Lose Pounds Online

Over the past few years, both waistlines and Web surfing have been expanding at phenomenal rates, so it’s no surprise that online weight loss programs are popular. There is also some respectable research showing that using the Internet may help you lose weight, so we tested one site, Cyberdiet.com.

Tester: Mariska van Aalst, 31. “When it comes to dieting, my usual method is to wing it, guessing how many calories I’m eating and vaguely recalling extra servings. That could be why I was having trouble shedding those extra 30 pounds, despite walking and running regularly.”

Product claims: Enjoy a healthier lifestyle; reach the goals that matter to you most; become part of a supportive community.

Cost: Free, if you have a computer and Internet access.

Finding a program: I checked several sites, but settled on Cyberdiet.com because Tufts University‘s online nutrition rating site, Nutrition Navigator (navigator.tufts.edu), gives it 24 out of 25 points, and considers it among the best weight loss sites on the Web.

Getting started: After muddling around for a while, I found Dietwatch (under Daily Weight Management Diary), an interactive diet and exercise monitoring program. After answering general questions such as weight, height, age and activity level, it recommended a goal weight. Next, Dietwatch offered me several ways of defining my daily nutritional targets. I chose the recommended plan, and when I saw my luxurious budget of 2,123 calories and 70 grams of fat per day, I wondered how I was going to lose any weight.

Sticking with it: Every couple of days, I’d enter my food intake using their database of more than 20,000 basic whole foods, brand-name items and fast-food meals. If a food wasn’t in there — soy nuts don’t seem that popular — I could add it. My nutritional targets, such as calories and protein, were continually tallied. At the end of the day, when I hit “summary,” I was instantly rewarded with green smiley faces if I beat my fat budget — or chastised with red arrows if I hadn’t gotten enough fiber or calcium. The smiley faces were encouraging, but what really motivated me were the charts. At a click, I could create bar graphs of how many carbohydrates or how much protein I’d eaten compared to my budget. And I watched as my weight graph trended downward.

Missing link: The only disappointing feature is the exercise area. It seems like an afterthought. The program let me track my daily activity, but as a runner, I wanted to see how my mileage stacked up, and there were no such graphs.

For the social butterfly: Perhaps the most dynamic sections of the Cyberdiet site are the chat rooms. I felt like I’d stumbled into a giant confessional: “I ate three fistfuls of nuts — I’m so bad!” I’d bet anything this type of support is a huge help for many.

Results: After 8 weeks, I dropped 7 pounds, lost 1 1/2 percent body fat and shed almost four inches off of my arms, chest, waist and hips. I also learned to monitor my food more accurately. Perhaps my “wing it” habit is gone for good!

Analysis: This Web site appealed to my inner accountant. I’m a closet bean-counter. I love charts, graphs, spreadsheets and columns of numbers. Dietwatch’s thrilling charts were a touchstone, a motivational tool — and fun.

Expert opinion: “The Internet may help,” says Deborah Tate, Ph.D., of Brown University Medical School in Providence, RI, and lead author of a study of online weight loss programs. “Look for a program that incorporates the supportive elements of a traditional weight loss clinic, such as food diaries, personal feedback, weekly lessons and emotional support.” The most critical may be tracking your food intake — in Dr. Tate’s study, people who completed the most diaries lost the most weight.

What you have in your mind?