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What information do Australians who are overweight seek online? A research study

blog 2 searching onlinePeople who are obese often report feeling stigmatised and, at times, struggle to find appropriate support within the community. As a result, many overweight and obese people turn online to the internet to source information and support.

However, the views of people who are obese are not often reported on in the academic literature. Accordingly, Australian researchers undertook a qualitiative study of 111 people with a mean body mass index of 39.1 to better understand the reasons why these people sought information about weight loss online. Participants described themselves as either:
• trying to lose weight,
• content with their current weight,
• or that they had stopped trying to lose weight.
They had a mean age of 44, and were primarily women, married or in a de facto relationship.

Who searches, how often, and what for?
Although this was not a quantitative study, it appeared that people who were more overweight seemed more likely to search for weight loss solutions online. In fact, some respondents reported searching as often as twice per day for weight loss and diet related information. The types of information they searched for included commercial diet programs, bariatric surgery, complementary medicines and weight loss medications.

Specific search terms described by participants included:
• Diet, dieting
• Weight loss
• Weight reduction
• Causes of obesity
• Lap banding
• Stomach stapling
• Liposuction, and
• Medications, such as Xenical.

When it comes to weight loss, what drives people online?
A key theme emerging from this study was the shame and desperation experienced by people who were overweight, and how this pushed them online to search for solutions to this issue. Participants also described being interested in locating more information on the health risks associated with obesity.

Claims of significant weight loss reported by commercial diets in print media often led participants to search for further information online. However, those dramatic results caused participants to blame themselves for being unable to replicate similar results in their own lives.

Diet hopping and the Fatosphere
Two interesting trends are described in this research. Some participants noted that they would jump to another diet approach if they felt the current method was not working, or if they needed a ‘boost’. This behaviour is referred to as
diet hopping and includes jumping from one diet to another, or holding concurrent subscriptions to several paid weight loss sites at the same time.

At the other end of the spectrum, non-dieting online groups (known as the Fatosphere) are forums and online communities providing support, acceptance, and a “place to vent” about discrimination against people who are obese. Those sites promote self-acceptance at any body size and positive self-image, often banning discussion about diets and weight loss. Participants reported that involvement in the Fatosphere had several positive impacts on their wellbeing, including increased self-esteem, resilience, and greater confidence to undertake physical activity in public.

Where to from here?
What is clear is that people who are overweight and obese want to connect with others who understand their perspective and experiences. This research has also shown that people who search for weight loss information online often investigate quick-fix solutions, despite knowing that those approaches are unlikely to result in positive long-term health and wellbeing outcomes.

One reason for this is that people who are obese believe that they are viewed more positively if they are “seen to be doing something” than if they were to be doing nothing at all. Participants were also attracted to the persuasive messages of incredible transformations reported by weight loss programs.

Weight loss professionals can use these insights to develop online resources which meet the needs of people who are overweight and obese and provide the support and solutions that these clients seek.
Reference: Lewis, S., Thomas, S. L., Blood, R. W., Castle, D., Hyde, J., & Komesaroff, P. A. (2011). “I”m searching for solutions’: why are obese individuals turning to the Internet for help and support with “being fat”? Health Expectations, 14(4), 339–350.
Do you have clients who have used the diet hopping approach? How do you keep those clients engaged and motivated? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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