Dieting in the digital age

Made a resolution to knock off a few pounds in the new year? The Web is ready to help you tip the scales.

You've finally polished off that delicious plate of Christmas cookies and fruitcake with a bottle of eggnog, just in time to start the new year with a post-holiday diet and fitness plan.

It might seem counterintuitive, but many dieters find that sitting in front of a computer and using the Internet helps them to keep those weight-loss resolutions. And then going to the gym, of course.

An About.com online survey of more than 1,500 adults found that losing weight is at the top of the list for nearly half of people who make New Year's resolutions. Of those, 42 percent said their best weight-loss tool will be the Web, where they participate in support groups, subscribe to online diet sites and gather other relevant information.

Connecting with the online community has helped April Cummins-Kohl shed 25 pounds since the summer. She logs on to weight loss Web site SparkPeople.com several times a day and spends hours each day on the free site.

"I find that I need that motivation from other people who are going through what I'm going through. People are writing you all the time," said Cummins-Kohl, of Surprise, Ariz.

"You learn how to do your portions. You learn how to make good choices with those foods and how to read labels, from the comfort of your own home," she said.

Caren, a blogger in Omaha, Neb., who uses only her first name, said she was planning to use SparkPeople.com to help her lose holiday weight.

"I'm starting Jan. 1 and will spend the next week finishing up Christmas goodies and gearing up mentally," she wrote on her blog. "I can't wait to get back into my clothes!!! I'm so sick of wearing the same pair of sweatpants over and over and over!!!"

At least one research study has found that, in some cases, online and e-mail support can be as effective as face-to-face counseling. The North American Association for the Study of Obesity Research published a study in which 255 healthy, overweight and obese adults were split into two groups: one that received in-person counseling and the other that received online support. The two groups achieved nearly identical weight loss after 18 months.

Weight loss is more than a matter of vanity; it has become a matter of health in the United States, where adult obesity has been steadily increasing since the late 1980s. About 64 percent of Americans are classified as overweight and more than 30 percent as obese by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

To help combat what the FDA called the "nation's obesity epidemic," the agency commissioned an official working group that released its findings last year.

The report said that being overweight or obese increases the risk of coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. According to some estimates, at least 300,000 deaths each year may be attributed to obesity, the report said.

Frustrated at weighing 400 pounds, a California man took his weight-loss program to the streets. Steve Vaught, once known as "Fat Man Walking," left his home outside San Diego on April 10 for New York City and launched a Web site through which supporters can track his progress. He was in Rolla, Mo., this week, more than halfway through the route.

For those who prefer to stay closer to home, here is a sampling of weight-loss Web sites:

•  SparkPeople.com is a free Web site that provides personalized fitness programs, interactive meal plans and calorie counters, support message boards and other information and tools for losing weight.

• The FDA has a weight-loss Web page that links to information such as definitions of "obesity" and information on government approved obesity drug and surgery options for weight loss.

•  About.com's new New Year's resolution weight loss section features free e-courses, online newsletters, RSS feeds, expert advice, user blogs and other information.

•  Weight Watchers offers a Web site to provide online aids for people in their offline programs, as well as an online component for those who don't want to attend meetings. The site charges varying fees for many of its services.

•  The South Beach Diet offers information about the popular low-carbohydrate diet, as well as weight loss tools. The quarterly fee comes out to $5 a week.

•  Diet Talk.com is a free online support forum.

•  eDiets.com offers information about a wide range of diets and nutrition and fitness in general, as well as counseling and chat rooms, for a fee.

• Online calorie counter and exercise log My Food Diary.com enables users to calculate the calories and nutrients of daily meals and calories burned. It also offers motivational charts, reports and an online discussion forum for $9 month.

• Free To Be Thin.com, offers weight loss reviews, articles and tips at no cost.

• Another free site is FreeDieting.com, which has weight-loss tools and information written by dieters.

• ChaseFreedom.com says it's goal is to post diet reviews and information about "every known diet, pill and weight loss program."

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