How the Internet is revolutionizing weight loss

Less than two months ago, we were stuffing ourselves on holiday fare like turkey, ham, cookies, fruitcake, and pies. Immediately following the holidays, many of us found our email inboxes stuffed with ads for online diet programs. It seems that our computers have become the latest greatest weight loss tool.

Even if we weren’t getting emails about diet programs, many of us were searching for them on the web. According to Yahoo, the top ten diet searches in 2004 included: Weight Watchers, the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet, Slim Fast, diet pills, the Zone Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet.

Statistics show that 21% of Michigan men and 20.8% of Michigan women are obese and the State of Michigan ranks third in the nation for obesity, which makes finding a convenient and effective weight loss programs a priority for many Michiganders. And, let’s face it, the internet and our computers are pretty convenient, making the idea of weight loss via technology very appealing.

Family Physicians Doug Spence and Michael Carroll recently opened a state-of-the-art clinic in Traverse City (see pg. 18 for details). In addition to care for the entire family, they also focus on preventative medicine, which, of course, includes weight loss and a healthy diet.

Spence says the use of technology has given the public access to unlimited information easily and quickly.

“What previously would have taken a trip to the library or bookstore can now be accomplished from home,” he said. “A consumer of food can find out a lot about what foods to consume and what diet plans to utilize on the internet.”

He says that many well-established organizations have reputable websites that offer free information including the American Heart Association, university websites, and WebMD among others. He adds that consumers looking for specific day-to-day diet plans may have to resort to a paid website like SPARKPEOPLE.com. Spence says he has a patient that has had tremendous success with this particular program.

There are several aspects of this on-line weight loss program that Spence likes. He says it gives specific diet advice, menu options, exercise advice and lifestyle changes that deals with food as a stress reliever.

“Each advice paper was well written and easy to understand. I noted that a lot of commitment and data entry was needed to keep up on their programs for following calories and exercise. A real commitment is needed to enter data or the program cannot give back as much useful information.”

However, when making a decision about whether or not to join an online diet program, Spence recommends running the plan past your physician or a dietician.

“There are undoubtedly many diet plans out there that do not push the basics of decreased daily calories, balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, decreased saturated fats, increased complex carbohydrates and less processed foods and simple sugars.”

He adds that any weight loss program should address exercise as well. But, probably most important of all, he says, weight loss programs need to address the addictive qualities of food and the stressors in one’s life that leads to addictive behavior.

This is perhaps where an on-line diet “buddy” or an online dieters’ chatroom or forum may make a difference. Of course, according to Spence, the benefit of having someone online to “talk to” is going to have variable results.

“The benefit would be for someone who obtains a knowledgeable buddy and for one who likes to use the internet as a resource. For others who prefer speaking about things rather than reading, people vary in their best media for learning, or who obtain a poor resource as a counselor, this may not be the best for them.”

When evaluating a potential internet weight loss program, it is important not to get pulled in by claims that are too good to be true. Connie Metcalf, a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Munson Nutrition Counseling, says that you should look for these red flags to what she terms “junk science.”

First, watch out for a promise of a quick fix, a program that promotes only one single product or the recommendations are based on a single study, article or doctor. She also says to be wary of diet plans that list good and bad foods. Registered Dietiticians teach that all foods can fit in a healthy eating plan. You should also be skeptical if the plan makes recommendations in an effort to sell a product. Safe weight loss is two pounds of body fat per week. Metcalf says more than this is fluid or muscle.

Metcalf also recommends looking for a registered dietician, possibly with a master’s, with two or more years of experience in the weight management field.

“A registered dietitian has a four-year college degree, goes through an internship, passes a national exam, and has to maintain continuing ed credits,” she said. “There is no legal definition to ‘nutritionist.’ Anyone can call themselves that.”

Spence recommends a person lose 2-3 pounds per month as a healthy rate and one that can be achieved through a diet and lifestyle that is livable for a long time and less likely to lead to rebound.

“Quick loss is often done with a diet or lifestyle that cannot be maintained because of its intensity or one-dimensional diet such as all meat/cheese/no carbs or the cabbage soup diet,” he said.

Spence says that you should check with your physician before embarking on any weight loss regimen to review the basics and also to make sure one can safely enter the exercise part of weight loss.

“I always aggressively approach the addiction aspect and I also try to tailor weight loss to a persons specific style of learning and reinforcement.”

Almost every weight loss expert agrees that proper weight loss cannot take place without some form of exercise so any worthwhile online program will of course include an exercise program.

One technological advance that bridges the gap between the computer world and the world of personal training is a program called Fitlinxx. FitLinxx is a computerized system that attaches directly to existing fitness equipment. It can be programmed for each user’s workout program and then “coaches” them through the workout by recommending weight, repetitions and proper form. It also tracks the individual’s progress which can be viewed privately online at the Fitlinxx website. Health clubs utilizing this technology can also be found at fitlinx.com.

Even the gaming segment of technology has jumped on the fitness bandwagon. Yourself!Fitness, for Xbox gaming consoles brings the expertise of a personal trainer into the home with a health and fitness “game.”

Technology has certainly made many things in our lives more accessible and more convenient, and weight loss information is certainly no exception. However, before investing in a program where you pay a fee to participate, do your research, consult your physician or dietician and make sure there is a sensible exercise component to the program. With so many weight loss tools at our fingertips, this could be the year that many of us can proudly call ourselves “losers.” BN

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