Junkfood Science: Social networking diet

October 12, 2007

Social networking diet

The web has become the place to see and be seen, especially for young people. The social scene for many has moved online, as communities of “friends” take on increasing importance in their lives. These groups are where many also turn to for information about serious issues, such as their health. It’s easy to believe that faceless entities are who they say they are and that the information and advice they give is trustworthy.

But an article in the Wall Street Journal warns that diet and health companies and marketers are taking advantage of the trust that develops within online communities. One result is the growth of a new type of diet: The Social Networking Diet.

Joseph deAvila writes:

Online social-networking sites for niche groups have been multiplying, looking to piggyback on the success of MySpace and Facebook Inc. by offering content tailored for their users. Now there are several health and nutrition sites that incorporate social networking, including Calorie-Count, DietTV.com, and PEERtrainer Inc. The sites offer a range of weight-loss tools and nutrition information, and let users share tips and advice with one another. Features include personal profiles, groups or message boards based on interests, and the ability to make “friends" with other users....

The Journal reports that this past year, the online diet, Calorie-Count, has grown to 620,000 members. Also revealed in this story was that this diet is a subsidiary of the New York Times Company’s About.com. [NY Times joins the list of large media outlets making money on weight loss, such as ABC, PBS, Google, Times, Disney and the Discovery Channel.] PEERtrainer has grown to 900,000 members, it reported. Diet TV was just launched this summer.

These online sites also have features of a traditional diet program. “Calorie-Count offers editorial content written by professionals such as registered dieticians and medical doctors,” deAvila reports. Its online food diaries let visitors track their calories and exercise. At DietTV, users get a list of diets that fit their profile and diet goals from a “registered nutritionist,” and are given meal plans with recipes and diet dips. And to capitalize on the community aspects, PEERtrainer offers small exclusive support groups, linked by their lifestyles. There are groups with names like "Moms With Small Children," "Emotional Eating" and "Dancers Losing Weight."

While these online diets offer inspiring stories and social networking support, the Journal cautions:

[N]o research has been done on whether these particular sites help people lose weight and keep it off. Some nutrition experts are skeptical of the online-networking model. For one, they say, any advice coming from a peer-to-peer forum online should be viewed with caution; there is the potential for fellow dieters to spread misinformation or bad advice. Also, spammers sometimes bombard the sites with fad-diet advertisements.

Concerns include examples of unsound and potentially dangerous diet and health information, eating disordered behavior tips and food fears passed around on online communities, and in the accompanying advertisements. Of importance to participants, all indications are that online diet programs work no better than any other diet. And we know how well those work.

As the 2003 FTC expert panel on weight loss advertising claims noted, “weight regain after weight loss is the rule rather than the exception.” The National Academy of Science, Food and Nutrition Board, found that even the evidence for structured weight loss programs painted a grim picture: those who complete weight-loss programs regain two-thirds of what they lose within one year and almost all of it back within five years.

As the Journal noted, there is no evidence in support of these social networking diet programs.

The closest studies are of commercial internet diets, and those report less than stunning results. A meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials, lasting at least 3 months, of commercial and self-help weight loss programs was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The researchers found that all the diet programs were presenting “best-case scenarios,” but had high drop-out rates and weight regains within 1 to 2 years. After examining their effectiveness, they concluded: “Commercial interventions available over the Internet and organized self-help programs produced minimal weight loss.”

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Vermont at Burlington compared one of the most popular commercial online diets, eDiets.com, with its social support and complement of online resources, to a structured, individualized behavioral weight loss program led by a therapist online. The commercial site resulted in significantly less weight loss — about half that of the structured program — over the brief 12-month study.

In five years, where do you suppose the participants will be? Most likely onto the next diet fad, if history is our teacher.

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