How effective are online weight loss programs? Can “cyber-dieting” really help me lose weight?

In 1999, researchers at Brown University in Rhode Island conducted a study involving 91 overweight adults who were divided into two random groups. Both groups were given advice at the beginning of the study about diet and exercise and were provided with a list of web sites from which they could find information about keeping a food diary, calorie burning, nutrition and healthy recipes, and find a cyber diet buddy. One group, however, was also given access to behavioral professionals by e-mail and received personal feedback about their program. They could also contact other participants through online bulletin boards.

By the end of the study, the group that received interactive support and professional counseling sessions online lost three times as much weight as the group who only had access to web sites for information. According to lead researcher Deborah F. Tate, the study demonstrates “that a structured program with continued contact works better than just giving people access to information online.” In addition, she said, “Logging on more frequently was associated with better weight loss in both groups.”

The conclusion of this study, as published in the March 7, 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association, demonstrates that the internet and e-mail appear to be viable methods for delivery of structured behavioral weight loss programs.

When considering an online program, do some research and choose the site that is right for you. “Free” is not necessarily “better” — investing in a fee-based program can help you stay committed. Many people object to all the advertising clutter on “free” sites and complain that it is distracting and annoying. Take a look at what the site offers in the way of services and features to determine if it fits your needs.

Here are some important features to look for when considering an internet weight loss program:

Professional support: e-mail or “live” online interactive features that allow you to receive personal information and feedback about your program from trained professionals.

Message boards and chats: many dieters don’t receive support from family, friends and co-workers and rely on interaction with other dieters for additional support and motivation.

Behavioral components: the lifestyle and mental aspects of weight control should be addressed for long-term success.

Nutrition and exercise guidelines: look for a program that provides a safe and healthy plan that has been proven to be effective for long term weight maintenance as well as for weight loss.

Data tracking and feedback: tracking your progress and monitoring your results can provide valuable feedback that allows you to evaluate your program patterns and goals.

Beware of sites where the purchase of weight loss supplements and diet aids as a mandatory part of their program.