During a session at the 19th European Congress on Obesity in Lyon, France on Thursday, May 10, Dr. Robert Pretlow of the Research Institute, eHealth International in Seattle, Washington, presented evidence suggesting that social networking and new smart phone apps that help people overcome addiction-like cravings for “highly pleasurable foods” are an effective tool to help people lose weight.
At the conference, Dr. Pretlow presented findings that social networks can be very effective in treating obesity, and he also presented a new smart phone app to help battle obesity.
The data presented showed that teens and preteens using the smart phone app lost an average of 10 pounds.
According to a press release issued by the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO), which hosts the annual European Congress on Obesity, Dr. Pretlow’s research suggests that substance dependence (addiction), involving highly pleasurable foods (“problem foods”) is a “significant cause of the obesity epidemic, if not the overriding cause.”
“Thus, obesity treatment should use addiction medicine approaches, a key part of which are anonymous social networks that offer support during withdrawal,” according to Dr. Robert Pretlow, the release reported.
“Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Drug Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous (OA), and Food Addicts Anonymous demonstrate that support groups are indispensable in the addiction treatment approach,” Dr. Pretlow said in the EASO release. “The crucial point is that people remain anonymous,” Dr. Pretlow said.
The Role of Social Networking in Weight Gain and in Weight Loss
According to an abstract of Dr. Pretlow’s study presented at the European Congress on Obesity, social networking and the social stigma associated with obesity play a role in inducing “comfort eating” as a means of numbing the sense of shame and depression that one feels from being overweight. This, in turn, perpetuates a vicious cycle of binge eating inducing more binge eating, which leads to obesity. The study abstract states in part:
1) Obesity is frowned upon socially. Social rejection and isolation produces sadness and depression, which elicits “comfort eating,” typically involving highly pleasurable food. The pleasure and distraction of eating eases emotional pain and depression – a form of self-medication. Some obese people even proclaim, “food is my best friend,” thus replacing their social networking. This may become a vicious cycle with more weight gain, more rejection, more comfort eating, even lower self-esteem and more isolation, and so on.
2) The brain is averse to emotional pain and undergoes changes to keep the comfort eating behavior going. The person may thus develop a dependence on the pleasure of comforting foods – an actual addiction – which neuromaging data is now confirming.
3 ) Social rejection and isolation of the obese person lowers self-esteem, which tends to result in the person not caring about gaining more weight, another vicious cycle.
4) Fear of social criticism in obese people induces shame and embarrassment. They may thus keep weight issues a complete secret and may be too embarrassed to seek help, a third vicious cycle, plus additional comfort eating to cope with the shame.”
Likewise, social networking can be an effective tool for fighting obesity, according to the abstract of Dr. Pretlow’s study. By providing social support and encouragement, social networking and the anonymous use of online social media tools and smart phone apps, can help overcome addictive cravings for problem foods and thus control and avoid binge eating, which may be a core cause of the obesity epidemic, according to Dr. Pretlow’s research. The study abstract states, in pertinent part:
1) Social support reverses isolation, sadness, and comfort eating; support groups have been long known to enhance weight loss efforts, e.g. Overeaters Anonymous (OA).
2) Social networking enhances self-esteem, especially when the obese person experiences success at losing weight and becomes a mentor to those just starting out. . . .
3) Social networking offers accountability – pledging self-actions to a group takes advantage of peer pressure.
4) A weight loss “buddy” is very desirable to obese individuals, and offers accountability, mutual problem solving and resisting cravings and binges.
5) Online social networking is a new tool, consisting of bulletin boards, chat rooms, success stories, weight loss buddies, and tips.
Online social networking can offer the advantage of anonymity, which avoids shame and embarrassment. . . .
Social networks can facilitate breaking the addiction (problem food) cause of obesity. Group support helps the obese person tolerate withdrawal from problem foods and adds motivation to keep going. Re-addiction is prevented by socially learning to cope with life without turning to food.”
At the Obesity Congress, Dr. Pretlow demonstrated online social networking via a website used by thousands of overweight kids. In addition, he demonstrated the smartphone app obesity intervention (pictured above left).
These tools are “based on the addiction model, which uses extensive online social networking (buddies, groups, and mentors),” according to the study abstract.
“Group support helps the obese person tolerate withdrawal from problem foods and adds motivation to keep going,” Dr. Pretlow said in the EASO release. “Re-addiction is prevented by socially learning to cope with life without turning to food,” he added.
These groups enhance self-esteem, especially when the obese person experiences success at losing weight and becomes a mentor to those just starting out. Being a mentor is a win-win situation, according to Dr. Pretlow, as this also reinforces the mentor’s life changes. In addition, having a weight loss “buddy” is very helpful obese individuals, and offers accountability, mutual problem solving and help resisting cravings and binges.
Dr. Pretlow advocated social networking online and via apps for smartphones and mobile devices, as an extremely useful new support group tool for obesity treatment, because it can be totally anonymous. This avoids the shame and embarrassment obese individuals feel so deeply. The useful online tools also include genuinely anonymous online forums consisting of bulletin boards, chat rooms, success stories, weight loss buddies, and tips, Dr. Pretlow indicated.
Non-anonymous online social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter, are less useful, according to Dr. Pretlow. “Facebook, as the name implies, is based on face photos, to which obese people are averse, and 93% of Facebook “friends” know each other in real life,” EASO’s release describing Dr. Pretlow’s presentation said.
Where to Find Online and Mobile Apps to Help Fight Binge Eating and Lose Weight
Dr. Pretlow presents an example of useful online tools to fight obesity at his interactive website for overweight young people at weigh2rock.com. Users have posted over 160,000 anonymous messages on the site. “For 17628 users, mean age 14.2 years, mean BMI 32.7, anonymously using this website over the past 11 years, mean self-reported weight loss was 7.4 lbs,” according to EASO’s news release.
Dr. Pretlow has also recently developed a smartphone app for treatment of obesity (“W8Loss2Go”- pictured above). The app is “based on the addiction model, which takes full advantage of anonymous online social networking in facilitating withdrawal from problem foods by using buddies, peer groups, and mentors,” according to the EASO release.
“In a 4 month preliminary study involving 12 obese youths, age 9-22 years, using the app in a self-care manner, mean weight loss was 10 lbs,” the EASO release stated. “Results of an exit questionnaire indicate that the social networking support was invaluable in participants becoming unhooked from their problem foods and large portion sizes,” Dr. Pretlow said. A larger trial of the app, involving 30 youths, will begin in June 2012.
“While weight loss from social networking is not as much as face-to-face weight loss programs, social networking is much cheaper and much more widely available. It is also ongoing for weight maintenance and dealing with relapses,” Dr. Pretlow said.
“Many young people using our website have posted that they have done so for 5-10 years, lost or maintained weight, left, and then returned when they relapsed,” Dr. Pretlow explained. The smartphone app likewise may be used indefinitely to prevent and deal with relapses, according to Dr. Pretlow.
Dr. Pretlow presented the smartphone app (pictured above) at the European Congress on Obesity. It will be available to the public via Dr. Pretlow’s website, or by contacting Dr. Pretlow at:
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