Like most yo-yo dieters, Jacqueline Foss struggled with different fad diets only to watch the pounds creep back. Left with little choice, she turned to an unlikely source to help her slim down — the Internet.
Foss enrolled in an online diet program where she recorded her weight, noted every meal in her food diary and chatted with support groups. She reached her goal of a sleek 125 pounds after six months — losing 28 pounds from her 5-foot-5-inch frame — and even managed to keep the weight off nearly a year later.
“It was convenient for me because I just log on from my house,” said Foss, a 41-year-old software saleswoman from Syracuse, N.Y. “It was also private and if I failed, nobody would know but me.”
Internet dieting has exploded in the last few years, attracting people who lack the time to attend face-to-face meetings or those too embarrassed to get on a scale in front of strangers. But the popularity of cyberdieting has left some experts wondering whether it is as effective as traditional counseling.
About two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Obesity, which is linked to diabetes, heart disease and other ailments, is on pace to beat smoking as the nation’s leading cause of preventable death.
Foss felt she needed to lose some weight and joined eDiets.com, one of the largest online diet programs with over 200,000 active members. For $5 a week, dieters receive personalized meal plans and shopping lists and around-the-clock access to nutritionists and peer-support chat rooms. Dieters are encouraged to keep a daily log of their food and a weekly tally of their weight. If they forget, a message will pop up on their computer the next time they sign on.
“It’s not all about food and diet. A lot of it is getting the tools you need to make behavioral changes,” said Susan Burke, a registered dietitian and vice president of nutrition services for eDiets.
While cyberdieting generally reaches a wider audience and is significantly cheaper than weigh-in meetings with a counselor, skeptics argue the biggest drawback is lack of accountability.
Unlike traditional dieters whose progress is monitored by a dietitian, online dieters are trusted with keeping track of their own weight, which critics say may cause some to inflate their results.
“When people are trying to make major lifestyle changes, information typed on a page may only go so far for certain people,” said Cynthia Sass, a Tampa, Fla.-based registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Online vs. offline
Experts agree more research is needed to determine how effective the Internet is in helping people shed pounds and maintain their goal weight.
A 2001 study by researchers at Brown University found that people who enrolled in a structured online dieting program lost three times more weight in six months than those who casually surfed the Internet for diet information.
But the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association did not compare virtual weight-loss programs with traditional counseling.
Last month, researchers at the University of Vermont suggested that the Internet appears to work as well as offline programs in maintaining long-term weight loss. The research published in the journal Obesity Research did not examine whether the Internet actually helped people lose weight.
Instead, Vermont researchers tracked 255 overweight and obese adults who first lost weight with the help of a counselor. The adults were then randomly assigned an 18-month maintenance program via the Internet, in-person counseling or limited face-to-face contact. Researchers found that people in the Internet group lost as much weight in the maintenance phase as those who met regularly with a dietitian.
“From a public health perspective, you can treat so many more thousands of people on the Internet than you can in person,” said Jean Harvey-Berino, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of nutrition and food science. “There is some value to it.”
Joan Rainwater, a paralegal turned yoga teacher from Waterville, Ohio, used to be a “grazer,” constantly snacking at night without keeping track of what she ate. But after Rainwater signed on to CaloriesCount.com two years ago, she discovered that being anonymous helped her keep faithful records of her weight without the pressure of weigh-in meetings.
“I was more honest with myself,” said Rainwater, who shaved off 32 pounds and slimmed from a size 14 to a size 6. “There were times when I’d skip a meeting because I knew I didn’t want to get on the scale.”
Many traditional diet centers like Weight Watchers International Inc., best known for their weekly meetings and group support, have extended their presence to the Internet, offering a virtual counterpart to dieters who cannot make in-person meetings.
“We offer the best of both worlds,” said Grace Ann Arnold, spokeswoman for WeightWatchers.com.