These days, there are many online weight loss programs in addition to traditional weight loss programs, such as Weight Watchers. But do they work, and how do they compare to traditional weight loss services?
The Appeal of Online Dieting
Online weight loss programs can easily be accessed from the comfort of your home, making them very convenient. Dieters can also be anonymous on the Internet, which is a big plus since research shows that many adults prefer to lose weight without having to participated in a face-to-face program. Additionally, many of the online diet programs offer helpful tools, such as the ability to track your progress, online food journals, and grocery list apps for smart phones. All these things could help motivate a dieter to stick with their program.
How Effective Are These Services?
Internet-based weight loss programs are fairly new, but so far, they've received extremely positive reviews. They have been proven to work, and, in some cases, they've been shown to be as effective as in-person interventions.
A study found in Preventive Medicine looked at the effectiveness of behavioral weight loss programs delivered via the Internet, in person, and both online and in person. After six months, the in person group experienced the highest percentage of people reaching a 7% weight loss (56.3%). The Internet group saw 37.3% of its members reach 7% weight loss, and the combination group has 44.4% of its members reach 7% weight loss. The percentage of participants who reached a 5% weight loss, however, didn't differ among the groups. Researchers determined that Internet-based interventions are effective alternatives to in-person treatment. They also determined that the addition of occasional in-person counseling sessions didn't improve the outcomes.
The effectiveness of Internet-based weight loss programs has been studied since they began to appear in the late 1990s. A Journal of the American Medical Association study compared the use of an Internet behavior therapy weight loss program with the use of a website which provides weight loss education. Participants in the behavior therapy group were e-mailed 24 weekly behavioral lessons and had access to an online bulletin board. They also wrote self-monitoring diaries weekly, and received individualized feedback concerning what they wrote. Participants in the behavior therapy group dropped more pounds than those who were provided with online access to weight loss information. The study seems to prove that Internet courses are a good method for delivering weight loss behavior therapy.
Another study by the same group of researchers compared a basic Internet dieting program with a program which also offered e-mailed behavioral counseling. Individuals in the counseling group submitted calorie and exercise information via email and received weekly behavioral counseling and feedback from a counselor. The study, also published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that participants in the online counseling group lost more weight on average than the group which didn't receive counseling.
The long-term effects of Internet-based programs on weight loss maintenance have yet to be seen. But most research indicates that Internet-based weight loss services are beneficial. A group of 255 overweight and obese males participated in a six-month behavioral weight control program online. After the six-month period, the participants were divided into groups - frequent in-person support, minimal in-person support, or Internet support - for a 12-month weight maintenance phase. Participants in the Internet-based program lost approximately the same amount of weight in the 18-month period as the individuals who met with counselors. The study, published in Obesity Research, also suggests that the Internet is a viable method for promoting weight maintenance.
Choosing an Online Weight Loss Service
You may want to give online dieting a try, but you may not be sure how to choose the right program. Before you jump into a program, make sure the following criteria are met:
1) The program should be designed and operated by qualified health professionals with experience in weight loss counseling. At least one of these professionals should be a registered dietitian (RD).
2) Be cautious of services that:
- Try to sell you extras, such as special foods, vitamins, or supplements.
- Advertise quick weight loss. A healthy diet results in steady weight loss - 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 weight, height, age, goals, activity level, and medical history.
3) The program should offer a variety of diet plans from which to choose (low-fat, vegetarian), as well as flexibility within the plans.
4) The website should have a professional appearance, be easy to navigate, and offer supporting tools such as progress trackers, chat forums, and bulletin boards.
5) Before making a final decision, talk to your doctor. Ask if you have any dietary restrictions due to your health. An Internet-based service will likely not be able to offer that kind of advice.
Is Online Dieting For You?
Online diets are popular because they are private and convenient. If you use the Internet regularly, you may find that an online program suits you best, rather than following a traditional program or reading a self-help book. Remember that, whether you choose an online diet or a traditional weight loss program, it's up to you to make weight loss happen.
American Dietetics Association
American Obesity Association
Public Health Agency of Canada