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Eager to shed those extra post-holiday pounds? These top nutritional Web sites—packed with meal plans, calorie trackers, fitness tips, and more—can help you get started.

By Sheree Crute

All the signs of a new year are here: the air is frosty, post-holiday budgets are  busted, and, if you’re like us, you can’t button your favorite jeans. Maybe you’re also pondering another January ritual: resolving to “lose this extra weight by summer or else!” The problem is, fancy eating plans and gyms can cost a bundle. So we decided to check into no- and low-cost nutritional and fitness advice that can be found at the click of a mouse, when it’s convenient. (There go the excuses!) While this list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, we did find some great sources of information and inspiration for peeling off some pounds before it’s time to pull on those bathing suits again. And as you peruse cyberspace for help, remember to first consult your doctor before starting any new diet or exercise plan.

The New Food Pyramid

Remember the food pyramid? That friendly, but vague, official reminder of what we should and shouldn’t eat? Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled, with great fanfare and flourish, My Pyramid ( ), a new, interactive version of the old food pyramid, with an emphasis on weight loss. While getting diet tips from the government is certainly cheaper than joining Jenny Craig, how does it measure up?  

When Gloria Brown, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders as part of Project Explore in Wolcott, Connecticut, gave My Pyramid a try, she found a mix of pros and cons. First, she followed the prompts to enter her age, gender, and level of physical activity. “I liked the sample menus that came up under ‘Tips and Resources,’” she says. The menus included the recommended calories and nutrients she should eat from each food group, based on the information she’d provided. However, the generalized eating plan also revealed the pyramid’s greatest shortcoming. “They never ask what weight you are or how much you want to lose,” she says.

An oversight? Not according to the USDA. “We are emphasizing balance and moderation,” says Kelly Nettleton, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion.

Encouraging people to lead healthier lives is always a good thing, but general advice may leave some dieters at a disadvantage if they don’t know which foods to eat less of.

“Just 100 calories a day—a soft drink—can add up to 10 to 15 pounds in a year unless you compensate for the extra intake with exercise or cutting back on other calories,” notes Susan Swithers, associate professor of Psychological Science at Purdue University. In addition, she says, “there’s extraordinary variability from person to person in how many calories and how much exercise is needed to lose or maintain weight.” It’s easy to see how the unwary dieter could have trouble losing weight following the My Pyramid guidelines.

Still, the site does hit the mark in other important areas. Here’s how to get the most mileage from it:

Try ‘My Pyramid Tracker’

This interactive tool allows you to input the foods you eat each day, then analyzes whether or not you’re consuming too many calories for general weight loss, based on your activity level. It also evaluates the quality of your diet, based on your food selections:

Exercise Smarter

Learn how to incorporate exercise into your busy life with “Inside the Pyramid.”  “The minimum 30 minutes of exercise a day recommendation may seem overwhelming,” Swithers says, so consider breaking it up into three, 10-minute bursts of activity, such as exercising while watching your favorite TV show or taking a brisk walk after school.

Entertain New Ideas

“Related Links” leads to other government sites with information on meal planning, nutrition, and fitness strategies. Brown says she found more menus and “best of all, the Portion Distortion Quiz” at the site of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute . “I didn’t get an exact calorie count, but I learned that my plate was definitely too full.”

The bottom line:  My Pyramid is probably not the answer if you’re looking for detailed weight loss advice, but, as Brown points out, “it did help me make better eating decisions.” 

Pay To Lose

Information for slimming down abounds on the Internet but, not surprisingly, sites offering made-for-you guidelines will cost some. Here are two of the more respected online diet/fitness programs that some NEA members have tried:

  • Customization Plus:

If you want a super-tailored, healthy eating plan geared to the amount of weight you want to lose, head to . For $11.96 per month, you can select from one of 12 eating plans and follow the prompts to customize it to your preferences. (Hate haddock? No problem!) For another $1.99 per week, you can access specific fitness advice, and for an extra $1 per week, you can tap into the site’s chat rooms and boards and “attend” online meetings led by experts.

Calandra Lewis, a sixth-grade teacher at Mendenhall Middle School in Greensboro, North Carolina, says she signed up for Ediets in January of last year because her doctor encouraged her to lose weight. “My blood pressure and cholesterol levels were too high,” she says. So far Lewis has lost 79 pounds, with 20 more to go. “I like this plan because it spells everything out,” she says. “I don’t have to sit there and wonder what I’ll eat.”

The bottom line:   Ediets provides a complete diet/fitness package from the convenience of home.  If you’re not sure about signing up, the site offers lots of free diet information and a tracker that can be used to watch caloric intake.

  • Virtual Meetings and More: Weight Watchers Online

Considered one of the safest eating plans around, Weight Watchers members have lost—and kept off—millions of pounds. With the current program, members can either make their own food choices and track points, or forget counting and use the Core Plan, which lets them eat as much as they want from a list of core foods. Now members can even skip the meetings and get everything they need—meals, recipes, and community—online ( ). After an initial start-up fee, the plan costs $16.95 per month. ETools, geared to members who attend meetings, provides a handy way of tracking points, but also provides recipes, tips, and access to chats for $12.95 per month.

Elizabeth Stuckart, an NEA Student member in her third year at Seton Hall University, recently signed up for eTools. “I thought it would be easier and more fun for me to track my points that way, and it is,” says Stuckart, who has lost 22 pounds so far. 

The bottom line: Weight Watchers provides an effective and healthy weight loss plan. If you like the basic program but don’t want to attend meetings, you can get everything you need, including support, online.

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