In-person support has long been a major component of Weight Watchers, with weekly meetings and weigh-ins, and is still accepted as the best way to sustain weight loss. No wonder reviewers are split on whether online weight-loss support works as well as face-to-face meetings. In a three-year study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, dieters who received personal intervention kept slightly more weight off than those who used interactive technology support. After 36 months, the group that attended monthly in-person meetings had regained nearly 9 pounds while those who got support on the Internet regained an average of 11.5 pounds.
In contrast, a study published in Obesity followed 255 otherwise healthy overweight and obese adults over a six-month period; subjects received either in-person or online support for weight control. Both groups demonstrated similar results, leading researchers to conclude that Internet support may be as effective as face-to-face meetings.
Although online support's efficacy hasn't yet been conclusively proven -- just suggested -- it does offer a viable option that's convenient for many people. It's also usually cheaper than in-person support, and enables shy individuals to ask questions and receive encouragement while avoiding the public nature of an in-person support group.
Professional reviewers give eDiets.com (*Est. $19 per month) the most recommendations of any online support program. It accommodates dozens of commercial diet plans while providing individualized menus, fitness plans, unlimited one-on-one support with a registered dietitian, and an online community that contains more than 80 user forums. Members can modify their diets to suit conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, and can even join a flexible meal delivery service (*Est. $162 per week) that can be further customized to fit your health needs or dietary preferences.
Women's Health magazine picks eDiets.com as the best diet website overall, saying it's "one of the richest, most varied sites out there." Editors are impressed with the support network, which includes chat groups, and they like the customizable meal plans. A major testing group also gives the online component of eDiets.com a high overall score, but they note the dropout rate is higher than that of in-person groups like Weight Watchers.
Even though eDiets.com receives many recommendations from experts, those who actually use the site on a regular basis tend to give it lower ratings. On Epinions.com, eDiets.com gets an overall rating of 3.5 stars out of 5 from nearly 250 reviews. Some love the site, praising its community support, and customized meal and exercise plans. "I've turned my life around because of eDiets and I would recommend it to anyone," says one reviewer.
However, eDiets.com attracts a host of complaints about hidden fees, poor customer service and food quality. "I've been doing online shopping and using Internet services for 10 years, and eDiets gets the award for being the biggest waste of money and time I've encountered," writes a former customer. At one point, eDiets had a grade of "F" from the Better Business Bureau. As of December 2011 it was upgraded to a "B-," and more than half of the 200-plus consumer complaints have lapsed off the 36-month counter, indicating that they were several years old.
Experts agree that eDiets.com offers the best online services, and the recent drop-off in consumer complaints and the BBB upgrade imply higher consumer satisfaction, but it's still difficult to get information from the site about costs and cancellation fees. If you aren't comfortable using eDiets.com because of this, Diet.com (*Est. $40 per month) -- also seen as Diets.com -- is a viable alternative. It offers customized meal and fitness plans, online coaching and community support. The site boasts more than 1 million members, and has a variety of user boards and forums.
When you first sign up, you fill out a lengthy questionnaire that helps personalize the eating and fitness recommendations to fit your needs and circumstances. You can save some money if you sign up for multiple months at once -- $140 for 12 months, $86 for six months or $65 for three months -- but some users still complain that a Diet.com membership costs too much.
Good Housekeeping says Diet.com is the most active online community of the 10 weight-loss sites it tested. Editors like that the meal plans are highly customizable, and that you can email staff doctors with questions or concerns. The inclusion of fitness information and workouts is also helpful, and most users will find plenty of motivation here. "The site hosts live weekly chats with diet and fitness experts, message boards, and a buddy system to pair you with a fellow dieter for more motivation," editors write. Diet.com has a grade of A from the Better Business Bureau, with only a handful of complaints filed in the last 36 months. However, like eDiets.com, it can be hard to find up-front information about its costs and cancellation fees.
Many online weight-loss communities charge for access to their meal plans and support, but SparkPeople.com is a free website that gets high marks from experts and users. The site includes personalized weight loss and fitness plans, and corresponding tools to help you track your daily meals and exercise totals. The user community is very active, and dieters can join SparkTeams for additional motivation, and compete for SparkPoints by meeting fitness and dietary goals. Users can also get advice from dietitians and personal trainers on the site's message boards.
Good Housekeeping picks SparkPeople.com as the best free option in a comparative test of the 10 most popular diet websites. It gets top scores for its active user community; other high points include the highly customizable meal plans (including vegetarian, low-sodium and low-cholesterol options) and an extensive fitness section. The only downside noted in this review is that some meals may be too "unconventional" for some people, although you can swap individual meals out of your meal plan if you don't like them.
SparkPeople.com also gets excellent ratings in user reviews at Viewpoints.com. More than 200 reviewers give it an average rating of 4.8 stars out of 5, and all of them say they would recommend it to a friend. Users say the website is easy to use and motivational, and that it contains a wealth of weight-loss information and resources. A few critics find the site overly busy, and a number of reviewers say it's time-consuming to input your daily food and activities. As one fan of SparkPeople.com acknowledges, "It's hard to find the time to really devote to the site."
Another free site with more than a million members, CalorieCount.com offers similar user-support forums. It also publishes a growing database of nutrition labels from commercial foods, along with online logs and trackers, plus an app for your smartphone. It gets high marks from users at DietsInReview.com, where 83 percent have a favorable opinion. Reviewers like that CalorieCount.com focuses on making lifestyle changes and incorporating exercise into a healthy weight-loss regimen. "I have used this website in the past and it helped me focus on what I was putting into my system," writes one user at DietsInReview.com. "If you stick to a certain number of calories per day and exercise three or four times a week, you will definitely see results."
CalorieCount.com isn't about following a diet plan as much as it is about understanding what you're eating in the first place, and learning how to control your caloric intake by understanding food labels. There's a recipe section, but not a planned menu component. Like SparkPeople.com, CalorieCount.com offers an active community section and forum, and both sites act as a log for your daily meals and exercise. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, which also owns CalorieCount.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
Diet websites aren't the only organizations to struggle with consumer complaints. In fact, LA Weight Loss centers have drawn the most criticism of any diet plan or organization we researched. Some locations are corporate-owned while others are owned by franchisees; the company-owned locations have gone through several name changes, including Weight Loss Plus, Pure Weight Loss and Family Weight Loss. Many locations closed with no prior notice, and customers complain about losing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars in prepaid fees. The company claims to be processing refunds, but at least one news organization reported finding refund applications (with customer's personal information) tossed in a dumpster.
Before stores closed, a reporter for ABC's "20/20" news program went undercover to three different LA Weight Loss locations and documented the same issues many customers and some ex-employees complained about. These included hundreds of dollars in unadvertised fees and aggressive sales tactics to push her to purchase additional supplements at an extra cost, all paid up front. The reporter also relayed comments from former employees that they were "trained to prey on the emotions of clients." The attorney general's office for the state of Washington found similar results when it sent secret shoppers to LA Weight Loss locations; LA Weight Loss ended up paying nearly $900,000 in refunds, reimbursements and legal fees. ConsumerAffairs.com has also cataloged an extensive list of consumer complaints against LA Weight Loss.
Hundreds of LA Weight Loss locations closed with very little notice in early 2008, and the same users that lost money from these closures later received advertisements for "LA to Your Door," an online version of the program that's available through the LA Weight Loss website. We did find a few comments from customers who successfully lost weight with LA Weight Loss, but they were few and far between; much more prevalent were comments from former employees who had quit because they couldn't tolerate the sales tactics they were instructed to use.
The HCG diet is another plan that has generated quite a bit of controversy. We couldn't find a single expert recommendation for it, but there are a plethora of emphatic warnings against this diet, which restricts total caloric intake to about 500 calories per day. Daily injections of human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, are supposed to blunt your appetite. However, a double-blind study published in the South African Medical Journal found that women who received HCG injections showed no advantage in terms of weight loss over women receiving placebo injections.
A meta-analysis published in The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology warns that most HCG studies were of "poor methodological quality," and that no scientific evidence indicates that HCG is useful for treating obesity or that it does any of the things it's often marketed as doing, such as reducing hunger or redistributing fat. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings to health food stores selling so-called homeopathic HCG products that they, and the weight-loss marketing claims often associated with them, are illegal. The FDA has approved HCG for only a few isolated uses, primarily as an injectable fertility treatment, and then only under a doctor's care. There are no FDA-approved over-the-counter HCG products. In fact, several experts warn that what's advertised as over-the-counter HCG might not be HCG at all.
Jennifer K. Nelson, RD, LD, writing for MayoClinic.com, warns that it's not HCG that causes weight loss but instead the extreme calorie restriction of the HCG diet. She and numerous other experts are troubled by the potential health risks of a 500-calorie daily plan. (The typical guideline is that any diet of less than 1,200 calories per day should be supervised by a physician.) One health expert in a panel for ABC News calls the HCG diet "utter and dangerous nonsense," and says such an extreme calorie restriction can be lethal. Another describes the HCG diet's total daily calorie allowance as "the energy equivalent of a turkey sandwich." Other potential side effects of this extreme diet include headaches, fatigue, blood clots, heart arrhythmia, bone and muscle loss, and gallstones.