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Virtual weight loss can be a reality

MCDONOUGH, Georgia (CNN) -- Wanda Stoy has already lost 40 pounds and wants to lose 50 more. When she gets the urge to snack, she goes right to her computer -- to get help from a "weight loss buddy" on an Internet diet chat room.

"She'll say, 'just stop it,' and I feel like she's sitting in the room with me," Stoy said. "I think online you tend to tell people things you wouldn't even tell your best friend."

Stoy's chat room, which is affiliated with the non-profit group Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), has about 1,000 members. It's one of many diet chat sites on the Web.


Diet experts say these virtual support groups can offer something lacking in many diet programs: encouragement and advice around the clock.

Support is essential to losing weight, said Howard Rankin, a clinical psychologist who helps people lose weight. "Support is not just a luxury extra when you're talking about weight loss," he said. "I believe it is really the core issue, because it's tough to do this. You're talking about a lifestyle change."

Some doctors have been concerned about replacing face-to-face contact with virtual contact. But a study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that weight loss is possible over the Internet.

In the study of 91 overweight people, 46 were assigned to use a variety of online weight loss methods. The participants had one face-to-face group meeting with a psychologist, and then had access to an online bulletin board. They also received individualized advice from a diet expert via weekly e-mails and sent back exercise and food intake diaries.

People in the group lost about nine pounds in three months and kept it off for another three months.

The authors at Brown Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island, said this weight loss was comparable to that achieved in commercial programs, but not as good as losses in behavioral programs found in the research literature, where participants typically lost 20 pounds in 24 weeks.

"These types of [Internet-based] programs might not produce weight losses that rival face-to-face programs," according to authors Deborah Tate, Rena Wing, and Richard Winett.

The other half of the participants took part in one introductory group weight loss session led by a psychologist and were then given links to Internet weight loss Web sites. Study subjects in that group lost almost four pounds in three months and kept it off for another three months.

Rankin said since there was only six months of follow up in the study, it's impossible to know if Internet diets could meet the gold standard: weight loss sustained for at least two years.

"What's more important [than short-term weight loss] is how do you stay committed? How do you stay motivated? How do you keep going when you're not doing very well?" he said.

That's where on-line support groups come in. Wanda Stoy said she uses hers in addition to weekly face-to-face meetings with her local chapter of TOPS. When using chat rooms, Rankin says to be wary. "It's a common ploy to plant people in chat rooms who suddenly say, 'Oh, I've got to tell you about this book that changed my life,' and it's really either a publisher or author selling their latest diet book," he said.

As far as getting information off diet Web sites, diet experts say reputable sites will list the credentials of the people running the site.

Experts also warn to be wary of sites selling products and not just information.

"If they're giving a heavy sales pitch, I'm suspicious of them. Are they trying to sell a product or trying to help you be successful?" said Barbara Moore, president of Shape Up America, a coalition of health, fitness, nutrition and industry organizations. The group promotes the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and active lifestyle and has weight loss advice on its Web site.

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CDC Health Topic: Obesity/Overweight
TOPS Club Inc. "Take Off Pounds Sensibly"

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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