Ironically, the Internet is both a cause of rising rates of overweight and obesity and an opportunity to improve outcomes of dieting and weight loss efforts. Clearly, anything that contributes to our sedentary lifestyle is a problem -- and the Internet definitely does that. But researchers have found that a structured weight loss program delivered over the Internet can help people achieve improved dieting results.
Independent research proof
In a 2001 study at Brown Medical School, two groups of people desiring to lose weight were monitored for a period of six months. One group received weekly dieting advice from behavioral therapists on the Internet, while the other merely had access to information about good nutrition and exercise. The group that received the weekly dieting advice lost three times as much weight as those who only had access to information -- nine pounds compared to three pounds. Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that "the Internet and e-mail appear to be viable methods for delivery of structured behavioral weight loss programs."
Study validates structured approach
A more recent study, led by Dr. Stanley Heshka of St Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, found that a commercially available structured weight loss program delivered better results than a self-help approach. In this experiment, one group of overweight people received printed diet and exercise resource materials and guidance in finding additional weight loss resources at public libraries, by phone and on the Internet.
The other group received vouchers to attend weekly meetings at Weight Watchers and opportunity to access Weight Watchers' food plans, activity programs and cogitative behavior modification services. By the end of the two-year study, the group of participants that joined the Weight Watchers program had obtained superior weight loss results. Once again, the more structured diet plan approach proved to be more effective.
Who's to blame for poor performance?
A subsequent study led by Dr. Leslie Womble, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, compared yet another commercial weight loss program -- this one delivered online -- to a diet plan offered in a printed manual. In this case, the Internet program was found to be less effective. This result surprised the researchers, who had expected the opposite outcome. The researchers speculated that one reason the online program performed poorly was that, while it offered many weight loss resources, the user experience it provided was ultimately unstructured. The manual, on the other hand, gave clear instructions for dieting and losing weight and put greater emphasis on activities like recording food intake and counting calories.
In the United States, about two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, and an increasing number of people are seeking information about diet plans and engaging in weight loss efforts. Health experts believe that structured online weight-loss programs have a role to play in helping people achieve their dieting goals. Research has demonstrated that online weight loss programs do work, but it has also found that the way a weight loss program is structured can influence its effectiveness.
Ask questions before you buy
For consumers searching on the Internet for weight loss solutions, the message seems to be that they should shop carefully. Many online diet plans offer impressive components such as large databases of dieting information, tools for tracking exercise activity, access to diet and exercise experts and forums for chatting and sharing experiences.
But dieters' still need a clear strategy for losing weight and keeping it off. By its nature, the Internet encourages self-directed exploration and learning, and a principal appeal of online weight loss programs is they allow people to proceed in their own way at their own pace. Dieters can take advantage of this flexibility to better incorporate diet plans into their lifestyles, but they should also demand well-structured programs that will increase their chances of dieting success.
The marriage of the Internet's flexibility and accessibility with structured weight loss programs is still in its infancy. Suppliers of diet plan services are learning to do a better job, and consumers are getting smarter about what works and what doesn't. If you're thinking of going on a diet, you might be pleasantly surprised at the wide range of online diet plans available.
But do your research and be sure the program you join is appropriately structured to meet your specific weight loss needs.