"You have an accent!" cries Kristi Smith the first time she hears her online pal Rosie Bowers' Carolina lilt in person. Throughout the last year, she and Bowers, along with Kristin Hutson, have been corresponding via Spark People.com. The online diet community encourages users to record what they eat, how often they work out and how much they've lost (or not). Perhaps most helpfully, the Web site, like a growing number of other dieting sites, allows people with similar weight-loss goals, or a common weakness for glazed donuts, to connect via message boards and form virtual support groups. Using screen names—"Thinnyminny" (Bowers, age 50), "Fruityful" (Hutson, 38) and "Mrs. Honeycomb" (Smith, 31)—these three linked up to trade low-fat meal ideas and workout plans, to confess their diet slipups and to help each other stay on track. Recently Bowers, a massage therapist from Raleigh, N.C.; Hutson, a legal secretary from Portland, Ore.; and Smith, a stay-at-home mom from West Valley City, Utah, met in New York City to see, firsthand, the results of their joint effort.
With two million people on the site, how did you find one another?
Kristin: Rosie, who was already maintaining by the time I came on, posted on a discussion board that she had gone from 280 lbs. to 155. I thought, "That's what I have to do, and she's done it." So I sent a message.
Rosie: I felt compelled to write back and to reassure her. It helped me reassure myself too, to hang on and keep following the same good habits. We found we both like cycling. And cereal.
Kristi: I had tried to get my friends at home to diet with me, but they would get bored, and I ate. So I searched online. Once I got to the site, I met Kristin, and met Rosie through her.
Did you hit it off immediately?
Kristi: Really well.
Rosie: The hardest thing about losing weight is how lonely it is. I just wanted to talk about it all the time, but your friends and family can take only so much.
How did you motivate each other?
Rosie: Kristin is intense about exercise. She'll write what she's doing and I think, "I better work a little harder." If you don't see someone working hard, you can think, "Boy, am I great! I'm really doing a lot of exercise."
Kristin: I always look at what you guys do and compare myself. I saw Rosie was cycling. I said, "I can ride the 8 miles to work." The first time I did, I felt such a sense of accomplishment.
Kristi: And I thought, "They ride bikes—I can too." Lately I've forced green tea on them. And both of them were like, "Ugh, I don't know."
Kristin: I actually like it now. I had some this morning.
Because the others can read your online logs to see what you've eaten and how much you've lost, does that keep you honest?
Rosie: Kristin is always writing me things like "Do you really drink sugar-free hot chocolate four times a day?" I felt so embarrassed!
Kristi: I've watched Kristin's online weight tracker, and if I was feeling bad because I didn't lose as much as I wanted to, I'd see she's been right where I am.
Kristin: At first I was very rigid, never splurged. In the summer my family started going camping. Before we left, I wrote in my food log, "I'm going to have two s'mores." So I ate two s'mores—then a bag of marshmallows. Next thing you know I'm cooking hot dogs and marshmallows.
Rosie: I just laughed because I could see myself. It was so easy to tell her, "Don't beat up on yourself."
Kristi: You just want to reach through the computer and hug!
Why do you think you haven't had the same support locally?
Kristi: Friends in your hometown who aren't dieting can sabotage you, even if they don't mean to. I actually had a friend say, "I don't want you to lose weight. You'll change."
Kristin: Exactly. One of my friendships is drifting apart because all we did was eat and shop. We don't have anything in common anymore. And my husband said to me, "We're not going to be eating buddies anymore." We used to have Friday pizza night.
Rosie: Do you miss it?
Kristin: Sometimes I do.
Rosie: I had an eating buddy too. But would I trade who I am now for who I was then? It's not worth it.
During moments of weakness, what do you say to one another?
Rosie: It's always better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission!
Kristi: Occasionally I'll get online before I actually screw up. Other times there's no talking me out of it.
Kristin: Then you get the reassurance that it's fine. It took all that time to lose it. It takes more than one incident to gain the weight back.
How do you regain your motivation?
Kristi: We do challenges.
Rosie: Like who can stay within their calorie range the longest.
Kristi: Apparently we're competitive, because all somebody has to post is, "Let's stay under this calorie amount this week," and everyone does.
Rosie: It's about saving face.
What's great about being thinner?
Kristin: Everything is more comfortable—wearing jeans, sitting in booths in restaurants. I remember my stomach was, like, resting on the table.
Rosie: Being able to be active and try athletic things. And going to a regular store, not the fat lady store.
Now that you're at or close to your goals, will you keep in touch online?
Kristin: We have a friendship. And our chances of staying successful are higher, because we're accountable to someone else.
Kristi: Every morning I get up and log on. That's all we think about!
Rosie: Well, I do think about some other things. But we're invested in each other. We're not gonna disappear.
Kristi: [Laughs] As long as we have computers.
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