Web-based weight loss programs claim to offer easy access, support and flexibility. And sure enough, studies have shown they can be effective. Features associated with success include food journals, graphs that track your progress, body mass calculators and web chats, as well as interaction and feedback.
In October 2013, CHOICE assessed five popular online programs available in Australia. A CHOICE shadow shopper signed up to each program, using her own stats and weight-loss goals. The programs were then assessed with the help of two experts.
Meet the experts
Dr Kellie Bilinski is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and an Accredited Nutritionist (AN). She is also a media spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
Dr Nathan Johnson is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. Nathan is internationally recognised for his research in exercise, obesity and diabetes.
The most successful weight-loss regimes are those tailored to the individual that take into account their needs, lifestyle and specific health issues, as well as having a level of accountability in terms of meeting up or checking in regularly.
Of the programs we looked at:
- Nathan rated the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation as the best, though he admits that the exercise component is high and may not be for everyone.
- Kellie found the Weight Watchers program more flexible in terms of lifestyle and following sensible eating guidelines, however Nathan was concerned about its lack of emphasis on exercise.
$59 joining fee, then $39.95 per week for 12 weeks on the Kickstart plan
Gold Coast bikini model and self-proclaimed "body transformation specialist" Ashy Bines has made a bundle selling her diet secrets in the form of the Ashy Bines Bikini Body Challenge, and has more than 870,000 'likes' on her Facebook fanpage.
The program includes:
- a diet plan
- A Day in the Life of Ashy guide
- three outdoor exercise sessions a week with a personal trainer in a variety of locations around Australia.
Kellie says: Falls into my "fad diet" category. It's not in accordance with the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and there are so many supplements required it seems to be more of a money-making scam.
The "detox" theory isn't based on any fact, and it doesn't take into account a person's goals, current weight or calorie requirements. There are a lot of inaccuracies and untruths that aren't based on any evidence, such as advice to eliminate sugar and the information about cravings. The eating plan is restrictive, and probably the most difficult to follow out of the plans. There are some merits to the diet – it's high in vegetables and fruits and limits processed foods, for example.
The nutritionist listed in the eating guidelines isn't a registered dietitian but has a diploma in nutrition, which is not the same as being an APD.
Nathan says: The exercise component feels tokenistic. Group sessions doing a mix of cardio, core, and strength may not be enough to assist with weight loss. On the upside, the group aspect can be helpful for enjoyment and ensuring accountability.
CHOICE's experience: After joining the challenge, our shadow shopper discovered the "diet plan" was simply a PDF file of "clean" eating guidelines with no information on portions or energy counts.
As for the promised support, our shadow shopper had problems joining up and getting an answer to her queries. After joining the Kickstart program, all she received was a link to a site to input her details, such as height, weight and how much weight she wanted to lose (with no guidance as to whether it was within a safe range or achievable).
Despite being told after signing up that a personal trainer would be in touch, after 13 days and several emails (no phone number is provided) she was told there were problems with the site and that she should just wait to hear from someone. After more emails she finally received a call to organise the classes (which had her starting the 12-week challenge 22 days late).
$199 for 12-week plan
Michelle Bridges 12WBT is a "team" event that occurs four times a year for 12 weeks. It includes detailed eating plans, shopping lists and an exercise regime that has options for home, gym or outdoors.
The program also includes:
- weekly "mindset" videos
- live chat sessions with Michelle Bridges
- access to forums and social media
- pre-season tasks before the challenge
- progress trackers
- weekly weigh-ins
- calorie counters and group events
Kellie says: The eating plan is prescriptive (providing a specific daily meal plan) rather than adapting to people's current lifestyle and habits.
There seems to be a bigger emphasis on exercise, which may be unrealistic for some on their own and without the help of a personal trainer.
The eating plans are based on achieving a certain amount of calories each day – 1200 for women / 1600 for men. It would be difficult to maintain such a high amount of exercise on such a low-calorie restriction.
Nathan says: This is the best of all the programs under review. It has well-balanced aerobic and resistance programs – weight and resistance will help you maintain muscle if you're losing weight through a diet restriction.
On the downside, the exercise component lacks supervision. If you haven't done exercise in years it could be discouraging as the intensity required is very high.
$497 for six weeks (12-week option available for $797)
* Note this program in no longer available – Sureslim claims that it will be re-launching in early 2016.
Marketed as "the doctor's diet", SureSlim claims to be a personalised eating program for clients, created from the results of a blood test and the answers to a wellness profiling questionnaire. This program doesn't require any exercise.
The program also includes:
- two online consultations with a SureSlim consultant
- a detailed eating plan
- regular emails
Kellie says: The diet plan is very restrictive and goes against the fundamental principles of eating a healthy, balanced diet. It doesn't need to be this complicated or restrictive (to the extent that these diets are), which just makes it less likely people will follow it long term and therefore sets them up for failure. Advice such as always eating a mouthful of protein first or that "an apple a day blasts the fat away" – none of this is based on scientific evidence.
Nathan says: I suspect a client may think that the blood test is a way of tailoring the program to them and the hormones that affect their appetite – but actually it's a fairly routine blood test. Six weeks is basically a crash diet. And the lack of exercise guidance isn't good as we know a combination of exercise and diet changes is the best way to achieve healthy weight loss.
$49.95 per month
The Biggest Loser Club program, which sits under the banner of the popular reality TV show, provides a personal daily calorie target based on your current and goal weight, as well as an exercise guide. The program also has an option to lose "six kilos in six weeks or your money back".
The program includes:
- options for exercise levels – beginners through to advanced
- weekly emails
- weekly weigh-in and measurement
Kellie says: The eating plan is prescriptive (in terms of being told specifically what to eat every day) rather than adapting to lifestyle and habits. Like the Michelle Bridges and Ashy Bines plans, this is also a 12-week program, and may create the impression that once the 12 weeks are over a person can go back to "normal".
There's good support information, and although the advice to follow a low-fat diet is generally OK, it doesn't mention that you can eat too many calories on a low-fat diet and gain weight (low-fat doesn't always also mean low-kilojoule).
Nathan says: The recommended "dose" of exercise for the shadow shopper was quite low at 150 minutes per week. For weight loss we'd recommend 250 minutes a week.
$33.00 per month
The online version of Weight Watchers uses the ProPoints system, which allocates a number of points to each food. Each individual is allocated a number of daily points depending on their weight and goals, allowing them to choose and track what they eat via the site.
The program also includes:
- message boards and forums
- a newsletter
- weekly weigh-ins
- information on exercise
Kellie says: The points system is a really good way of giving people flexibility to adapt to a particular situation. Developed under the supervision and advice of medical and nutritional experts, it has been around for a long time.
Nathan says: On the whole, the physical component is lacking beyond providing information about exercise. Studies have shown that just providing information about exercise isn't a successful strategy.
Many diets out there are overly restrictive. The best ones are those based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines (ADG) and include all the food groups for balanced eating, encourage regular physical activity and discourage missing out on key nutrients.
If you're looking to lose weight but don't believe an online program is for you, talk to your GP first. They can suggest options including face-to-face programs, or may refer you to an APD who can provide advice specific to your individual needs and lifestyle. A GP can also check to see if you are ready to take on a vigorous exercise plan.
Calories, not kilojoules?
Some of the programs we assessed had a tendency to use calories rather than kilojoules – despite Australia officially switching to the metric kilojoule more than 35 years ago. Dietitian Kellie Bilinski says calories are used in the US which may explain the increasing use in Australia. She also says that she prefers calories as "it's a bit easier to calculate – for example, an average female requires around 1800 calories".
If you aren't keen to commit to a paid plan, there are plenty of tools online that can help you keep track of both your diet and exercise regimes for nix.
Some popular sites and apps include:
Since we carried out this shadow shop in 2013, CHOICE has investigated a range of other weight-loss programs and products, including:
- Isagenix and other detox products
- Xenical and other weight loss pills
- Diet clinics such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig
- Gastric banding
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.