'Cyberdieting' Takes Off

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD on October 01, 2001
7 min read

May 7, 2001 -- An endless parade of pills, potions, and exercise gadgets dominates late-night infomercials. You've heard the promises: buns of steel in just minutes a day, washboard abs with no sit-ups, lose all the weight you want while eating what you want.

If you're a frequent dieter, you probably know to be leery of such claims, but you may not know that one of the best tools available for achieving your weight-loss goals is staring you in the face right now.

A growing number of people fighting the battle of the bulge are turning to their computers and the Internet to help them win the war. And while it may sound paradoxical that the sedentary act of typing on a keyboard could help you reach your dream weight, Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, and the latest weight loss information are changing the way many people diet.

No one knows that better than Kimberly Johnston, 30, who has lost 135 pounds in a little over a year. The Dublin, Va., college student and mother of two says she "lived" in an Internet chat room at the beginning of her struggle, and still relies on the encouragement and advice of friends she met there, as she closes in on her goal weight of 150 pounds.

"I started going online at first when I had hunger pangs so bad that I thought I would cry," she tells WebMD. "That was the No. 1 way that it helped me -- it kept me out of the kitchen. I also go there when I am bored or idle, and if I am having a bad day, I post a message and get all kinds of encouragement."

Johnston began her weight loss journey in February 2000 after watching an Oprah program featuring Jared Fogle, who lost almost 250 pounds on a diet of Subway sandwiches. She says something clicked when she saw the show, and she realized that she, too, could lose weight that way.

"My husband thought I was crazy because I didn't even like sandwiches," she says. "But I just knew I could do this."

A little over a year and countless hoagies later, Johnston, like Fogle, has become something of a celebrity. She has appeared in a commercial with Fogle and other successful sandwich dieters, and was featured in an issue of Woman's World magazine.

But she credits much of her success to the daily interaction with other dieters she encountered in the message boards and chat rooms at Diettalk.com.

"I have developed wonderful friendships with people, and I don't even know what many of them look like," she says. "It doesn't matter because they are there for me. Even when you post something at midnight, you pretty much know that by the time you get up in the morning, somebody will have written you back."

A dieter who calls herself "Jade" says that this kind of feedback is important -- as it the anonymity of message boards and chat rooms. She says she can "talk" about her feelings online and know she will not be judged.

"In the real world, if you tell people you need to lose 80 pounds, and then someone sees you eating a brownie, you are judged," she says. "In the online world it seems even if you 'confess' to eating that brownie, people are much more understanding. I think people in the online world are much more truthful about their actions, and are therefore less judgmental toward others."

Diettalk.com site owner John Banas says weight loss web sites offer something that diet centers and meeting-oriented groups like Weight Watchers can't -- interaction with other dieters at any time, day or night.

"Many people are not getting the support they need from their family, friends, and co-workers, but the people they meet in the chat rooms and bulletin boards can offer that support," he says. "The interaction helps people realize that they are not alone. That somebody else is going through this and feels the same way I do."

Banas says weight loss web sites complement rather than compete with commercial, meeting-based programs. Diettalk's 20,000-plus visitors each month are on virtually every diet imaginable, he says.

"We don't tell people how to diet. That is not what we do," he says. "We want to hear from everybody, no matter what diet they are on. But people need more than just one hour a week in a meeting when they are trying to lose weight."

Alex Inman of Weight Watchers agrees.

Inman, who is communications director for the WeightWatchers.com web site, says the site is designed for members and nonmembers alike and offers diet information, success stories, recipes swaps, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. A fledgling subscription-based component of the site, available exclusively to program members for $12.95 a month, charts weight loss from week to week and has a 16,000-food database to help calculate the program's "points" system.

"We are not trying to replace online what someone gets in a meeting, but the question became, 'What can we do for people the six days and 23 hours a week when they are not in a meeting?'" he says. "The answer is that we can do a lot."

It is unclear how many chat-room and message-based weight loss web sites are out there. Many of them -- like Diettalk.com and the smaller site, Dietdiaries.com -- were started on home computers by people who wanted to lose weight themselves. Others were begun as Internet businesses, complete with corporate headquarters and CEOs.

Founded in 1996, publicly owned e.Diets.com Inc., may be the largest, claiming more than four million newsletter subscribers and 250,000 paid members. The fee-based site offers a personalized home page for members, online meetings, personalized exercise plans complete with animated fitness instructor, and online support from staff psychologists.

But like many Internet ventures, e.Diets.com is not exactly wowing Wall Street these days. As of late March the stock was trading around $1.50 a share, down from $4 a share a year earlier.

Freelance web developer Jay Jennings, who runs Dietdiaries.com, admits he saw dollar signs when starting the site two years ago. But even though Diet Diaries averages around 10,000 visits a month, and has more than 150 regulars who post their diet diaries, Jennings says he is losing money.

Nevertheless, he says, "I started the site as a personal weight loss challenge, not to make money. I figured that it would be easier to lose weight if I went public. I didn't want to call all of my friends every week and bore them, so I decided to start a web page."

Recently, the government decided to do the same thing.

In March the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) launched a site designed to guide patients and their healthcare providers on safe and healthy ways to shed pounds. Based on federal guidelines released by NHLBI in 1998, the site includes an interactive menu planner, which allows the user to plan a single meal or a whole day's worth of meals based on the American Dietetic and Diabetes Association exchange list. The information can be found at https://nhlbi.nih.gov.

"We found that healthcare providers often just tell people that they need to lose weight without giving them any kind of guidance," says Karen Donato, MSRD, coordinator of NHLBI's Obesity Initiative. "We wanted to give them some tools to help them help their patients."

While there is lots of good information and interaction for dieters on the web, there are also a lot of empty calories. The same purveyors of fat-burning pills and butt-busting gizmos who show up on late-night infomercials are on the 'net as well, and the task of sifting through the bad to find the good may take some time.

Experts suggest searching a variety of sites and maintaining a healthy skepticism of products that sound too good to be true. There is no free lunch out there, they say, and dieters would do well to remember that most basic of weight loss mantras: Eat less and exercise more.

"It may take some time and effort to find the right site," Jade says. "But once you do, you are part of a community. What I say in chat rooms, I would never say to my husband. He's 6 feet tall and 145 pounds, and he wouldn't gain weight if you force-fed him with a feeding tube. For me, chat rooms are vent time. The talk very rarely centers on dieting per se. It is the place where you hash out life."

Salynn Boyles is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tenn. She has written about medical issues for a decade, and worked as a political reporter in Atlanta prior to that.