Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Do you need a 'Spark' to lose that weight?

SparkPeople has spawned companion Web sites such as SparkRecipes and SparkSavings.
SparkPeople has spawned companion Web sites such as SparkRecipes and SparkSavings. (Sparkpeople)
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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are you a SparkPerson?

Since I started writing about nutrition a few years ago, readers have often recommended SparkPeople as a weight-loss resource.

Once I got over the cutesy name, I found the Web-based program to be useful enough. I signed up for a daily tip via e-mail (but hardly ever read them) and sometimes include its recipes in my weekly Lean & Fit newsletter. Perhaps because of the name, though, I kept the site at arm's length. With the publication of the organization's book, "The Spark" (Hay House, 2009), I decided to take a closer look.

Founded in 2000 by Chris Downie, SparkPeople offers nutrition and fitness information, tools for tracking calories and physical activity, healthful recipes and, most of all, motivation and support for people seeking to lose weight. While there are plenty of similar resources on the Internet, the site stands out for the apparent enthusiasm of its members, its frenetic home page and the fact that it's free.

It is one of the largest and most popular weight-loss sites on the Web, drawing 2.05 million unique visitors in May, just behind Weight Watchers' 2.1 million, according to the digital media research firm Comscore. SparkPeople won the month in page views: 97 million vs. 50 million.

As a young adult, Downie devised a set of strategies (setting small goals, using minor successes as motivation to keep going) to overcome anxiety. He found himself accomplishing feats, such as public speaking, that he'd never imagined he could. When he learned his example had inspired an overweight co-worker to lose 50 pounds, he realized his self-help program might benefit others.

"I wanted to put all the stuff [I'd learned] together so people finally can have the answers without searching all over the place," says Downie, 40.

It didn't hurt that he also was a founder of an early online auction site bought by a fledgling company called eBay, for what turned into millions of dollars' worth of eBay stock. That wealth allowed Downie to pursue his dream and to make SparkPeople free to all comers. The site accepts ads (including from The Washington Post), but not for stuff such as diet pills.

Downie presents his weight-loss advice as part of a larger scheme to help people achieve goals in other areas of their lives, from job to family to finance. Every small weight-loss success, be it a pound shed or a mile walked, is viewed as a "spark" or incentive not only to keep losing weight but also to tackle other problems.

The site's health advice is fairly standard. The magic's in the motivation. There's a section of success stories with "before" and "after" photos. There are forums for sharing tips and recipes, a Woo Hoo! button for announcing triumphs and a Panic button for, well, just what it sounds like.

Member Lori Gutierrez, 46, of Bakersfield, Calif., says she has lost more than 150 pounds. "You can always find yourself in someone else's story," she says. "Someone to inspire you to do it for one more day."

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