People rely on the Internet for lots of information, including their fix of health advice and help.

Although the Web seems to be rich in information, a new study found that people with serious weight problems find it hard to look for reliable weight loss programs online.

"There is very little oversight, and it's hard for consumers and medical professionals alike to tell what is effective, reliable and meets guidelines' standards," says study author Kimberly Gudzune.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins want to find out the reliability of information found on the Internet regarding community-based weight loss programs. They also aim to determine the level of compliance that these programs exhibit with respect to the 2013 guidelines set by the American Heart Association (AHA), American College of Cardiology (ACC) and The Obesity Society (TOS).

To do that, the researchers looked into weight loss programs in Maryland, Washington, DC and Virginia via online search tools. They analyzed the program components found on the websites and later conducted phone interviews among the facilities that offer 80 of the 200 programs surveyed.

The researchers verified the information contained in the website during the interviews and determined whether the online content is reliable or not.

Adherence To Medical Guidelines

The results of the study show that only 9 percent of the programs follow the expert medical guidelines set by the AHA, ACC and TOS.

Such finding emphasizes the need to regulatory monitor the data posted by community-based programs that claim to be successful.

Intensity Qualification

Although 59 percent of the programs specify its intensity online, the researchers found that only 17 percent actually qualified under a high-intensity program - a program that recommends more than 14 sessions within half a year.

Dietary Component

About 75 percent of programs claim that dietary change is part of the regimen, but fails to specify what type of dietary modification it applies. This gives consumers vague information and may possibly discourage participation and ultimately, success.

Physical Activity

For physical activity, 57 percent claims that it includes increased exercise in the program. However, only three percent comply with the prescribed 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

Behavior

Behavior is a key component of weight loss regimens, but in the study, the researchers found that only more than 50 percent of the programs include behavioral training. Behaviors such as self-monitoring and food and exercise tracking are just some of the strategies that fall under this category.

Prescribing Drugs And Supplements

Only 15 percent of programs prescribe FDA-approved drugs related to weight loss. Surprisingly, 34 percent endorse supplements, which may lack scientific evidence against weight loss and may even cause unwanted side effects.

Weight loss programs can be very costly, with some not even supported by insurance companies. Gudzune then cautions consumers, saying people may lose more from their wallets than from their waists.

In the end, the researchers recommend regulatory monitoring and enhancement of consumer protection laws. This may be done by requiring community-based programs to declare strategies and compliance to set medical guidelines.

The study was published in the journal Obesity on Wednesday.

Photo: Neeta Lind | Flickr

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