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Social connections may enhance online weight loss programs

Users of an online weight loss program lost more when they participated in the social group, compared to more isolated users, a new study finds.

Both the number and the type of friends was important, said Luis A. Nunes Amaral, senior author of the analysis of the online community of Calorie King, a paid online weight loss program with social networking features.

“What we found out is the more embedded in the network you are, the more success you have,” Amaral told Reuters Health. “The fact that you have lots of friends that also have lots of friends, that’s how enmeshed into the network you are,” he said. “Having many friends who only have one friend would not be the same.”

The researchers examined data on more than 47,000 unique visitors to the online program in 2009 and 2010. Users self-reported their weights, but Amaral and other experts agreed that in these types of online programs, people are generally truthful in that respect.

Participants averaged 43 years old and more than 80 percent were female.

Only 22,400 people visited the program for a second weigh-in after signing up, meaning that 40 percent of people never returned. Of those who returned, 5,400 remained engaged for at least six months. About 2,000 connected with at least one “friend” in the social network, which left only a small fraction of the original group for the researchers to investigate.

Most of those who did establish friendships clustered in a giant group, while the remaining quarter formed small clusters of two to four people who were not linked to the main group.

Starting out with a higher weight, adhering to self-monitoring diaries and participating in social networking were all associated with greater weight loss.

At the six-month point, members who were not social networking had lost an average of 4.1 percent of their body weight. Those with two to nine friends lost an average of 5.2 percent, those in the giant cluster lost 6.8 percent and those with the most exchanges of online communication lost more than eight percent of their body weight, according to the results in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

“People write posts and send messages, the system records them but we didn’t have access so we cannot know for sure what they said,” Amaral said. “It is known that in face to face interactions what happens is that people have support, they share experiences. We believe that the same thing is likely at play here.”

These results should be very encouraging for people who want to try these kinds of programs, he said.

“People worry a lot about what happens online, about people who are mean and negative and so-called ‘trolls’,” he said. Users have to pay to enter this particular online community, and once they are in they do all have the same goal, so people tend to cooperate, he said.

Membership in the Calorie King program currently costs $12 per month or $49 per year.

Offline programs with a social element, like Weight Watchers, may be hard to attend for people with kids or complex responsibilities, Amaral said.

Other studies have found that social support on- and offline helps buoy weight loss success, said Rebecca A. Krukowski, of the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis. She was not part of the new study, but noted previous research in which people in group-based weight loss programs had more success, regardless of their initial preference for a group or individual program.

Social support online typically isn’t as strong as in person, she told Reuters Health.

Social support and commitment to self-tracking, by recording your weight, food and exercise, are key to successful weight loss, said Sandra L. Saperstein, a lecturer at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

But it’s hard to know if inducing friendships and support is even possible, and if so, if it would increase weight loss, said Jean Harvey-Berino, at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

“This idea is that if you could just get people to act like Facebook in an online weight loss program it would be golden,” Harvey-Berino said. People who became most socially embedded in the current study may have been more “ready” to lose weight, or more committed to the program, she said.

It’s unclear if forcing less social people to make more connections would increase their readiness to lose weight.

SOURCE: Journal of the Royal Society Interface, online January 28, 2015.