Weight loss has a lot in common with budgeting. It’s all about making smart choices, planning ahead and avoiding impulse decisions and costly binges. Talk about a budget-buster: Weight loss programs can be a major drain on the wallet.

Take WeightWatchers, for example. It has a reputation for great weight loss success, but at a cost of about $230 per year, its convenient online program is out of reach for many. Luckily, SparkPeople offers a similar program at no charge.

Features of SparkPeople

Track: SparkPeople doesn’t utilize the Points system found in WeightWatchers. Instead, all the nutritional information for food intake is tracked. I think that’s a good thing, since two daily meal plans can share the same number of Points while varying greatly in the ratio of protein to carbohydrate to fat (and in things like salt content). For example, I could eat well-balanced meals or simply have 20-some Points worth of chocolate. That’s not exactly balanced!

SparkPeople’s system makes it simple for those with heart conditions to maintain a low-sodium diet or vegetarians to make sure they’re getting enough protein, for example. Most foods are already in the SparkPeople database; if you eat something that isn’t, just enter the information straight from the label or from websites like About’s Calorie Count or WebMD’s Food-O-Meter.

Move: SparkPeople helps users set up an exercise program that works with the individual’s weight loss goals. It allows you to choose a workout program based on individual goals or areas of focus, or there is an option to plan your own exercises based on things you already like to do, like tennis or swimming. Cardiovascular exercise helps with weight loss while strength training builds and tones muscle, so users are encouraged to do a little of each.

Progress: The main page keeps track of your current weight loss and remaining calories to eat and burn. Users also can access daily reports and older data spanning several days to track daily nutrients and discover any patterns that should be adjusted.

Learn: There is a wealth of articles, quizzes and videos designed to educate on health topics and dispel the weight loss and exercise myths that are out there. Users will learn how to maintain a healthy lifestyle while juggling life with kids or preparing for a wedding, or any number of other topics.

Connect: There are three main ways to use SparkPeople socially. For those who connect SparkPeople with Facebook or other social media, it is possible to share posts about progress or to invite friends to lose weight with you. You can also utilize SparkTeams, groups of people who share common goals or characteristics; these provide group goal tracking and message boards to interact with others. And last are SparkPages, which are profiles you can use to establish your online identity, interact with friends and send virtual gifts, among other things. Losing weight is much easier if you do it with others.

Go: SparkPeople has a useful mobile app that tracks meals and exercise on the move. You can even scan the barcodes on your food packages to add them quickly to your tracker.

How to Get Started:

  • Sign up using either Facebook or email. During the sign-up process, you’ll be prompted with a few questions to help guide your program.
  • First decide whether you would merely like to improve your lifestyle or actually lose weight. If weight loss is what you’re after, you’ll need to set your BMI and weight loss target. Don’t be discouraged that your target can only be to lose 1 to 2 lbs per week. If you follow this plan, it’s possible to exceed your goal; however, 4 to 8 lbs per month is considered healthy weight loss.
  • You’ll be asked to select three small initial goals to work on during the first two weeks of the program. These are things like "Eat a healthy breakfast," "Take the stairs at every opportunity" or "Get 8 hours of sleep," and they’re designed to help build healthy habits. With any weight loss program, if you don’t develop a healthy lifestyle, you’re much more likely to gain the weight back.
  • Join SparkTeams, select newsletters you’re interested in, and set up a SparkPage. Or skip that and just get started using the site!

Personally, I’m not on as much for weight loss as I am for building a better lifestyle for myself and my son. One of the first things I realized on this site was how much sodium, saturated fat and carbohydrates were in the fast foods I loved. Just by making those foods from home, I’ve lost about 10 lbs, and the homemade versions taste just as good!

  This has been a guest post by Chazona from Norfolk, VA
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