Internet-Based Weight Loss Services: How Effective Are They?
by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD
In addition to traditional weight loss programs, there are now an astounding number of online weight loss programs. But, do they really work? And how do they compare to traditional weight loss services?
The Appeal of Online Dieting
Online weight loss programs are convenient—easily accessible at any time from the comfort of your home. The Internet also offers anonymity. Many adults would prefer to lose weight without having to participate in a structured face-to-face program. Finally, many online programs offer tools that allow you to track your progress, such as an online food journal or a grocery list app for your smart phone. These tools may increase your motivation to stick with the program.
How Effective Are These Services?
The reviews of Internet-based weight loss programs have been overwhelmingly positive. They can work, and in some cases have been shown to be as effective as in-person interventions.
One study looked at the effectiveness of a behavioral weight loss program delivered 3 different ways: via the Internet, in-person, or a combination of both. After half a year, the in-person group had the highest percentage of people reaching a 7% weight loss (56.3%) compared with the Internet and combination groups (37.3% and 44.4% respectively). However, the percentage of participants reaching a 5% weight loss did not differ among the 3 groups. The researchers concluded that Internet-based interventions are an effective alternative to in-person treatment and that adding occasional in-person counseling sessions may not significantly improve outcomes.
Since the onset of these programs in the late 1990s, several studies have looked at the effectiveness of different types of Internet-based weight loss services at promoting weight loss. One study compared the use of an online behavior therapy weight loss program with the use of a weight loss education website. The participants in the behavior therapy group received 24 weekly behavioral lessons via email and had access to an online bulletin board. Every week they also emailed self-monitoring diaries, and received individualized feedback in return. The results showed that participants in the behavior therapy group lost more weight than those simply provided with access to weight loss information on the Web. This study shows that online Internet courses can provide a viable method for delivering weight loss behavior therapy.
A later study, by the same group of researchers, compared a basic Internet weight loss program with one that also offered behavioral counseling via email. Participants in the e-counseling group submitted calorie and exercise information via email and received weekly email behavioral counseling and feedback from a counselor. This study found that participants in the behavioral e-counseling group lost more weight on average than the basic Internet group.
More research is needed to determine the long-term weight loss maintenance among Internet-based programs. However, so far most of the research suggests that Internet-based weight loss services can help with weight maintenance. In one study, 255 overweight and obese men took part in a 6-month behavioral weight control program conducted over the Internet. After this program, participants were placed into one of 3 groups (frequent in-person support, minimal in-person support, or Internet support) as part of a 12-month weight maintenance phase. The participants assigned to the Internet-based weight maintenance program lost about the same amount of weight over 18 months as those who met with counselors. This study suggests that the Internet is also a viable method for promoting weight maintenance.
Choosing an Online Weight Loss Service
So you may want to give online dieting a try. But, how do you choose the right program? Before you invest your time and money, be sure that the program meets these criteria:
Is Online Dieting For You?
Much of the popularity of these services rests with the privacy and convenience that they offer compared with traditional weight loss programs. If you are a regular Internet user, you may find that an online program suits you better than seeking weight loss guidance from a self-help book or traditional program. Whether you choose an online or traditional weight loss program, in the end, it is still up to you to make the weight loss happen.
American Obesity Association
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Public Health Agency of Canada
Diets for weight loss. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated January 14, 2016. Accessed January 27, 2016.
Harvey-Berino J, Pintauro S, Buzzell P, Gold EC. Effect of internet support on the long-term maintenance of weight loss. Obesity Research. 2004;12:320-229.
Harvey-Berino J, West D, Krukowski R, Prewitt E, Vanbiervliet A, Ashikaga T, Skelly J. Internet delivered behavioral obesity treatment. Prev Med. 2010 May 14 [Epub ahead of print].
Haugen HA, Tran ZV, Wyatt HR, Barry MJ, Hill JO. Using telehealth to increase participation in weight maintenance programs. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007;15(12):3067-77.
Heshka S, Anderson JW, Atkinson RL, et al. Weight loss with self-help compared with a structured commercial program. JAMA. 2003;289:1792-1798.
Kirk S, Harvey EL, McConnon A, et al. A randomized trial of an internet weight control resource: The UK Weight Control Trial. BMC Health Services Research. 2003;3(1):19.
Krukowski RA, West DS, Harvey-Berino J. Recent advances in internet-delivered, evidence-based weight control programs for adults. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2009; 3(1): 184-189.
Tate DF, Hackvony EH, Wing RR. Effects of internet behavioral counseling on weight loss in adults at risk for type 2 diabetes. JAMA. 2003;289:1833-1836.
Tate DF, Wing RR, Winett RA. Using internet technology to deliver a behavioral weight loss program. JAMA. 2001; 285:1172-1177.
Last reviewed January 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 3/19/2014
EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at email@example.com. Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.