Can Social Networking Help Dieters?

ByABC News
December 28, 2005, 5:49 PM

Jan. 4, 2006 — -- 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?"

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.