July 5, 2007 / 4:50 PM / in 11 years

Quality weight loss advice found online: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who seek out general weight loss information via Internet forums will, more often than not, receive correct information, especially if the messages are posted on heavily trafficked Internet sites, results of a study suggest.

“Good weight loss advice can be given not only by trained professionals, but also by peers who participate in these Internet forums,” study co-author Dr. Kevin O. Hwang, of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, told Reuters Health.

“As use of the Internet grows, these forums should be tested further as useful tools against obesity,” he added.

Weight loss is among the most frequently explored online topics, Hwang and colleagues note in a report in the American Journal of Medicine. Whether information posted on the Internet about weight loss is generally accurate has not been investigated, however, until now.

Hwang and his team analyzed postings to 18 Internet weight loss forums during a one-month period in 2006.

Of the 3,368 initial messages posted to the Internet forums, 266 (nearly 8 percent) were requests for weight loss advice, the researchers report.

A total of 654 messages were posted in response to those requests, including 56 postings (8.6 percent) that contained erroneous advice. However, about a third (34 percent) of this misinformation was later corrected, the investigators observed.

Only 43 messages (6.6 percent) contained advice considered to be potentially harmful, such as encouragement to take over-the-counter weight loss aids that can cause potential harm. But more than a quarter (28 percent) of those messages were also later corrected, the investigators note.

The erroneous errors and harmful information were both more likely to be provided via low-activity Internet forums, which tended to have fewer messages posted, than via high-activity Internet forums. Also, the false information that was provided was more likely to concern medication-related issues, rather than general weight loss information, the report indicates.

According to Hwang, “Internet weight loss forums with more than 1,000 messages per month generally contain high quality advice, but medication-related advice is not as accurate as advice related to diet or exercise.”

In light of the findings, people who are interested in seeking out online advice about losing weight should "go to highly-active forums with more than 1,000 messages per month, such as the 'Diet and Nutrition' or 'Fitness and Exercise' forums on www.SparkPeople.com," Hwang advised.

He cautioned people about seeking medication-related advice online, however.

“For questions about weight-loss medications, it would be better to ask a knowledgeable physician,” he told Reuters Health.

SOURCE: American Journal of Medicine, July 2007.

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