The best weight loss program is the one that works for you
Practically everyone decides at some point in time that they want or need to lose weight. For some, it may be a few pounds they've put on over the holidays, for others it's a serious issue and their weight may be leading to obesity-related health problems.
The good news is that if you're struggling with your size, reducing your calorie intake and increasing your activity level have been clinically shown to help you lose weight. The bad news is there are no shortcuts and no short-term fixes. Fad diets, herbal supplements, "fat-burning" pills, and highly restrictive diets don't work for long and some may cause more harm than good.
The most important consideration of any diet is finding one that you can stick with for the long haul. While many diets promise to quickly shed pounds at their outset, the truth is that reining in your eating will almost always result in quick, initial weight loss regardless of what program you decide to try. The trick is to find a program that -- after that first couple of weeks -- you can adhere to as your weight loss slows to more realistic levels. Experts say that people who make diets a lifestyle rather than a "diet," while setting a goal of losing a pound or so a week, are more apt to keep the weight off over the long term.
And don't forget exercise. The best diets incorporate or encourage exercise and allow you to ingest more calories as your reward. Some programs have even more specific exercise guidelines, suggesting the best foods to eat both before and after you exercise for maximum energy and recovery.
If you don't know the best exercise for you, head on over to our reports on treadmills, elliptical trainers, exercise bikes and stair climbers to help in your efforts to improve your fitness. A fitness tracker can also give you the motivation to get up and get moving.
Support, either in-person or online, is another key to successful dieting. The best diets offer support from both trained counselors and fellow dieters. In addition, studies show that those who keep track of their food and activity are ultimately more successful at losing weight. This personal accountability can help you shed pounds whether you follow a commercial diet program or choose a self-directed diet. Many of our best-rated weight loss programs have tracking software available online, as well as mobile apps, or even paper-tracking programs for those who prefer hard-copy journaling. Other programs or diets may not have dedicated websites, but there are a wealth of free calorie and activity tracking websites that offer community support, recipes and even free exercise videos.
Types of weight loss programs
Commercial diet programs offer a lot of tools for the dieter. They come at a cost -- some higher than others depending upon the program -- but they also have a lot of cool features: in-person and online support, smartphone and tablet apps, journaling and record-keeping programs specific to the diet, pre-calculated calorie counts, guides for eating out and a plethora of proven recipes. They also provide the most support, both in person and online.
Diet books are a dime a dozen. And that's a very good thing. A good diet book can be an affordable approach to starting and following a healthy eating plan. Many even have free online support forums or extensive websites that can be accessed for free or a small fee. The best diet books not only give you an overview of how their program works, but also offer menu plans, recipes and exercise guidance. Best off all, you can usually try before you buy by checking out the book at your local library.
Prepackaged food plans are very convenient. If you don't have the time, energy or ability to plan for and prepare meals, a prepackaged food program gives you a no-hassle, no-brainer approach to dieting, but the best come at a cost. Even the least expensive prepackaged plans cost more than just buying your own food, and it can be difficult to find out the true cost until you actually commit. Still, if you can afford it, you get a nutritionally balanced, calorie-controlled eating plan with lots of support and no additional tools needed -- except a microwave oven which we also cover in a separate report.
Low carb diets are becoming the norm. Low carb diets used to get a bad rap until scientific studies started rolling in that showed not only more rapid weight loss compared to other types of diets, but also improved health markers across the board in both the short and long term. Nowadays the most popular diets all have carbohydrate reduction as the base upon which the diet is built -- that means none or little white flour products and a higher caloric value placed upon even whole grains. Some diets go a step further and eschew carbs altogether, with the exception of vegetables and fruits (but sparingly). Such low carb diets aren't for everyone, but the good news is that they are free, self-directed programs.
How we found the best diets
There is always a lot of controversy when it comes to evaluating diets. Many people are firmly in one camp or another over the "right" way to eat. Studies are often contradictory in their findings, and many critics charge that government recommendations are influenced by the food industry. We present the controversies and cross-opinions, but we do not take sides; in our opinion the best diet is the one you feel best on and can stick with.
Instead, we've evaluated expert and user reviews -- starting with clinical studies and working all the way down to dieter opinions posted on survey sites -- to identify the most nutritionally sound and sustainable weight loss programs. That includes diets, meal-delivery plans, diet books and free, online resources that will help you lose weight and keep it off over the long-term.
The best diet programs offer structure and support
No weight loss program rivals Weight Watchers' (Est. $20 and up per month) record of scientifically proven efficacy and enthusiastic expert and dieter endorsements. Its combination of in-person and/or online support and motivation, flexible points-based meal planning, and physical activity are hard to beat. There are no off-limit foods, and the program can be customized for any dietary need, making it a good choice for vegetarians, vegans and anyone who has a specific food allergy or intolerance. It emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables by making them "free" foods. Food preparation-wise, the program can be as easy or as difficult as your skill level in the kitchen.
In late 2015, Weight Watchers replaced their PointsPlus program with a similar program it dubbed SmartPoints. Like PointsPlus, it gives you food "points," that are calculated from a formula that takes into account the food's fat, sugar, protein and carbohydrate count. You're given a specific number of points each day that you track and log, as well as weekly bonus points for snacks or additional food items. Fitness is also a bigger component, and you're encouraged to set fitness goals when you set up your profile, then track them and, if you wish, exchange FitPoints for food.
There has been some push back against the new program, with long-time Weight Watchers members saying that some favorite foods are now much higher in points values than they used to be. Others complain that the app and website are not as intuitive or as user-friendly. However, many reviewers point out that some of the confusion may simply be due to the learning curve inherent in any new online program.
Still, experts agree that Weight Watchers is one of the easiest programs to follow. There are hundreds of Weight Watchers recipes available, both in cookbook form and online, with pre-calculated "Points" values for each recipe. Weight Watchers has its own line of frozen entrees, and Weight Watchers points values are often pre-calculated on other brands of frozen entrees. There are many other Weight Watchers-branded prepared foods available as well.
If you don't like tracking, in addition to the SmartPoints program, Weight Watchers offers a Simply Filling option where you merely choose foods from various food groups and eat until you're satisfied, but not stuffed. You also get flex points for snacks or second helpings, but you still have to track those.
The fee for Weight Watchers is $20 to $70 per month plus around $15 each week for meeting fees, unless they're included in your monthly payment. There are also plans available that provide you with individual coaching sessions. You can even do Weight Watchers completely online, through their Online Plus program, thus skipping the meeting fees. Regardless of the plan you choose, experts say you get a lot for your money, especially in online tools and support. However, if you're on a tight budget, these fees may still be a bit too steep.
A similar program, TOPS (Est. $32 per year, plus $5 meeting fee), pairs a wealth of educational material with group meetings. TOPS, which stands for Take Off Pounds Sensibly, uses a food-exchange system that users say is easy to understand and follow. It has categories of foods with similar serving sizes and caloric loads, and it's easy to swap one food for another. TOPS also recommends the USDA's MyPlate tool, which focuses on filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables and the other half with lean meats and whole grains. It's low-cost, nutritionally sound, and provides plenty of support. However, it's not as structured as some other commercial weight loss programs, so those who prefer a diet that offers more specific meal guidelines may find it more difficult to follow.
There are plenty of low- or no-cost diet resources
If your budget -- or your preferences -- don't make either Weight Watchers or TOPS appealing to you, there are some popular diet programs that are less-structured, but no less effective if you stick to the program.
Probably everyone has heard of the TV series, the Biggest Loser, and it probably comes as no surprise that there really is a Biggest Loser Diet. It earns kudos from experts across the board for its strong fitness emphasis, along with eating a balanced, healthy diet. While contestants on the show may work out for many hours a day, the Biggest Loser Diet, which is tied into a full complement of books, is more realistic. The best place to start, if you're interested in this approach, is with the book, The Biggest Loser (Est. $20 (Paperback) $12 (Kindle)). There are other books too, including quick start guides, 30-day programs and plenty of cookbooks. You can even get DVDs to give you exercise guidance or join the 8-week online boot camp (Est. $100).
The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet, most commonly called the TLC Diet (Free), has a name that's about as interesting as cold broth, but experts say it's a top choice to lower cholesterol and that you will lose weight if you follow the eating and activity guidelines. The downside to this diet is that you have to figure out which foods to eat and there is no support. Guidelines are available online on the U.S. National Institutes of Health website, but they're not as specific as with fee-based weight loss programs. However, while there are no "official" community websites that accompany the TLC diet, there is plenty of information available online from dieters who have successfully followed the programs and offer their suggestions, recipes and tips.
Volumetrics, based upon the well-regarded book The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet (Est. $15) is a sensible, sustainable approach that draws rave reviews from experts and dieters. You swap high-density foods, which tend to have more calories, for lower-density foods like fruits, vegetables, soups and stews. This swap, of foods with more bulk but fewer calories, helps fill you up, thus eliminating one big problem with dieting: hunger. It's a top pick in most of our expert roundups, and its author, Barbara Rolls, is a leading researcher in the field of nutrition. Many other diets, most notably Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, have adopted, at least in part, the "volumetrics" approach to meal planning.
The Volumetrics Plan does not have a website, therefore there is no formal support, but it can be paired with any free online support program, such as SparkPeople or MyFitnessPal, both free, highly rated diet and fitness support websites. For some people the big drawback to the Volumetrics approach is that food preparation, both shopping and cooking, is not optional -- you will need to have some level of comfort in the kitchen. However, the book features meal plans, and the recipes are reported as easy to follow by consumer reviewers. At least one expert says this particular approach is probably best for people who have hunger or portion-control issues rather than emotional eaters who often eat for reasons other than hunger.
Another diet that's highly ranked by experts is the Mediterranean Diet (Free). Experts say that eating the Mediterranean way is the healthiest dietary choice you can make. The difficulty for most people is figuring out exactly what that means since there is no formal "Mediterranean Diet;" rather, it's a way of eating that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats in moderation, whole grains, legumes, seeds and healthy fats. However, there is a free Mediterranean Diet Pyramid that can guide you in making healthier food choices, and there are a wealth of other online resources from those who have adopted the Mediterranean diet lifestyle.
The big challenge for any of these diets is that you have to have at least some ability in the kitchen. All of them are based upon purchasing and preparing your own, whole foods, which may be a challenge if food prep is not your thing or you're often pressed for time. In that case, Weight Watchers is probably the easiest program for the non-cook to follow. They not only have a complete line of prepared foods, they also have tools to give you the points values for the menus of many popular restaurants.