Facebook-ing Away the Pounds: Social Media Promotes Weight Loss

Too much screen time has long been linked with packing on the pounds, but social media may actually help people shed more weight, new research suggests.

Dieters participating in a worksite weight-loss program who joined a restricted, members-only Facebook page for additional weight-loss support lost more weight than those who didn't go the social media route.

In the Facebook group, workers interacted with others trying to slim down. A registered dietitian posted weight-control strategies four or more times a week. Workers could post progress, make comments, and ''like" as they wished.

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Connecting this way had its advantages: Those adding the Facebook option lost an average of 4.5 pounds in a month, compared to less than 3 for those who didn't opt in.

While that difference may not seem like much, over several months it could translate into a substantial amount of weight lost.

"It's one of those interventions that is so simple and easy," says Kristin Reimers, a registered dietitian who is manager of nutrition for ConAgra Foods and helps run the weight-loss program.

The research findings about Facebook were presented recently at The Obesity Society’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas. In all, 316 men and women, all employees at ConAgra, initially enrolled in the four-week worksite weight-loss program. They learned about portion control and used single-serving frozen meals to help them cut down.

After some people dropped out, 239 finished the entire four weeks. Of those, 37 chose the Facebook option. 

While dieters often focus on pounds lost, Reimers says she’d rather concentrate on something else: the fact that Facebook users were also less likely to drop out of the weight-loss program. While a quarter of those who didn't sign up for Facebook support dropped out, just 18 percent of those who did participate in Facebook quit early.

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"It's interesting, novel and new," Reimers says of adding the Facebook option. She and her colleagues plan to do further research on the worksite weight-loss program. "You can't rule out that more motivated people chose to join the Facebook part," she says.

For now, she says that Facebook ''offers a potentially effective way to create a support system within worksite programs."

Could people set up their own groups if they don't have access to a worksite program?

Maybe, Reimers says, "if people could somehow create a community and have a peer leader—I think that is key," she says.  "You'd need an expert who is also a peer."

Reimers says the company tried out the new option because it was curious to see if the group weight-loss idea would work, since there was a built-in accountability factor.

Motivation and responsibility have been shown in studies to be key components of successful weight-loss and weight-maintenance programs, but ones that often elude dieters.

Accountability comes in many forms when it comes to dieting. For instance, 75 percent of the successful losers in the National Weight Control Registry, a research program of people who have maintained a weight loss of 30 pounds or more for at least a year, say they weigh in at least once a week.

Accountability may also be the driving force for a growing number of bloggers who publicly detail their weight-loss goals and progress, according to health experts.

Researchers from Australia and New Zealand analyzed weight-loss blogs, reporting their impression in this month’s issue of the journal Sociology of Health & Illness. “Many bloggers openly court the surveillance of blog readers as a motivation for accountability to their weight loss goals,” they write. “This 'blogosphere' provides mutual support for weight loss.”

How do you stay motivated to lose weight, and to whom are you accountable? Let us know in the comments.

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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about health. She doesn't believe inmiracle cures, but continues to hope someone will discover a way for joggers to maintain their pace.