep relying on the classics solutions for weight loss.


[Editor’s note: The Go On With Your Quantified Self series is being sponsored by New Relic, so you’ll only see their ads around “Go On With Your Quantified Self” pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. New Relic had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

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[illustration by Brad Jonas]