E-counseling a sucessful fat-buster

Fast gaining popularity as the answer to many of life's questions, the Internet is rife with information on current affairs, dating, education, how-to guides ... and now, weight loss.

An academic research team recently studied the effectiveness of Web-based weight loss programs in terms of the services that are included, following their previous findings of the success of expert e-mail counselling to program participants.

The new study, published in the August 14 issue of US journal Archives of Internal Medicine, found that individuals benefited not only from human feedback; an automated system that was pre-programmed to provide comments also proved to be helpful.

Researchers studied 192 overweight or obese adults in three treatment groups: a group receiving no e-mail counselling; a group receiving computer automated counselling; and a group receiving expert human counselling. After three months, both groups that received counselling recorded significantly greater weight loss than the group that received no counselling.

After six months however, the group receiving human feedback clearly had the advantage, averaging a loss of 13 to 15 pounds, compared to the 8 to 10 pounds lost by the e-counselled group.

While human feedback was found to produce the best results, computer automated counselling has the potential to reach larger populations at a fraction of the cost of more intensive interventions.

With the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reporting more than seven million (60%) overweight Australian adults, two million (21%) of whom are obese, an affordable, accessible weight-loss scheme could be just what is needed.

"Compared to e-mail counselling provided by a human, a computer pre-programmed with messages based on specific criteria is a highly efficient treatment approach that can be more widely disseminated among the population in need," said researcher Rena Wing, director of the Weight Management and Diabetes Research Center at The Miriam Hospital and Brown Medical School.

"Further research is needed to improve the computerised approach to promote continued adherence over a longer period of time, but from a public health perspective - this is a promising area to explore," she said.

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