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Be picky in your choice of diet sites

Special to The Times

Tens of millions of consumers seek nutrition advice online, regularly searching for information about dietary supplements, food allergies and weight loss. But the information they find can sometimes be slim on facts -- or bloated with commercial interests.

“More than half the top 20 sites were not rated well by our panel,” says Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch, which recently evaluated the 20 most popular diet and nutrition Internet sites. “That is of some concern.”

To evaluate the sites, the group teamed with the nonprofit Health Improvement Institute. Using Nielsen//NetRatings, they identified the 20 most popular diet and nutrition websites, from WebMD.com, with 11 million unique users, to Trimlife.com, with 743,000 users.

Nineteen experts, including doctors, nurses and medical librarians, were then tapped to rate the sites after being screened themselves by a three-person expert panel. The raters spent more than a month digging deep into the sites. They also paid to sign up at popular sites that charge fees, including the Biggest Loser Club, Weight Watchers, the Sonoma Diet and the South Beach Diet. Ten criteria were used to evaluate each site, including accuracy, disclosure of advertising and other commercial sponsorship, ease of use, privacy policies, authorship, references and how errors are corrected.

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The ratings stopped short of testing the medical effectiveness of specific diets and medical treatments.

“We’re upfront in saying that we can’t really take on the role of arbitrator of medical procedures or treatments that even the medical community doesn’t agree on,” Brendler says.

The six worst-rated diet and nutrition sites frequently blurred lines between editorial content and ads, the report found, and often didn’t disclose author credentials or potential conflicts of interest. Michael Neuwirth, a spokesman for one of the sites, Dannon’s LightnFit.com, notes that the report is “not based on any science, as Consumer Reports states themselves.”

As for blurring the boundaries between ads and editorial content, Neuwirth says, “it’s obvious that any company-produced Web page that is clearly branded, as ours is, is a form of promotion. There is nothing duplicitous here. No sleight of hand.”

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A spokeswoman for America Online, whose AOL Health site also received a poor ranking, took exception to the findings.

“I am confused as to what they are rating,” she says. “They seemed to go to AOL Diet & Fitness.... It’s not AOL Health. I also find it kind of entertaining that they talk about WebMD .com having great content and we get a lot of content from WebMD. So it’s kind of a head scratcher.”

Whether following Web-based nutrition and diet information is the best way for consumers to lose weight, however, is under debate. A series of ongoing studies conducted at Brown University suggests that simply providing information about food, calories and exercise to shed pounds “is not very effective,” says Rena Wing, lead author of the studies and director of the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I. But when Wing and her colleagues added behavior strategies and one-on-one diet counseling via e-mail to the mix, the weight loss results “markedly improved,” she says.

If you want to get nutrition, exercise, weight loss or other medical information from the Web, “choose sites with strong contents and sound editorial policies and procedures,” advises Peter Goldschmidt, president of the Health Improvement Institute.

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Here’s how the sites stacked up:

* Excellent: Aetna (intelihealth.com), medicinenet.com, mayoclinic.com.

* Very good: National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov), webmd.com.

* Good: ediets.com, realage.com, weightwatchers.com.

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* Fair: About Health & Fitness (www.about.com/health), biggestloserclub.com, MSN Health & Fitness (health.msn.com), sonomadiet.com, southbeachdiet.com, Yahoo Health (health.yahoo.com).

* Poor: AOL Health (health.aol.com), healthology.com, Dannon’s lightnfit.com, Rodale (prevention.com), qualityhealth.com, trimlife.com.


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