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The Ins and Outs of Internet Dieting and How to Find Your Online Dieting Groove

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Diet Programs

What Are the Advantages?

Privacy and Anonymity: "Many dieters are very self-conscious about their bodies and are sensitive to being judged. The Internet is a great way for someone who struggles with those issues, or someone who's isolated, to get some support without the scarier commitment of seeing a coach or group face-to-face. If you know you need someone to really collar you to get you to a group or exercise class, and if you just can't get yourself motivated, the Internet may not be your best option," says Annie B. Kay MS, RD, author of Every Bite Is Divine (Life Arts Press, 2007).

24-7 Access: You can get to your online diet from anywhere at any time.

Timesaver: "It reduces the barrier of traveling to a clinic. It also allows people to have access to a regular source of check-in, even when they are traveling. So if someone is in Chicago on Thursday and next Tuesday in New York, they still have the same check-in time. In theory, people can do it on their own schedule," says Gary D. Foster, PhD, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University.

Support: Internet diets also offer wonderful opportunities for individuals who are going through similar experiences to support each other. Research supports the concept of peer-to-peer support for many health matters, including weight control. This also includes the concept of success stories. "Hearing and seeing someone who has 'done the impossible -- lost weight and kept it off' is highly motivating for many individuals. Internet weight-loss 'buddies' are also very helpful for many people for that reason. One of the reasons that a commercial diet program like Weight Watchers is so successful is the weekly group meeting," says Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RD, LDN, author of Cholesterol Down (Crown, 2006).

Cost: "They're usually much cheaper than face-to-face consultations with a nutritionist or personal trainer, and there is a ton of high-quality information available for those who know how to find it," says Kay. The typical charge is about $5 per week with a three-month commitment. Personal dietitian counseling is about $7-10 per week.

What Are the Negatives?

No Accountability: "Many of the sites are fancy tools that offer no accountability. Individuals are often more successful at weight loss when they are monitored by another party (such as weekly weigh-ins at Weight Watchers). Internet diet programs often lack the interpersonal communication of one-on-one contact and support," says Brill.

Time Consuming: Keeping track and entering your food and activities, updating your meal plan, shopping using the shopping lists online -- it's more work than having a nutritionist assist you.

Computer Skills Required: You need to really know how to use the Internet and computers to make most of these programs work.

Interference: "There's more product marketing on the sites than in the usual personal session. Ads and inducements to buy products that may or may not help the dieter are everywhere, and beg the question of what type of relationship is being established," says Kay.

Lack of Feeling: According to Kay, "The biggest drawback is that there's no real substitute for quality personal contact. As a dietitian, when I see someone face to face, I see my client's emotions more clearly, and the nuances of a face-to-face conversation just can't be replicated over the Internet.

No Activity: "Sitting at the computer is a completely sedentary activity that contributes to the couch-potato lifestyle that must be reversed to promote a lifetime of weight control," says Brill.

Maintenance Is Difficult: Prescriptive meal plans are difficult to stick to, even if you personalize them, and what happens when you go off the meal plan? Are you supposed to follow it forever?

Getting Involved: If you want to avoid dieting online, you simply don't log on. It's easier than skipping an appointment with a nutritionist or personal trainer. Blatner suggests making the online diet program your home page. However, it's easy to avoid your online diet. "I think you need to have online support groups, live chats, and other events that get you excited about checking in. The e-mail communications must be individualized and consistent. And, the more that checking your e-mail is like checking in with your friends, the more fun and successful it will be for everyone," says Kay.

Pricing: Many of the dieting sites don't tell you the price of the program until you've filled out the uninformative "diet profile." This is an annoying and time-consuming practice.

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