Friday, October 12, 2007

The Social-Networking Diet

The Social-Networking Diet
New Nutrition Sites EmployMessage Boards, Friends ListsTo Help Users Lose Weight
By JOSEPH DE AVILAOctober 10, 2007; Page D1
Jennifer Wood used to be an overweight, emotional eater who snacked on ice cream and junk food during her weak moments. Then one day, Ms. Wood, 29 years old, and her mother bet on who could drop the most weight. The loser had to buy tickets for the ballet. To get motivated, Ms. Wood joined a Web site called
Almost two years later and 50 pounds lighter, Ms. Wood, an underwriting assistant in St. Louis, says she has changed her lifestyle for the better thanks in part to Calorie-Count, a nutrition site that offers social networking, too. She says she is eating a healthier diet, running and cycling regularly and wearing a size six. "Mom was successful, too, but I won," she says.
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,, 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 sites -- which are free and generally support themselves with advertising -- have grown in popularity as Americans increasingly turn to the Web for health information. Since September 2006, Calorie-Count and its new enhanced version, Calorie-Count Plus, together have added 400,000 new members, for a total of 620,000. Calorie-Count is a subsidiary of New York Times Co.'s PEERtrainer -- found at -- says its membership has reached more than 900,000 since its launch in 2005. (DietTV was launched in June.)

The sites offer some testimonials with success stories like Ms. Wood's. And a handful of studies suggest that online dieting programs in general can be effective. But no 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.

Tara Gidus, a registered dietician and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, notes that while chatting and making friends online can help users form support groups, it also can be a time waster. "I think more people talk about diet and exercise than they actually do it," she says.
No Time to Meet
Going in person to dieting support groups and working with a licensed nutritionist is more likely to be effective, says Carmen Martinez, a registered dietician and the bionutrition director for the University of Southern California's General Clinical Research Center. The problem with that, she says, is that many dieters say they don't have the time to visit support groups and don't want to pay to see a nutritionist.

That's where these new sites try to fill the void. Generally, the sites say that they work with physicians and nutritionists to ensure that the information provided is accurate. And they say they monitor message boards to identify and remove spam. Habib Wicks, chief executive of PEERtrainer, also says that the site removes ads when users complain about them.
Lisa Langsdorf, a spokeswoman for Calorie-Count, says that if a user spots inaccurate info on the site and brings it to the company's attention, officials will take it down. The company also says it doesn't promote any particular diet.

Daily Calorie Log
Calorie-Count offers editorial content written by professionals such as registered dieticians and medical doctors, says Ms. Langsdorf. And it provides weight-loss tools: Users can create a daily log on their profiles to track their caloric intake. There is a database with nutritional information on more than 70,000 different foods, which Calorie-Count says includes data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, restaurants and food manufacturers.

There is also a tool that lets users swap recipes and another section -- designed by a personal trainer -- where users can design an exercise regimen according to their experience level.
DietTV assesses a number of popular diets, ranging from Atkins to South Beach to the "Fat Smash Diet," and then aims to help users find one that suits their tastes and needs. Users get a list of diets that might fit their profile based, for example, on how often they want to eat carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, or meat and dairy products. The site will put users on a 14-day meal plan according to the selected diet, providing recipes for each meal it suggests. It also has motivational videos that feature tips for dieters.

Chief Executive Ken Seiff says DietTV doesn't have business ties with any of the diets that the site features, but it does accept advertisements from some diets. The company says it offers an assessment of each diet conducted by a registered nutritionist, and provides reviews from people who have tried the diets.

Forming Groups
PEERtrainer, founded in 2005, focuses heavily on the online community aspect. Users can join small groups with a limit of four members based on their lifestyle. For instance, there are groups called "Moms With Small Children," "Emotional Eating" and "Dancers Losing Weight." These groups can be formed with geographical preferences so that members can meet in person, or they can be formed by people all over the country who might check in once a week with each other.

There are also "teams" on the site that have no limits to the number of members who can join. A team called "Weekly Weigh In, Daily Accountability" has about 750 members.
Shelly Meinhardt, a 44-year-old freelance writer from Eagan, Minn., says she has been a "professional dieter" for several years who was never able to keep her weight off. She joined PEERtrainer this past June and liked the community aspect of the site. She says she weighed 244 pounds when she started, and is now down to 210.

Ms. Meinhardt says she hunted to find a group on the site that had committed members willing to check in every day with one another. After trying a few, she now says she has grown close to two of the groups she belongs to and says the groups are "helping people get through tough times."

Users say communing online with peers has benefits and drawbacks. Fellow users may be ill-informed, offer negative feedback, or have their own problems, such as eating disorders. When Ms. Wood joined Calorie-Count, she says she thought a 1,000-calorie-a-day diet would be a good way to lose weight quickly, and posted a message about her plan on the site's forums. No one corrected her, but she says she later learned by reading the posts of other users that that was a dangerously low calorie count for an adult. (The USDA dietary guidelines say that ideal caloric intake varies based on age, gender and activity level, but use 2,000 calories a day as a basic reference point.)

Clearing Spam
Calorie-Count has a team of volunteers who act as moderators and can delete threads or contact members who violate the sites posting guidelines. The moderators keep an eye out for abusive language, spam, or posts that promote anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders. The volunteers can consult the site's experts if they have questions about what is appropriate content.

Still, "having a moderator helps, but it never prevents you from getting inaccurate info," says Christine Gerbstadt, a registered dietician and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "That's going to be on any of the message boards for any of the sites."
Write to Joseph De Avila at

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