Want to lose pounds in the privacy of your own cyberspace? Then may be for you. Started in 1996, this online subscription service now offers 20 personalized diet and fitness programs. For a weekly fee, members gain unlimited access to the site, chat rooms, online meetings with experts, and other resources. The signature diet, in a nutshell: a low-fat, calorie-controlled plan based on the nutrition recommendations of several prestigious health organizations, including the American Dietetic Association and the American Heart Association. The site is constantly adding new features, such as Online/Anytime Meetings, which provide on-demand expert guidance via streaming videos, and Trim Kids, a program to assist the parents of overweight children.

With all the articles, tips, recipes, and menus found at the site, there's no doubt that is an up-to-date, comprehensive resource. And for the most part, the info seems reliable. One nice feature: Members can enter height, weight, and activity info (for adults or kids) and learn whether their weight is considered healthy or unhealthy. They'll also find out the number of daily calories they should consume to gain or lose weight. If you don't need to shed pounds, or if you set a goal that puts you at risk for health problems, the system spits out a warning.

Basic principles:

The focus is dieting by menu: The site provides customized weekly menus, shopping lists, and exercise regimens for dieters who put their individual low-fat, low-calorie plan into action. You can choose a diet based on convenience foods, homemade recipes, or a combination of the two. E-mail, chat rooms, a mentoring program, online discussions with experts, and a toll-free hotline all provide support.

How the diet works:

Plug in your height and weight, and a program calculates your body mass index (BMI) and an appropriate calorie level for weight loss (it also records other info like food preferences). That calorie count translates into daily menus, shopping lists, and recipes. For example, a 5-foot-4-inch woman weighing 150 pounds is allotted 1,200 to 1,300 calories per day. But rather than count those calories, she receives menus that automatically keep them in the prescribed range. The basic diet boils down to 50 to 60 percent carbohydrate, 20 to 25 percent protein, and 15 to 30 percent fat.

What you can eat:

Fruits and vegetables, along with small amounts of fats and oils, lean meats, seafood, and vegetarian proteins such as tofu and tempeh. Check off the foods you don't like (meat, tofu, milk), and the weekly menus follow your guidelines. Not crazy about the egg substitute listed on the Sunday breakfast menu? Click for another option. It might be an equivalent meal from Dunkin' Donuts (one glazed doughnut and a 16-ounce specialty coffee drink with skim milk) or another breakfast choice.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

The Web site boasts that eDieters have lost more than 5.6 million pounds since 1996. Unfortunately, there's no data on whether those pounds have stayed off. Leslie Womble, PhD, and fellow researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine may be able to fill in the blanks later this year when they publish an independent study that follows the weight-loss results of some eDieters. Two other studies from Brown Medical School in Rhode Island suggest Internet programs that offer dieters weekly support or feedback yield better weight-loss results than plans that don't.

Is the diet healthy?

Yes. The plan is a low-fat regimen developed by a registered dietitian. The problem comes when dieters opt out of the eDiets method and choose some of the other popular plans the site now offers, such as Atkins and The Zone—diets that may provide unhealthy levels of saturated fat or far too few calories to be adequate.

What do the experts say?

"The Internet can be an excellent source of information about what to eat and which activities to pursue for weight loss," says Thomas Wadden, PhD, director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The problem is the same as with any diet book or written diet advice: It's hard to motivate people to act on that information. Wadden sees "modest" success with Internet weight-loss regimens, but he adds that the numbers on the scale don't drop as much as when dieters choose a program that offers face-to-face support. Meanwhile, eDiets gets a "better than most" rating from Nutrition Navigator, the Tufts University Web site that reviews online nutrition information. However, Karin Koehn, a registered dietitian who evaluated for Nutrition Navigator, says she can base her rating only on news articles provided at the free part of the site.

Who should consider the diet?

Dieters who thrive on the online experience.

Bottom line:

Some dieters may find the lack of face-to-face contact a problem, but the eDiets low-fat regimen and the advice dished out on the Web site are, for the most part, sound.
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