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The YouTube Diet: Showing the world how your pounds fade away


Beth Lichtenfels shows off her new figure. (Courtesy of Beth Lichtenfels)


Beth Lichtenfels, before and after her 231-pound weight loss. (Courtesy of Beth Lichtenfels)


Beth Lichtenfels, before losing 231 pounds. (Courtesy of Beth Lichtenfels)

When Beth Lichtenfels posted a video of her 231-pound weight loss on YouTube nine months ago, she thought it might inspire a few others to get in shape. She never expected the four-and-a-half minute video, which featured dozens of pre- and post-transformation photos set to pop music, to reach over 78,000 people around the globe.

“It’s really helped me not gain the weight back because I have so many people watching me,” said Lichtenfels, 28, who now weighs 165 pounds and continues to post occasional “vlogs,” or video blogs, about her struggle to maintain her new figure and her quest to remove excess skin she carries as a result of her major transformation.

Lichtenfels is one of a growing number of people who are chronicling their body transformations and posting the results on YouTube, the popular video-sharing website. The result is that YouTube has suddenly become a popular venue for online weight loss communities, attracting thousands of people looking for new ways to shed pounds, follow the progress of others, and give and receive encouragement.

Sharing weight lost experiences “is an old technique, and it works,” said David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. A success story video, he said, is like receiving a medal. “They can demonstrate what they have accomplished so that in itself is rewarding. But I think the most rewarding is the social network--that you connect with other people.”

Group weight loss programs are nothing new. Companies like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig have inspired folks to shed pounds and share their successes for decades. But with the Internet, dieters do not need to attend weekly meetings; they can log on and leave when they please--multiple times a day. Weight loss is now a virtual reality, thanks to an ever-expanding array of websites with daily workout routines, calorie calculators, and dietary menu planners.

Though no studies specifically analyze the long-term success of people who post their weight loss stories on YouTube, studies of other web-based weight loss programs show that they do work, Levitsky said.

Studies also show that people who lose weight as part of a group drop the pounds more quickly than those who diet and exercise alone. The problem, Levitsky explained, is that once members leave a group, they tend to put the weight back on, because “they don’t have the social reinforcement anymore.”

On YouTube, joining a weight loss group is as easy as a click of a mouse. Members can browse videos, post comments, and upload their own clips. “By using YouTube and other social networking through the Internet, you can find people who are going through the same thing as you,” said Erik Bengsston, 29, who started the rapidly growing “Gut2Cut” group on YouTube.

Bengsston started posting “vlogs” two years ago, to record his progress trying to shed 30 pounds and build muscle by dieting, exercise, and weight lifting. In video clips, shot in the gym and by a webcam atop his home computer, he offered words of encouragement, fitness tips, and tidbits about his personal life.

Bengsston has now chronicled his transformation from pudgy to chiseled in close to 100 videos, most around six minutes long. Today, his weekly videos attract nearly 3,000 viewers, and Gut2Cut counts over 1,100 active members. Devotees log in from Malaysia to Missouri to inspire themselves and others to achieve their goals.

Steph Bairey, 37, thought that posting “before,” “during” and “after” photos on the Internet would boost her motivation during her most recent weight loss drive. She was surprised to find hundreds of other people who had done the same thing. She quickly discovered Gut2Cut, and found a “welcoming, encouraging support group ready to follow along with my journey,” she wrote via e-mail from her home in rural Hawaii.

Bairey and her fellow group members regularly challenge each other with diet and fitness goals. Sometimes, they dare one another to stay off the scale for a week. Other times, they set exercise goals, like a 30-minute walk every day for a week.

Unlike commercial weight loss programs, membership in groups like Gut2Cut is free and there are no requirements other than to be a responsible member of the community.

Bairey and others have been surprised that the online connections they have made around weight loss have blossomed into broader friendships.

“I was really shocked at first,” said Bengsston, the founder of Gut2Cut, explaining that he originally planned to use his vlogs like a personal diary. “Then, when I saw the response and the number of subscribers go up, it was like a network of friends.”

One of Bengsston’s closest YouTube friendships is with Christopher Maslon, a Massachusetts native who teaches English and lives in Korea with his wife and daughter. Bengsston and Maslon shared tips on building muscle, and soon forged a friendship, sharing other aspects of their lives--like the growth of Maslon’s daughter.

As for Maslon, the friendship came as a surprise as well. “I heard about his workings and caught on as a watcher,” Maslon wrote in a message from Korea. “I had no idea we would become friends via YouTube.”