The Dish on Online Diets: Should Your Clients Log On to Take Off?

A comparison of several popular weight loss plans now available on the information superhighway.

Millions of consumers are turning to the Internet for diet and health information, especially when it comes to weight loss help. Type in the words “online diet” using any Internet search engine, and you’ll find close to 4 million “hits.” Wielding a mouse to weed through these online diets for accurate information is a time-consuming and daunting task, even for nutrition experts. Considering that much of the diet advice on the Internet is suspect and not from credible or reliable sources, consumers have their work cut out for them.

Online dieting is increasing in popularity because we live in a fast-paced, convenience-oriented society—and logging onto the Internet has never been easier (just ask your young kids)! Even certain diets that were previously relegated to a print or a brick and mortar presence have now added an online component to capture a new market.

Most diet-related websites these days offer more than a list of recommended foods. Some sites provide elaborate features that “pop up” with recipes, meal plans, online chat rooms, discussion boards and calorie and exercise tracking devices. But the question remains, are online diets effective?

Dieters, Beware

One way to test the efficacy of online diets is to compare them to traditional food plans. For example, a study published in Obesity Research compared an internet program (eDiets.com) to the behaviorally based LEARN Program for Weight Control (Womble et al. 2004). At the end of the 1-year study period, subjects who followed the LEARN Program manual lost significantly more weight (4.0 ± 5.1% of initial weight loss compared with 1.1 ± 4.0%) than subjects who followed the plan provided by

eDiets.com. Furthermore, the subjects in the eDiets group averaged only 17.7 log-ons to the site within the first 16 weeks, which suggests that they may have had compliance issues adhering to the program (Womble et al. 2004).

These results indicate that online diet websites don’t offer quite the weight loss that some dieters might expect. The truth is, however, that adherence to a food plan is the biggest factor in the success of any diet, regardless of whether it is offered on the Internet, in a book or at a center where consumers meet in person with nutrition counselors.

In fact, some of these websites, such as Weight Watchers and the South Beach Diet, are a new offshoot of an existing diet program. Others, such as NutriSystem, used to have centers throughout the country, but have since moved to a 100% Internet service.

Here’s a look at some of the most popular online diets available today, including their main features, costs, advantages and disadvantages and recommended foods. You will learn which of these websites your clients should log on or log off!

eDiets (www.eDiets.com)

Basic Premise. An online-only program, eDiets is a constellation of different diets, such as Atkins, Slimfast Optima and the Mayo Clinic Plan; it also offers its own unique weight loss programs. Dieters start by completing a diet profile analysis to determine their personal dieting personality and which diet is the best fit for them.

Online Components

  • personalized exercise programs

  • weekly menus with printable grocery-shopping lists

  • library of fitness and nutrition articles

  • discussion boards and forums

  • member challenges

  • online and phone access to health professionals

Costs. The cost to join eDiets is $17.96 per month, with a 3-month minimum. The company charges a $25.00 early-termination fee.

Foods to Choose & Foods to Lose. The types of foods included in the personalized menus offered by eDiets will depend on the type of diet selected. The specific principles of the chosen diet are then followed in the form of personalized weekly meal plans.

Log On or Log Off? Log on. The eDiets program is a well-polished site with interesting and informative articles, instant access to professionals and a host of diets to choose from. If a dieter thinks she’d like the convenience of weekly meal plans and the support of chatting with others, then eDiets may be a good fit for her.

CalorieKing.com (www.calorieking.com)

Basic Premise. This online-only website is a behavior-based weight loss program that teaches individuals skills related to food awareness. The plan is similar to what is used in clinical weight loss research and includes a balanced deficit diet generally consisting of greater than 55% carbohydrate, 15% protein and less than 30% fat.

Online Components

  • meal plans

  • exercise and weight trackers

  • behavioral lessons through “Calorie King University”

  • library of articles and recipes related to weight loss

  • database with information on more than 50,000 foods

  • active online community with forums, blogs and live chats

Costs. The Calorie King Club costs $55 for 12 months. If you want to pay monthly, the cost is $7 per month, with a 12-month minimum.

Foods to Choose & Foods to Lose. The main focus of this site is on changing awareness about food. Lower-fat, lower-calorie foods are emphasized, as is the importance of using moderation in the diet.

Log On or Log Off? Log on. The site’s inclusion of coping strategies and skills to decrease calorie intake could be very beneficial.

NutriSystem (www.nutrisystem.com)

Basic Premise. This online-only plan allows a dieter to choose among any one of the NutriSystem’s targeted diet programs, including one for men, women, older adults of both genders, people with type 2 diabetes and vegetarians. NutriSystem is based on the glycemic index and emphasizes low-glycemic-index (usually higher-fiber) carbohydrates. Every meal and snack in the diet is portion-controlled, and a typical day includes three meals and two snacks. The main caveat to the NutriSystem program is that dieters are required to purchase the company’s food, which is shipped directly to them.

Online Components

  • online counseling with nutritionists and trained professionals via chat rooms or phone

  • library of articles

  • weekly online classes with a registered dietitian

  • discussion boards and blogs

  • member-only forums

Costs. Membership to NutriSystem’s online components is free. A 28-day supply of food for any program chosen costs $326.36 plus $16 shipping (10% discount for enrolling in the automatic delivery system).

Foods to Choose & Foods to Lose.You can choose pre-designed menus or order à la carte. NutriSystem provides users with a grocery list of items for dairy, protein, vegetables and fruit. Foods to lose include any processed or prepackaged items not provided by the company or that aren’t found on the grocery-food addition list.

Log On or Log Off? Log off. Like many prepackaged weight loss programs that require dieters to purchase the program’s food, this diet doesn’t translate into sustainable long-term use. Weight loss is unlikely to be maintained unless real behavior change is supported. For less money, customers would do better to invest in a behavior change program to learn strategies to manage weight and adhere to a plan in a variety of challenging situations.

South Beach Diet Program Online (www.SouthBeachDiet.com)

Often dubbed the “healthy” version of the Atkins diet, the South Beach Diet, which was created by cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, continues to be a best-selling diet book. The website is part of the existing South Beach Diet Program.

Basic Premise

The diet includes three phases:

  • Phase 1: During this phase, dieters are not allowed to eat fruit; starchy carbohydrates, such as bread; or other grains, such as oatmeal. The program claims that most individuals will lose 8–13 pounds (lbs) during this phase.

  • Phase 2: During this phase, dieters reintroduce most fruits and “good” carbohydrates, such as whole grains, into their diet.

  • Phase 3: Once a dieter’s weight goal has been reached, he moves to the final phase, which focuses on making healthy food choices—especially whole grains, healthy fats, fish, chicken, fruits and vegetables.

Online Components

  • message boards

  • ask-the-nutritionist feature

  • weight tracker, journal, calendar, meal plans, recipes, shopping list

Costs. The cost of South Beach Diet’s online program is $5 a week, with a minimum 4-week commitment.

Foods to Choose & Foods to Lose. The diet makes distinctions between “good” and “bad” carbohydrates. “Good” carbs include complex carbohydrates. “Bad” carbs include simple, refined sugars and some fruits and vegetables, including carrots, bananas, mangos and watermelons.

Log On or Log Off? Log on, but only if a dieter believes she can sustain the food choices on a long-term basis. Weight loss is greater in the first 2 weeks than is typically recommended by nutrition experts (8–13 lbs versus 2–4 lbs). Individuals who work out intensely and regularly may struggle when exercising during the first phase of the South Beach Diet program because of the carbohydrate restriction. In general, nutrition experts do not encourage dieters to restrict healthy fruits and vegetables from their food plans.

Weight Watchers (www.WeightWatchers.com)

Basic Premise. The Weight Watchers program is based on a balanced-deficit diet; both the traditional and online version of the diet offer two different plans. The Flex Plan requires dieters to track points instead of focusing on calorie and fat intake; dieters are given a fixed number of points to use each day based on body weight and goals. With the Core Plan, participants select from a list of healthy food choices.

Online Components

  • weight tracker

  • “points” database of more than 27,000 foods

  • restaurant and cooking guides

  • menus and recipes

  • free online community with discussion boards

Costs. Users pay $29.95 to sign up and then pay a standard monthly fee of $16.95 per month.

Foods to Choose & Foods to Lose. The Weight Watchers plan focuses on moderation and decreasing dietary fat intake. Higher-fat and higher-calorie foods are given a greater number of points, thereby decreasing total calories throughout the day.

Log On or Log Off? Log on if a dieter is familiar with the points system or likes using an established weight loss program. Unlike the traditional Weight Watchers plan, the online program does not include weekly meetings. However, dieters can upgrade and purchase a combination program of in-person and online tools, which may be better suited for those looking for face-to-face accountability.

Other Online Tools to Help Clients Lose Weight

Self-monitoring is the cornerstone of successful weight loss. Many individuals are turning to other online services to learn valuable information on calories, fat and exercise. In addition to the diet sites mentioned above, clients can also click onto several websites that provide free access to search engines for this type of information.

One example is known as an online tracking website. These tracking tools allow the dieter to record daily calories and nutrients, in addition to noting time spent exercising. Two free tracking websites to consider are FitDay.com and MyFitnessPal.com. Both offer options for tracking food, exercise and weight goals in a daily journal. MyFitnessPal.com also offers an online forum.

In addition to helping your clients understand what they are eating, some online tracking websites also allow the user to create a unique page that others can view. One such website is FitDay.com, a program that lets personal trainers track their clients, which helps the dieter with personal accountability. These online tools offer fitness professionals a great opportunity to note slips or lapses when clients are away from the gym.

The Verdict on Online Dieting Programs

Online diets provide an additional strategy for clients to use to manage weight. However, it cannot be overemphasized that such programs are self-guided and require a certain amount of dedication and motivation on the part of the client. Just because users can easily access information on the Internet, there is no guarantee that they will implement and stick to any diet program. Because of this, some trainers are using the online programs in conjunction with exercise programs to help their clients reach weight loss goals.

Barbara Hammerquist, a fitness studio owner in Gillette, Wyoming, has found that referring clients to online diet and coaching services has strengthened her business. “After I started referring clients to a reputable diet and behavior change online program, we were able to focus just on training, rather than spending precious exercising time discussing clients’ dieting issues,” she says. Hammerquist says that she views the emergence of diets on the Internet as a win-win situation. “My clients are able to reach their weight loss goals, and I haven’t stepped outside of my scope of practice.”

For now, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of online diet programs. With adherence still the biggest barrier to client success, online diets are no different than any other diet. Although these websites may provide anonymity, convenience and an easy way to access information, there is a dearth of personal accountability with such programs. This lack of face-to-face contact may explain why standard weight loss programs—especially those that offer weekly group meetings—yield better weight loss results than Web-based approaches.

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Kara Gallagher, PhD

IDEA Author/Presenter
An assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Louisville, a nationally-recogniz... more less
References
Womble, L., et al. 2004. A randomized controlled trial of a commercial internet weight loss program. Obesity Research, 12 (6), 1011–18.
November 2007

© 2007 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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