Cyberdieting: Diet Websites
Nearly 43% of people currently using the Internet are searching for health and medical information for themselves or for someone they know. The number of these ‘HealthMed Retrievers’ is expected to continue to grow substantially, with market researchers estimating that 136+ million people in the US are online.
About seven years ago, "Cyberdieting" began to emerge as a new channel for weight loss companies to deliver their products and services via the Internet. Many diet and healthcare websites sprung up, some with broad-based health and wellness offerings covering information for a wide variety of common ailments. One such company was DrKoop.com (now out of business). Others had a narrower focus, specializing in weight loss or nutritional counseling. The philosophy was to build a delivery model that carried dramatically lower overhead than a "bricks and mortar" weight loss center.
More weight loss websites have moved to a paid subscription model these days. In addition, the standards of the online dieter are higher today than just a few years ago. Web technology has also improved, to the point where a variety of online weight loss tracking tools and calculators can now be used, clients can patronize true e-commerce stores, and information seekers can get "virtual tours" of a company’s weight loss center, with full audio and neat graphics.
Added to all the familiar commercial chains in the business, there are a myriad of others hawking their weight loss programs or diet products over the Web: weight loss clinics, individual and group practice physicians, registered dietitians, hospitals, mail order companies, thousands of multi-level marketing "distributors" with their own websites, and Internet drugstores selling prescription weight loss medications (some legitimately, some via black market methods). In addition to those actually selling a weight loss program or product, there are many websites that provide free or low-cost weight loss information, diet advice and diet tips, chat rooms and personalized menu planning.
In addition to those actually selling a diet program or product, there are many weight loss “portals” or information/analysis diet websites that provide free or low-cost weight loss information, diet program reviews, advice and diet tips, surveys, chat rooms and personalized menu planning. Such examples include: chasefreedom.com, besdietforme.com, dottie’s weight loss zone, diet-i.com and annecollins.com. Some of these companies are based outside the United States.
There is no doubt that the weight loss industry’s involvement with Internet-based services has exploded during the past five years. The more traditional "bricks and mortar" retail storefront chains such as Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, etc. have all added web-based services as one more sales/information/distribution channel. Some, like Nutri/System, have shifted their focus exclusively to the web, closing all retail sites and actually moving to the lower overhead model of the Internet.
Many entrepreneurs have learned that the old way of bringing diet programs to the consumer (i.e. via retail storefronts that are leased and staffed by a manager and counselors) is just too costly to operate. They have chosen to operate solely in cyberspace, in an effort to boost profit margins.
The result of all of this is that we now have a Wild West environment with virtually no regulation and practitioners with often dubious credentials, where "let the buyer beware" is more crucial than ever. That’s why it’s important to patronize the legitimate, safe and credible weight loss websites that have personnel with true credentials and are competent.
All this easy access to a tremendous amount of information and feedback is great for the consumer in general. But, there are virtually no barriers to entry, and the FTC and FDA cannot possibly hope to police all this activity.
Studies do indicate that Internet-based programs can help people lose weight. A 6-month study by Brown Medical School found that a 6-month interactive Internet-based weight loss program helped participants lose about 9 pounds after three months, and 9 more after six months. In addition, researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine found that patients using the Internet to track their weight and who received feedback from dietitians lost an average of 6 pounds.
The major effect of the explosion of Internet-based weight loss programs has been to drive down the average cost of a commercial weight loss program. Much information is free or very low cost. Therefore, dieters today expect to obtain more service for less cost than in the past.
There are thousands of weight loss websites now on the Web. Undoubtedly, many of these will not survive and consolidation has already taken place. Most of the sites stay in business by building up a large number of registered users, then usethis mass as a basis to sell advertising. Few actually charge a fee for online counseling. However, more consumers are starting to pay for online diet advice, tips, menu planning, and coaching.
Based on conversations with management at leading weight loss website companies, it appears that collaboration will be crucial in the coming years. Many competing websites do have agreements involving co-marketing, links to each other’s websites, etc. They also believe that many of the cyberdiet companies will eventually be acquired by larger companies, possibly by the large commercial diet chains.
It appears that the large weight loss chains’ websites (i.e. Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Health Management Group, LA Weight Loss) have evolved beyond "advertising brochures" that merely describe their program, into a true e-business and interactive tool. Now, a customer can not only utilize online menu planners and tracking tools, participate in chat rooms and get feedback via email (or opt in for free e-newsletters), they can also buy "starter packages", supplements, cookbooks, motivational and exercise tapes, scales, and other merchandise.
Like most other areas of the Internet, we saw dozens if not hundreds of health-related websites appear, burn through money spent on advertising and marketing, and ultimately fail and drop out of the market, or merge with other companies. The most notable failure of a healthcare-related website was DrKoop.com.
How Good Are Weight Loss Websites & Counseling?
Tufts University dietitian Jill Shuman began reviewing and rating nutrition sites in 1997. She updates, reviews and adds to her list every quarter:
According to Shuman, the best diet sites, have three advantages over traditional weight-loss meetings such as Weight Watchers:
In addition, management at NutriSystem reports that there are many people who would not have walked into ANY weight loss center at all due to embarrassment. The more overweight one is, the less likely they are to go to a center in person. In addition, there are millions of repeat dieters that have been to the retail chains’ outlets before, and don’t want to come back. There will always be a certain group of dieters that DO need the hand holding provided by face-to-face meetings. For them, Weight Watchers group meetings or Jenny Craig one-on-one meetings would be most appropriate. But, the online counseling service does appear to be attractive to many dieters as well.
According to research conducted by Cyber Dialogue, half of all online users say they would be interested in using a web site operated by their own doctor’s office, but only 4% are currently doing so. Cyber Dialogue says the primary hurdle to the use of such sites appears to be lack of physician action as only 9% of online users are aware of Web sites operated by their doctors’ offices.
Some in the industry, especially management at the leading medically supervised programs, said a few years ago that online counseling was in its infancy and the quality of counseling was poor. Since then, however, the quality and technology have both improved. The competence of some of these counselors may still be sub-par, and will vary from company to company. And, there is virtually no regulation or oversight of them. However, the situation is improving and most counselors do now have a physician, dietitian or even a psychologist to back them up.
NutriSystem’s counselors are "backed up" by a registered dietitian but the counselors themselves come from various backgrounds, not necessarily related to health care and nutrition. And, they probably are not all degreed or certified by outside organizations.
It appears that the commercial weight loss chains offering online weight loss counseling have in some cases merely shifted people that used to be located in retail weight loss centers to functioning in an online capacity. They may provide these individuals with some internal company training and back them up with a degreed person such as an RD or nutritionist, rather than upgrading the caliber of counselors used (i.e. those with degrees or backgrounds in health care, nutrition, or exercise physiology).
The Major Weight Loss Web Sites
Of course, there are many other health-related and women’s web sites that offer weight loss information or services (some free, some fee-based), interactive tools, information and articles. These include: WebMD, Ivillage, many women’s magazines, etc. In addition, virtually all of the commercial chains such as Weight Watchers, Diet Center, Jenny Craig, Physician’s Weight Loss Centers and more offer online services that supplement their physical locations.
Founded in 1999, WeightWatchers.com, Inc. operates one of the Web’s most successful weight loss websites. As the exclusive online licensee of Weight Watchers International, Inc., the company expands to the online arena its 44-year track record of helping people lose weight built by Weight Watchers. Based in New York City, WeightWatchers.com, Inc. currently operates 18 sites in 15 countries.
The online operations of Weight Watchers Intl. is one of their brightest spots and best performers. WeightWatchers.com generated $131 million in revenues for the company in 2006, more than 10% of the total and up 20% over the prior year’s $109 million. This website has 460,000 paid subscribers—almost four times as many as its nearest competitor eDiets.com. The average WW.com subscriber stays for nine months
eDiets.com is the second largest subscription-based online diet, fitness and counseling network, with about 118,000 paid members and $48.8 million in 2006 revenues. Founded in 1996, eDiets.com offers online subscription-based weight-loss programs using proprietary software to generate customized diet programs.
It didn’t invent the concept, but it refined it, acquired similar websites, and expanded beyond its original diet plans to become accessible to a broader range of dieters. The company wants to expand beyond weight loss into total wellness and lifestyle improvement. eDiets offers 20 personalized online programs.
The information on this web site is intended for information purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Before starting any weight loss program, it is recommended that you consult your physician or health care professional.
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