Obesity is an epidemic estimated to effect more than one third (36%) of adults in the United States.1One driver behind such an epidemic is the chronic overconsumption of food. In this author’s last post, cognitive and behavioral recommendations were briefly explored to facilitate liberation from conditioned hypereating (CH) and consumption of ultra-processed food and drinks (UPFDs). One intervention included implementation of online social support networks to achieve such an end.2In the following sections, additional findings will be explored to elucidate how such an approach can be refined to provide the most efficacious outcomes.
Researchers have placed efforts in the development of health and wellness programs designed to reduce and manage obesity and overweight.1(9) One component of such programs includes the use of social support networks to facilitate bodyfat loss. Social support programs have been successful mainly due to the influence they exert upon individuals’ perceptions related to exercise and nutrition.1(9) Furthermore, the human proclivity to “fit in” can influence a person’s drive to improve healthy behaviors.1(9) Several types of support exist to include informational support, emotional support, and instrumental support.1(10)As a means of appreciating such types of support, the following sections will expand further upon the same.
Informational support is characterized by a level of guidance and advice to help individuals complete tasks, or to overcome obstacles. Emotional support can be thought of as an expression of reassurance, caring, and empathy while instrumental support can include financial assistance to help manage and accomplish daily activities.1(10) Ultimately, social support and its subtypes work synergistically to play crucial roles in helping individuals manage weight loss and lead healthy lifestyles in meaningful, efficacious, and sustained ways. However, the delivery systems of social support networks are not necessarily equal in their effectiveness and have remained relatively unexplored until Yan1(10) explored and compared such systems.
Some differences do exist between online and offline support; offline support enables individuals to communicate in a face-to-face fashion to exchange experience, information, and technical advice regarding issues of weight loss. Furthermore, a basic knowing that an expert has technical knowledge and guidance creates a sense of reassurance within the person seeking help.1(10)However, some individuals reported that in-person contact with such resources can have an interfering effect, and sometimes threatening.1(10) In direct contrast, online delivery of social support can provide a level of anonymity, helping reduce the sense of judgement and threat while providing objective feedback. Furthermore, online support can enable a wider array of individuals to find each other that may not otherwise be possible (i.e., living in a small community). Interestingly, however, high levels of social support do not necessarily facilitate better outcomes despite the delivery system used.
Yan1(10) considered two fundamental questions when exploring online social support delivery systems: (1) does providing and receiving social support in an online weight-loss community manifest distinct influences on individuals’ weight-loss performance? (2) When the amount and type of available social support matches individuals’ needs, how does it affect their weight-loss outcomes? Research by Yan1(25) indicated that there are different forms of social support, and some are more effective than others. Thus, it is critical to identify and confirm appropriate support resources and activities. Findings suggested that receiving and providing support were highly effective when individuals were in a low self-efficacy state (LSES). Self-efficacy can be defined as individuals’ sense of control and the perception that they can accomplish tasks.1(14)Thus, a LSES implies a lowered sense of one’s ability to complete a task.
The status of self-efficacy is not an observable state and providing and receiving support can have negative consequences. Furthermore, there is a lack of homogeneity in an individual’s perception of supportive action; individuals have specific support-based needs and recipients characteristics might vary which can affect an individual’s evaluation of provided support. Such a problem is deepened as supportive interaction between two people could be unproductive for another person.1(14) Please see the chart below for further detail:
Ultimately, Yan1(24) concluded that the effectiveness of providing support can be distinguished from receiving support when helping improve individuals’ behaviors. Most importantly, the type of support provided must be matched with the type of support needed by the recipient. Otherwise, a mismatch could have harmful influences.1(24)
In conclusion, obesity is an epidemic estimated to effect more than one third (36%) of adults in the United States, and such an epidemic continues to worsen. Online social support networks provide an alternative to individuals who prefer anonymity and less threatening/judgemental environments. However, care must be taken to determine the precise needs of the recipient and match such needs with the correct social support to maximize outcomes.
1. Yan L. Good intentions, bad outcomes: The effects of mismatches between social support and health outcomes in an online weight loss community. POMS. 2018;27(1):9-27. doi:10.1111/poms.12793.
2. Kessler DA. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York, NY: Rodale Inc.; 2009.