Can Social Networking Help Dieters?

The traditional means of shedding pounds are well-established, and often monotonous -- exercise, count calories, avoid fatty foods. So what about adding something new to the mix, say, taking a photo of the dessert you avoided and posting it on your blog?

Online social networking has already become a bastion for music and photo exchanges, and one startup company hopes its popularity will lead thousands of New Year's resolution-makers to its new weight-loss service, an online networking program called PeerTrainer.

So after you've added some music files to your MySpace account and loaded pictures on your Friendster profile, is it possible you'll exchage diet tips on a weight-loss network? PeerTrainer, created by husband and wife Jacqueline and Habib Wicks, is an online tool that places groups of dieters into support networks and lets them interact and track one another's weight-loss progress.

The founders say the goal is to allow its subscribers to create a weight-loss information aggregator so they can help one another with diet and exercise suggestions along with offering good, old-fashioned encouragement.

"It really gets down to what motivates people," said Jacqueline Wicks. "Where else do you have a motivational forum every day or even 10 times a day if you want it?"

Following Through on New Year's Resolutions

A 2003 Kaiser Permanente study determined that although 60 percent of Americans make health-related New Year's resolutions, only 10 percent keep them. The Wicks believe the missing link between targeting weight loss and following through is a simple support network. Often weight loss is a solitary pursuit, and group weight-loss programs can be embarrassing. Some people, they said, just don't like airing their dieting problems in public.

"The anonymity of the Internet is a key. Sometimes you don't want to be standing next to people you don't know and standing on a scale," Jacqueline Wicks said.

Kate Smith, a 31-year-old middle school English teacher, has struggled with her weight her entire life. She has a large frame and admits to being a chronic snacker with a soft spot for sweets like brownies and cookies. In 2002, weighing in at 220 pounds and climbing above 235 while pregnant with her daughter, she decided she'd had enough.

After giving birth, she vowed to change her lifestyle for good. She learned what to eat and how to substitute healthy foods for her favorite calorie-laden snacks. She started to shed weight, which encouraged her enough to set a goal of losing a whopping 100 pounds.

She enrolled in Weight Watchers and made steady progress. But last spring she felt herself starting to slip. She regained 20 of the pounds she'd dropped and worried that she'd lost her momentum for good.

Then she enrolled in PeerTrainer and hooked up with a group of three other dieters going through similar struggles. She began cataloging her eating and exercise routines and letting her PeerTrainer friends see what she was eating.

"When you're writing it down and you know people are reading, it holds you accountable. And you're getting advice from people who have done a lot of different things, which is helpful," Smith said.

Bolstered by the new support group, Smith found the energy to rededicate herself. She posted before-and-after photos on her profile and even set up contests with her PeerTrainer friends to see who could lose the most weight through the holidays, saying it made the challenge more fun and easier to tackle.

She's now down to 148 pounds, just 13 away from her eventual goal.

And the bonus -- she has never paid a cent to do it. Smith got involved in early 2004, when PeerTrainer was in its early beta stage and free for all users. The site didn't officially launch until October, and its 9,000 current users continue to use the service free of charge.

"I would totally pay for it. When I got started I had sort of plateaued, but within a month I was totally motivated again. It's made a big difference for me," Smith said.

Staying Diet Agnostic

The Wicks emphasized that they designed PeerTrainer to be "diet agnostic," meaning the service would never recommend any one diet technique. Instead, PeerTrainer was built to serve as a framework for information exchange.

"We have people that use Weight Watchers, South Beach, do yoga, do aerobics. And our users can take all of that information and personalize it for themselves," said Habib Wicks. "They tend to interact with lots of different types of people, so there is a really wide range of insights and a really wide range of experiences to learn from."

As MySpace and Friendster have discovered, there is a big demand for online social networking. Both have signed up millions of subscribers. The trick is to find a way to make money off the heavy traffic.

Right now, PeerTrainer is driven by advertising revenues, but the Wicks hope that interest in the multibillion-dollar diet industry, coupled with the social networking fervor, will attract users.

"We were looking for a business to start, so I did some research and found out the diet industry is a $45 billion dollar a year market," Habib Wicks said.

The Wicks say PeerTrainer will remain free. The plan is to drive up subscriber numbers and possibly add fee-based premium services, such as wireless cellular access, sometime in the future. They've also considered setting up corporate agreements in which they'd help employers direct workers into PeerTrainer networks. They believe it's a good way for businesses to give employees anonymous help in controlling their weight, a growing concern for companies, as obesity has been linked to a variety of health problems.

For now, the focus will remain on selling subscribers on the benefits of the support system.

"We built it as a social networking tool, but it really seems to fill a void that people were looking for. They just needed that extra little bit of help," said Habib.