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Weight-Loss Websites: The Right Way to Shed Pounds?

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We’re all well aware of what it takes to lose weight: eating right, exercising, and … logging on? New weight-loss studies and a growing base of avid users suggest that online diet communities may be the virtual magic bullet when it comes to providing us with that extra push to give our lives a healthy makeover.

“I knew how to lose weight, but I just wasn’t doing it,” says Jackie Wicks, cofounder of PeerTrainer.com, of the sixty pounds she gained during her pregnancy. “But I knew if I had peer support, motivation, and guidance, I would have what it took to follow through.”

On her way to her goal weight, Wicks founded just such a place for women like her online. Since then, such communities have multiplied in popularity among people seeking weight-loss support. Intrigued, I decided to take a look at some popular online dieting sites, examining the unique weight-loss experience that they provide.

How They Work
Being the overachiever that I am, I enrolled in two diet websites: a subscription-based one, which cost me $18 a month for a minimum of three months, and a free one hosted by a popular women’s magazine.

These sites are growing by the day. For example, eDiets.com, one of the largest diet and healthy-living websites, boasts more than two million members and was voted Best of the Web in diet and nutrition by Forbes. It offers personalized diet plans, ranging from vegetarian to Atkins to the Suzanne Somers Weight Loss Plan, to complement customers’ specific needs and desires.

Membership generally includes weekly meal plans telling you what and when to eat, a virtual fitness trainer, online nutrition counseling, member chat rooms and message boards, and loads of information on weight loss, nutrition, exercise, and motivation.

First step? I filled out my member profiles, including my gender, goals, body type, and so forth. I immediately got information in return, including my BMI, a graph of my new timeline and goals, and a daily calorie guide.

Right away, I had a slew of opportunities at my fingertips: weekly virtual meetings, customized fitness plans, recipes, articles, expert advice, and forums in which to solicit advice from my fellow community members—24/7 support groups, chat rooms, and healthy-living experts. I also signed up for a mentor program that gave me thirty days of one-on-one support.

Why They Work
Right away, I felt both supported and accountable, and that seems to be the magic formula for success. Virtual communities’ round-the-clock feedback and support improve the outcomes for participants, says a Brown University study.

The study, which involved 179 people in a twelve-week, Internet-based community weight-loss competition, split users into two groups—one group received video lessons on weight loss, while the other group both watched the video lessons and had access to tools for self-monitoring their weight, eating, and exercise, along with computer-generated feedback.

The members of the second group, the one with the extra support, lost an average of nearly five more pounds than their video-only counterparts—and were nearly three times as likely to lose at least 5 percent of their body weight.

The Difference
Prior to signing up, I was unsure of what the difference would be between these online communities and, say, Weight Watchers or another in-person support group. And in some ways, there isn’t a difference. Users’ success is based on adhering to certain guidelines, setting and sticking to goals, and supporting one another through the journey. But online communities are able to expand the depth and breadth of this support network.

“A weekly meeting isn’t addressing your struggles in the moment they’re happening. It’s a very static approach,” says Wicks. “An online community is a very dynamic thing.”

Of course, online, there isn’t any group leader looking us in the eyes and asking why we ate that sundae—we’ve got to be our own toughest critics. (Gotta admit, I considered just omitting my second slice of pumpkin pie on yesterday’s food log.). But if we can be honest, that’s when our self-defeating patterns start to show, and that’s empowering. It took just a week for me to realize that I tend to go for seconds on dessert pretty often after late nights at work.

Others find virtual communities’ anonymity both comforting and liberating. “Weight problems are hard to hide,” says Wicks, so for people who are uncomfortable talking about their personal struggles in a brightly lit room full of strangers, online programs can be a lifesaver.

Who Should Try It
First and foremost, virtual diet communities are most helpful if you’re willing to use them on a regular basis. This means users have to be Internet friendly—not necessarily techies, but savvy enough to type in their food and exercise each day, and post and respond to others in chats and forums, without becoming so frustrated they end up right back at the cookie jar. Otherwise, how can they possibly reap the rewards of all those offerings?

Secondly—and I figured this out as I went—users must be willing to be honest. Omitting indulgences from the food log, or beefing up that walk into a run in an exercise journal, isn’t doing anything but harming your progress and self-understanding.

That said, users come from all different phases and places. “I’ve seen seventy-year-olds with no support at home be really successful,” says Wicks. “There isn’t just one type of person.” Message boards are ripe with food recommendations, exercise tips, and advice on eating more mindfully. Being willing to reach out to others, take their advice (and give some back) are absolutely crucial to succeeding online. “Any dieters looking to create a new environment for themselves should give it a try,” says Wicks.


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