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Debbie Beasley can't count the amount of time she's spent counting carbs, calories and fat grams, or the amount of money she's forked over to weight-loss programs. She knows the cabbage soup recipe by heart and can spot a perfectly ripe grapefruit from the farthest corner of the farmers market. "My whole life was a diet," she admits.

The few times she had managed to drop some weight, Beasley couldn't make the changes stick, and she'd always regain what she'd lost -- and then some. By October 1998, the Columbia, Mo., woman tipped the scales at 255 pounds. So she turned to the Internet for help. A search for "diets" led her to eDiets.com, one of a growing number of interactive weight-loss Web sites. Beasley answered a few questions, enabling eDiets' professionals to design a personalized day-by-day eating plan. If Beasley had a question, she could e-mail a licensed dietitian or log onto a message board and seek advice and empathy from other dieters.

"I lost 6 pounds the first week, and they actually told me to slow down," Beasley recalls. "The diet itself isn't all that different: it's a balanced plan [50-60 percent complex carbohydrates; 25 percent fat (less than 10 percent saturated); and the rest protein]. But they do the work for you, so you have no excuses. If I don't want to cook, there are fast- or frozen-food options. I hardly even think about it anymore. It's become a way of life."

As she lost weight, Beasley began following eDiets' exercise suggestions. Soon their simple walking program was no longer challenging. Then she discovered Tae Bo, which kicked off her love affair with exercise.

It took Beasley a little more than a year to drop more than 100 pounds. Anxious to maintain the loss, she still does Tae Bo (she's added weight training, too) and visits eDiets every day, mostly for the message boards. "They're really helpful, especially in the beginning," she says. "When you feel like the scale's not moving and all you can think is, 'God, I just want to eat,' you log on and someone's there with just the right thing to say."

Two-way communication leads to success
The key to Beasley's online success may have been the interactivity. In a study at Brown University in Providence, R.I., 91 people who wanted to lose weight were randomly divided into two groups. At an introductory in-person meeting, they all received advice on weight loss, nutrition and exercise and a list of Web sites where they could learn about calorie burning and keeping a food diary and find a cyber-workout buddy and links to healthy-recipe sites.

But one group was also given access to a site at which they consulted professionals by e-mail. Subjects were told to keep a weekly online food/exercise diary. They could e-mail the behavioral therapist they'd met and get support from online bulletin boards. They got personal feedback: answers to specific questions and a weekly progress report. The plan was modeled after well-respected behavioral programs like those at the Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Yale University.

After 12 weeks, the interactive-support group had lost an average of 9 pounds; the other group lost 3 pounds. "We can't isolate which component was responsible for their success," says lead researcher Deborah Tate, "but obviously this package worked better than providing information alone."

Something for nothing?
Experts are divided on the cost issue. "Many sites make their money from advertisers, so they can offer their services for free," says nutritionist Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D., author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition (Alpha, 1999). "Still, if you're paying to use a site, you should be getting something more than the competition is offering."

Although Bauer (who happens to be the nutrition adviser for efit.com) agrees that there's no shortage of free sites offering quality advice and support, she urges users to look closely at what's being offered. "There's no one-size-fits-all plan, and you should be asked in detail about your habits: How much do you exercise? Are you lactose intolerant? Are you pregnant or breastfeeding? Are you vegan? Do you follow a low-cholesterol diet? Unless you say you have a food allergy or a religious reason for avoiding some foods, they should never rule out an entire food group. You also should never go below 1,200 calories a day." (You can go up to 1,800-2,000 if you're moderately or very active.) Avoid sites that promise you'll lose more than 2 pounds a week or insist that their program works only in conjunction with products (usually supplements) they conveniently happen to sell. Verify "experts'" credentials. Nutritionists should be R.D.s, exercise physiologists should be at least masters-level trained and personal trainers, certified. Make sure any expert has experience in your area of concern. Not all nutritionists are weight-loss experts.

Net losses
Michael Scholtz, M.A., fitness director for the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, is all for logging onto learn healthful lifestyle skills. But he also points out the dangers of letting the Internet replace your nutritionist, psychotherapist, physician or personal trainer in one fell swoop. "If you're not talking directly to a clinician, the help you're getting is generalized, to a degree," he says. "Individual risk factors, medical concerns and behavioral issues, such as depression and eating disorders, must be considered when someone wants to lose weight. It's extremely difficult and, in many cases, not wise to treat those cases over the Internet."

In addition, while reporting to someone has been cited as a major motivating factor in clinical and online programs, Scholtz believes the Internet's anonymity may keep people from being honest about their food intake, exercise levels or general progress. "Having your progress monitored has proven to be important," he says. "But at these sites, if you don't log on for two weeks, you don't have to explain why."

The expert consensus seems to be this: If you've found something, online or elsewhere, that works for you, that's safe and healthy and that you can do for life, keep doing it. Or, as Scholtz puts it, if you're healthy and trying to drop an extra 10 pounds, the Web might make more sense for you than an expensive clinical program. Otherwise, let caution and common sense prevail. "The Internet shouldn't be your primary information source," he insists. "It's a supplement."

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