Internet-Based Weight Loss Services: How Effective Are They?
In addition to traditional weight loss programs, such as Weight Watchers, there are now an astounding number of Internet based weight loss programs. But do they really work? And how do they compare to traditional weight loss services?
The Appeal of Online Dieting
There are many reasons why online dieting services are a lucrative means for losing weight. For one, they are convenient: the majority of us need not venture far to access the Internet these days, what’s more, it’s “open” 24-7. The Internet also offers the anonymity that many people seek for personal issues such as weight loss. Additionally, research shows that most adults would prefer to lose weight without having to participate in a structured face-to-face treatment program. Finally, many programs offer fancy tools that allow you to track your progress and may increase your motivation to stick with the program. Some even provide the option of downloading food and exercise trackers to your PDA, but usually at an extra cost.
How Effective Are These Services?
Weight loss programs in general—never mind the new Internet programs—tend to be poorly evaluated. And while no studies have compared online and traditional weight loss services, a few studies have looked at the effectiveness of online dieting.
A study published in the March 7, 2001 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 Web site. 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.
Another 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 published in the April 9, 2003 issue of 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.
In a study published in the December 2004 issue of Obesity Research, 255 overweight and obese men partook 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.
Choosing an Online Weight Loss Service
Based on the few available studies, it seems that online weight loss services are a viable option when seeking a weight loss program. But there are certain criteria that an Internet weight loss service should meet before you invest your time—and money:
- Make sure the program is designed and operated by qualified health professionals who have previous experience in weight loss counseling. Ideally, at least one should be a Registered Dietitian (RD).
Be wary of services that:
- Try to sell you anything else, such as special foods, vitamins, or supplements.
- Advertise quick weight loss—rather it should be a steady loss of no more than two pounds a week.
- Promote fad or very restrictive diets.
- Offer a one-size-fits all diet—diets should be individually tailored based on parameters such as weight, height, age, weight loss goals, activity level, and medical history.
- Make sure that the program offers a variety of diet plans to choose from (ie, low-fat, vegetarian) as well as flexibility within the plans.
- The web site should have a professional appearance and be easy to navigate.
- Prior to making a final decision, talk to your physician to check whether there might be some additional restrictions regarding dieting that may apply specifically to you based on your medical history. This is something that internet based service will likely not be able to offer.
Is Online Dieting For You?
Much of the popularity of these services rests with the privacy and convenience that they offer compared with traditional weight loss programs. If you’re a regular Internet user, you may find that an online program suits you better than seeking weight loss guidance from a self-help book or traditional program. But for most of us, the best use of these services may be as a supplement to traditional programs, or for support with weight maintenance. Whether you choose an Internet based or traditional weight loss program, in the end it’s still up to you to make the weight loss happen.
American Dietetics Association
American Obesity Association
BC Health Guide
Healthy Living Unit
Harvey-Berino J, Pintauro S, Buzzell P, Gold EC. Effect of Internet Support on the Long-Term Maintenance of Weight Loss. Obesity Research. 2004; 12: 320-229.
Heshka S, Anderson JW, Atkinson RL, et al. Weight Loss With Self-Help Compared With a Structured Commercial Program. JAMA. 2003; 289: 1792-1798.
Kirk SFL, Harvey EL, McConnon A, et al. A randomized trial of an internet weight control resource: The UK Weight Control Trial. BMC Health Services Research. 2003; 3 (1): 19.
Tate DF, Wing RR, Winett RA. Using Internet Technology to Deliver a Behavioral Weight Loss Program. JAMA. 2001; 285: 1172-1177.
Tate DF, Hackvony EH, Wing RR. Effects of Internet Behavioral Counseling on Weight Loss in Adults at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes. JAMA. 2003; 289: 1833-1836.
Last reviewed May 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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