Internet-Based Weight Loss Services: How Effective Are They?

HCA image In addition to traditional weight loss programs, there are now an astounding number of online weight loss programs. But, do they really work? And how do they compare to traditional weight loss services?

The Appeal of Online Dieting

Online weight loss programs are convenient—easily accessible at any time from the comfort of your home. The Internet also offers anonymity. Many adults would prefer to lose weight without having to participate in a structured face-to-face program. Finally, many online programs offer tools that allow you to track your progress, such as an online food journal or a grocery list app for your smart phone. These tools may increase your motivation to stick with the program.

How Effective Are These Services?

Although Internet-based weight loss programs are relatively new, the reviews of these programs have been overwhelmingly positive. They definitely work, and in some cases have been shown to be as effective as in-person interventions. A study published in Preventive Medicine looked at the effectiveness of a behavioral weight loss program delivered three different ways: via the Internet, in-person, or a combination of the two. After half a year, the in-person group had the highest percentage of people reaching a 7% weight loss (56.3%) compared with the Internet and combination groups (37.3% and 44.4% respectively). However, the percentage of participants reaching a 5% weight loss did not differ among the three groups. The researchers concluded that Internet-based interventions are an effective alternative to in-person treatment and that adding occasional in-person counseling sessions does not further improve outcomes.

Weight Loss

Since the onset of these programs in the late 1990s, several studies have looked at the effectiveness of Internet-based weight loss services at promoting weight loss. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the use of an online behavior therapy weight loss program with the use of a weight loss education website. The participants in the behavior therapy group received 24 weekly behavioral lessons via email and had access to an online bulletin board. Every week they also emailed self-monitoring diaries, and received individualized feedback in return. The results showed that participants in the behavior therapy group lost more weight than those simply provided with access to weight loss information on the Web. This study shows that online Internet courses can provide a viable method for delivering weight loss behavior therapy. A later study, by the same group of researchers, compared a basic Internet weight loss program with one that also offered behavioral counseling via email. Participants in the e-counseling group submitted calorie and exercise information via email and received weekly email behavioral counseling and feedback from a counselor. The study, which was also published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that participants in the behavioral e-counseling group lost more weight on average than the basic Internet group.

Weight Maintenance

More research is needed to determine the long-term weight loss maintenance among Internet-based programs. However, so far most of the research suggests that Internet-based weight loss services can facilitate weight maintenance. In a study published in the issue of Obesity Research, 255 overweight and obese men took part in a six-month behavioral weight control program conducted over the Internet. After this program, participants were placed into one of three groups (frequent in-person support, minimal in-person support, or Internet support) as part of a 12-month weight maintenance phase. The participants assigned to the Internet-based weight maintenance program lost about the same amount of weight over eighteen months as those who met with counselors. This study suggests that the Internet is also a viable method for promoting weight maintenance.

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