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Putting the E in Diet

Anonymity, round-the-clock access and an attractive price tag are luring customers into the domain of online dieting companies.


Brandalyn Taylor was trolling the Internet one night last winter when an advertisement caught her eye. She doesn't recall exactly what it said except for the operative words: Lose weight.

Taylor had been struggling to drop the pounds she'd gained during her first pregnancy, and she didn't think twice before lifting her finger and clicking on the ad. Thus began an ongoing and successful cyber relationship between the Aliso Viejo woman and a commercial online dieting company.

A student nurse, wife and mother of a toddler, Taylor, 28, has lost 17 pounds since mid-February. Logging on to her computer each day, she receives software-generated inspirational messages, recipes, meal plans and food shopping lists. Once a week, Taylor weighs herself and reports her weight so that her virtual dietitian can make adjustments to her personal program.

It sure beats her previous attempts to lose weight, including those fat-burning pills her husband brought home one day, she says.

"I was pretty normal until I had my baby," says Taylor, who gained 50 pounds during pregnancy. "It was so hard to get motivated to take the weight off. With [the Web site], they tell you how to do it. It's hard for people to lose weight by themselves."

Online dieting companies are eager to help.

The publicly held, which Taylor uses, saw its number of paying customers soar from 33,000 in 1999 to 250,000 last year. Its main competitors, and (which are part of one company) and, are privately held and will not release sales figures but claim "tens of thousands" of paying members.

Even the venerable Weight Watchers International is branching out with an interactive Web service.

"I think the Internet is potentially an important source of weight management, says Dr. Thomas Wadden, director of the weight-loss and eating-disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "Possible, you're going to find that Patty, the electronic dietitian, can be just as good as Patty, the flesh-and-blood dietitian."

But though e-dieting appears to be attracting members in droves, there is no evidence that it works any better than traditional, in-person diet counseling, especially over the long term.

"It doesn't really have a track record," says Morgan Downey, executive director of the American Obesity Assn.

And, notes Wadden, dieting is a notoriously fad-driven business, and e-dieting is the low-calorie flavor of the month. "Every new diet goes through a cycle and catches fire, and then it either gets rained on or it continues to smolder," he says.

Cyber dieting has captured the public's interest for now, however. Scores of weight-loss Web sites are little more than online stores selling products and pills. Other sites offer free information on dieting and, perhaps, chat rooms for sharing experiences. Online, interactive dieting services go a step further by providing personalized services, much in the way that a local Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers franchise would do.

By sticking to fairly sound medical advice and keeping their fees low, the online dieting services have managed to muscle into the weight-loss industry without ruffling too many feathers, says Downey.

"If these sites can provide a supportive, anonymous, nonjudgmental way for individuals to lose weight, that's fine," he says. "There is a lot that would appeal to consumers: the anonymity, the 24-7-365 access, the tips and helpful suggestions. The Internet is a very powerful communications tool."

You don't need to tell that to Dave Humble, chief executive of eDiets.

"Look at the basic economics of an online company versus thousands of Jenny Craigs. They have 600 centers [to manage] and I have one center," says Humble, whose company turned profitable late last year.

EDiets, which recently expanded to Ireland and the United Kingdom, had its origins as a supermarket kiosk that shoppers could access for nutritional advice.

"It can cost $150 to go to a nutritionist for this advice," says Donna DeCunzo, who created the kiosk idea and is now eDiets' director of nutrition services. "It's a shame that people can't get good advice because they can't afford it."

But busy shoppers ignored the kiosks, and Humble suggested putting the program on the Net.

EDiets' growth exploded last year when it began advertising on heavily traveled sites such as iVillage. Humble says that paying members stay with the program an average of six months--double the time dieters typically devote to traditional walk-in programs.

"Even when they reach their goal weight, they want to stay because they have made friends online," says DeCunzo.

Dieters Feel Safe in Anonymity

DeCunzo credits eDiets' success to the anonymity the Internet offers.

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