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DietMate Makes Bikini Season More Bearable

  —Bloomberg Business News


Washington - Every spring I greet Memorial Day with mixed emotions. Sure, the holiday is a harbinger of barbecues, balmy weather and bronzed skin. But it also means bikini season--and the thought of exposing my bod makes me want to move where I can stay covered year round. Antarctica anyone?

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This year, though, I'm taking a different track. Instead of buying a bathing suit with a skirt, I've resolved to shed a few pounds. And I've armed myself with more than cottage cheese and willpower. I've got the DietMate, a computerized diet coach about the size of a Jane Fonda videotape and far more fun to use.

Made by Reston, Virginia-based Personal Improvement Computer Systems Inc., the DietMate is supposed to make it a breeze--well, easier--to drop the pounds I accumulated during the Blizzard of '96. For those struggling with non-culinary vices, PICS also makes stop-smoking computers under its LifeSign brand.

The DietMate looks like a Game-Boy turned on its side with a flip top cover to protect its LCD screen. There are buttons to control volume and power, a scrolling function, and options for paging forward and back, getting quick help, and answering "Yes" or "No" to computer prompts. It even comes with a leather case.

I used the self-guided tour to acquaint myself with DietMate's keystrokes and commands. From there, it was easy to record my name, sex, age, weight, fitness level and brief medical history in the computer memory.

The statistics were necessary for the computer to plot my weight-loss goals. And the personalization let the DietMate act as my own private coach--a sort of cyberspace Richard Simmons--who greeted me by name and offered inspirational messages. Retailing at $197.50, the DietMate is cheaper than a personal-training regime with Richard.

I also could have used a personal identification number so no one could peek at my weight, calorie and exercise progress charts.

Now it was time for the fun part: deciding how much to lose. The DietMate gave me a range appropriate to my height, age and sex. The computer wouldn't let me aim for anything 12 pounds below my lowest recommended weight, so I abandoned fantasies of looking like a short haired Heather Locklear by July 4. Instead, I settled for a point closer to the middle of my recommended weight range.

The computer produced my short-term goal: shedding six pounds in the next six to eight weeks. The program included three meals per day, with an optional snack. I eschewed the snack, a choice DietMate praised as the speediest route to weight loss. The DietMate made it sound so easy I already pictured myself in the little purple string number I'd seen at J.Crew.

Unlike a personal trainer, DietMate is meant to be taken with you everywhere. It told me when to eat, when to exercise, when to weigh in, when to drink a glass of water. I found myself flipping it on every few hours.

DietMate gets high marks for flexibility, an element lacking in many magazine diets. The computer lets you record meals in several ways: select from an extensive list of foods, punch in a set number of calories or record food exchange values. Or, choose from DietMate's own recipes, straight from the cookbook included with the computer.

DietMate even offers suggested menus at restaurants ranging from Greek to Chinese so users can stick to the plan when dining out. Just watch the portion size. When was the last time you got a 3 ounce steak at your favorite surf-n-turf joint, or ate a deli bagel that wasn't the size of a hubcap?

If you're too busy to enter your meals or work out the moment you finish them, you can punch the information in later. DietMate can even plan an entire week's menu and come up with the shopping list.

Still, sometimes I was annoyed by how much I had to use the computer. How practical is it, after all to record every glass of water consumed, especially when the program recommends six to eight per day?

The biggest flaw was that I was encouraged to surrender all control and decisions to a machine. Not once was I advised to eat when I was hungry, or not eat if I wasn't. Instead, the system advised me to follow its menus to the letter, eating exactly the portion recommended. And few nutritionists favor a daily weigh-in, as recommended by the DietMate program. I skipped it in favor of a weekly trip to the scale.

In my more hungry moods, some of the inspirational messages grated on my nerves like a hunk of of Parmesan (23 calories and 1.6 fat grams per tablespoon, according to DietMate.) "Try not to snack- It hinders success," was the message when I recorded a forbidden 3 p.m. matzoh cracker. I turned the thing off and ate another cracker. Ha!

Ultimately, though, I found the DietMate a great way to keep track of how much I ate and exercised. By faithfully recording my meals and workouts, I realized I was putting away a heck of a lot more in a day--and burning off less--than I admitted.

PICS has sold more than 10,000 DietMate units and more than 1 million LifeSign stop-smoking devices. The products have generated more than $100 million in sales for PICS, which developed them with the help of 15 grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling more than $2 million.

I could have achieved the same result with a calorie counter and a notebook, but it wouldn't have been as much fun. And having a week's worth of calorie-conscious meals planned for me was a luxury I thought was reserved for Oprah Winfrey and her low-fat chef, Rosie Daley. "Make wise food choices today. " the DietMate told me. I'm trying. I'm trying. After all, Memorial Day is almost here.

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