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Online Diet Programs

Online dieting programs are the electronic incarnation of the group approach to losing weight. While their offerings vary widely -- from meal plans and cooking tips to counseling, group support, and more -- what they all have in common is the power of a virtual community to support your weight loss goals.

How it works: For a set fee, members get a password to a members-only web site. Here you'll find an eating plan (some but not all are planned by nutritionists and/or medical experts) as well as recipes, and cooking and dieting tips. Depending on which program you choose, extras include everything from email counseling by nutritionists, psychologists, and other weight specialists; to message boards, group chats, and motivational tools; to articles addressing weight loss concerns, and fashion and beauty advice to help you look great while you're losing weight. Some programs also feature meal plans and nutrition information that's downloadable to your PDA or cell phone.

The cost: Most plans charge around $5 a week, billed in monthly installments. If you're not satisfied, most also offer a refund on any unused portion of your membership.

What the experts say: "There are several studies suggesting that Internet weight loss programs can be quite beneficial," says Heller. One study, she says, found that adding personalized counseling via email significantly improved weight loss in adults at risk for diabetes.

"While I don't think that an online program will ever replace in-person counseling with a nutritionist or physician, the anonymity of online dieting, along with the low cost and convenience, do appear to increase compliance and motivation," says Heller. And that, she notes, increases dieting success.

Bottom line: If you can't afford in-person counseling -- or it's not convenient for you -- the online weight loss community could be your new best friend. If you're spending time at your computer anyway, these web sites are bound to prove more productive than games, shopping, or even surfing. And who knows? You might make some great friends, too.

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