Distributed March 6, 2001
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Dieting study finds Internet effective in producing initial weight loss

The Internet appears to be a viable method for delivery of structured behavioral weight loss programs, says Deborah F. Tate of the Brown Medical School. Tate’s study in the March 7, 2001, Journal of the American Medical Association is the first to examine the use of information technology to aid weight loss.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Dieters who received weekly advice from behavioral therapists on the Internet lost three times as much weight in six months as those who just had access to information about diet and exercise on the Internet – 9 pounds compared to 3 pounds – according to a recent Brown University study.

Participants in both groups followed the same pattern: They lost weight during the first three months, when they most frequently logged onto the study’s Web site, and they maintained their weight loss during the next three months, when their Internet use declined. Participants who received online advice from behavior therapists logged on twice as many times during the first three months as those who just had access to information online.

“Logging on more frequently was associated with better weight loss in both groups,” said lead researcher Deborah F. Tate, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior in the Brown Medical School, who is based at The Miriam Hospital. “But more importantly than just logging on to a Web site is what type of program you tap into. Our study shows that a structured program with continued contact works better than just giving people access to information online.”

Published in the March 7, 2001, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Tate’s study is the first to examine the use of Internet technology to aid weight loss and lays the groundwork for future research on the best methods for helping people to lose weight online.

Ninety-one people ages 18 to 60, who were on average 30 pounds overweight, began the study; sixty-five participants completed the study.

Half were assigned to the “behavior therapy group.” They received interactive feedback from a trained therapist through e-mail and had access to an electronic bulletin board to facilitate social support among participants, in addition to informational resources about diet and exercise. Half were assigned to the “education group” and had only the Internet informational resources about diet and exercise.

Many participants achieved a standard weight-loss benchmark. Forty-five percent of those in the behavior therapy group and 22 percent of those in the education group lost at least 5 percent of their initial body weight – a level that has been shown to produce measurable health benefits.

Although the weight losses in the study do not appear to rival clinical face-to-face programs, which historically have produced 20-pound losses in six months, the Internet may serve to reach people who otherwise would not be participating in those programs, said Tate.

“It is especially important to look for new methods to help people with weight loss given that more than 54 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese,” said Tate. “There are a lot of people who do not choose to attend face-to-face programs for any number of reasons, from embarrassment to schedule constraints. The Internet appears to provide people with an alternative – not necessarily a better alternative, but an alternative.”

The Internet combines the ability to disseminate written information with the opportunity for interaction through e-mail, bulletin boards or chat rooms. Dieters can also access the Web on their own schedule. Rapid increases in access to the Internet have made it a viable and logical mode for intervention; the number of adults who use the Internet has surged from 9 percent to 56 percent of adults in the past four years, Tate said.

Tate collaborated on the study with Rena R. Wing, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Brown Medical School, and Richard A. Winett, professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The study was supported by a grant from the Weight Risk Investigators Study Council, a research division of Knoll Pharmaceutical.

The study’s Web site was accessible on an Intranet maintained by the network of hospitals in which all of the study participants were employed.

Researchers recommended participants follow a standard weight loss regimen including a diet of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day and a daily fat intake of less than 20 percent of calories, and gradually increase their physical activity to burn a minimum of 1,000 calories per week.