Types of Weight Loss Programs
You have to sign up, and they come at a cost -- some higher than others depending upon the program -- but commercial diet programs offer a lot of tools for the dieter. These may include 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 plenty of proven recipes for any cooking skill level. They also provide the most support, both in person and online.
Books to help you lose weight or change your eating habits are a dime a dozen -- and that's a very good thing. A good diet book can be an affordable approach to starting and maintaining 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 of all, you can usually try before you buy by checking out the book at your local library.
These 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.
The best weight loss program is the one you can stick to
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 that 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, if at all, 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 that you'll quickly shed pounds in the beginning, 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.
Move it to lose it
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 for some ideas to help in your efforts to improve your fitness. A fitness tracker can also give you the motivation to get up and get moving.
Phone a friend
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.
Finding The Best Weight Loss Programs
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, when relevant, 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 reviews, most notably those published annually at U.S. News and World Report. That publication consults medical professionals who, in turn, consult clinical studies as well as utilizing their own experience and expertise to make their recommendations. We then work our 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 commercial diet programs
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.
Weight Watchers has been around for more than 50 years, and their current iteration is the SmartPoints program. SmartPoints 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.
We see very few downsides to Weight Watchers. Even though it's fee-based, the fees are pretty reasonable. Everyone pays a $20 registration fee (although that's often waived as an incentive to sign up, especially December through March). Then, membership fees are as low as $20 a month for online only. You can even pay-as-you-go if you want to attend meetings just occasionally; it costs about $15 per meeting. There are also pricier plans available that provide you with individual coaching sessions. 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. The only other complaint we noted is that some people say they feel hungry all the time or often in spite of the plethora of food choices, but we see that with virtually all diets as calorie restriction tends to have that result.
Experts say 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. Food preparation-wise, the program can be as easy or as difficult as your skill level in the kitchen.
You do have to track everything you eat, which is easy if you're following a Weight Watchers' recipe or eating a prepackaged food with the points pre-calculated. It gets a bit trickier when you prepare your own recipes as you have to break down the ingredients and do the math -- although that's certainly simpler if all you're doing is, for example, grilling a chicken breast and making a salad.
If you find tracking to be a pain, or just like to keep things simple, 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.
A similar program, TOPS (Est. $32 per year, plus $5 chapter dues), pairs a wealth of educational material with group meetings in your community, also called "chapters." TOPS, which stands for Take Off Pounds Sensibly, uses The 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. You can even purchase exchange cards that give you food options within categories at a glance, as well as a variety of other accessories, such as food prep tools scaled to accurate portion sizes.
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. TOPS is low-cost, nutritionally sound, provides plenty of support and is very affordable. 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.
The Volumetrics Diet (Est. $2 and up), based upon the well-regarded book "The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet: Smart, Simple, Science-Based Strategies for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off" 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 (Est. $20 and up per month, plus food) (covered in our discussion of the best prepackaged diet plans) 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. Also, if you're more a meat-and-potatoes kind of eater, you may get weary of a diet that's heavy on vegetables, fruits and soups.
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.
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 are some guidelines on the Oldways website that may be helpful, and there are a wealth of other online resources from those who have adopted the Mediterranean diet lifestyle as well as plenty of cookbooks.
Cutting carbs is the key to weight loss for many
Low carb diets, which eliminate basically all non-vegetable carbs, even most fruits, used to be considered "fad" or "fringe" diets. However, they're becoming more mainstream as more studies show that this approach is effective for both short and long term weight loss, as well as lowering overall cholesterol and increasing "good" cholesterol.
Basically every diet that we cover in this report is low carb to some extent in that they discourage processed foods and foods made from white flour, and most assign higher caloric/points values even to foods made with whole grains than to other types of food. However, many experts are leery of any diet that eliminates entire food groups -- in this case grains -- while plenty of others point out that vegetarians and vegans do not receive this type of criticism even though those diets also eliminate several food groups.
Regardless of which camp you're in, if you do decide to try out a low carb diet, the Atkins Diet is the gold standard. Atkins has been proven effective for both short- and long-term weight loss, and studies show it is just as effective in lowering cholesterol levels over the long term as low fat diets for many people. As with any diet program, it may not be effective for everyone. While Atkins does initially restrict carbs to very low levels, the plan adds in more carbohydrates as you lose weight. It's also easy to follow, say users, and it's restaurant friendly -- hold the bread and order an extra vegetable instead of a potato.
There are a plethora of resources for getting started on, or maintaining, the Atkins Diet. In addition to the official Atkins website, with recipes, many free downloads, and a support community, there are thousands of websites built by low carb devotees with additional tips, recipes and encouragement. The book, New Atkins for a New You (Est. $12), is also a good place to start the low carb journey. It's highly rated by users, who say it's a great guide for making a dietary lifestyle change. Some like that the science of low carb eating is well presented, others say they would prefer a more casual approach and more recipes. Others point out that all of the information in the book is available on the Atkins website, free of charge.
The South Beach Diet is also considered low-carb, but it's not as restrictive as Atkins in its later phases. In fact, even in the early phases of the South Beach Diet, small servings of complex, non-vegetable carbs are allowed. South Beach earns high praise for weight loss and as an overall healthy way of eating, but gets panned for its complicated meal plans and time-consuming recipes by both users and experts. The ingredients in its recipes can jack up your grocery bill as well. Still, it's popular for those who love to cook, or prefer meals that aren't just a hunk of meat and a vegetable (or two).
The South Beach Diet started as a book that was originally published in 2003, The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss (Est. $8). The book is still considered to be the best way to get information on the basic diet, but there are also many follow up books and cookbooks to supplement the original, as well as South Beach compliant recipes available around the Internet. The official South Beach Diet website is mostly fee-based.
Paleo focuses on different types of carbs
Even its adherents quibble over whether the Paleo Diet is low carb or not. Technically, it is not in that it allows some starch-based carbs such as sweet potatoes, yams, and squash. It also allows some fruits. Some Paleo programs allow white potatoes and certain kinds of rice as well. Most Paleo programs don't allow dairy, others do.
The Paleo Diet (Free) is not intended to be a weight loss diet, per se, but rather a way of eating that is meant to be permanent. In many Paleo protocols, there is a strong emphasis on grass-fed or organic foods, which can be pricey and may not be readily available to some, but other programs recommend that you just purchase the highest quality of food you can afford. Exercise is strongly encouraged. You don't count calories; you just eat until you're satiated.
Proponents of the Paleo diet say it's a much healthier way to eat than the standard American diet, which is often heavy on added sugars and processed foods. Critics say it's too restrictive, banning dairy, wheat and legumes -- food groups that many nutritionists feel should be part of a healthy diet. However, as we noted earlier in this section, veganism and vegetarianism also ban entire food groups and do not come under the same cloud of criticism.
Regardless of where you stand, the fact is that the Paleo way of eating is becoming increasingly popular, as are "nutritional reset" programs based upon Paleo, such as the Primal Blueprint 21-day Challenge hosted by MarksDailyApple.com, or the Whole30 program, popularized by the New York Times bestseller, It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways (Est. $15)
Anecdotally, many people say they feel great on the Paleo diet -- losing weight and lowering health markers such as blood pressure and cholesterol. However, like most programs, many simply don't stick with this way of eating over the long term -- they keep lapsing and going back -- the same issue we see with all eating plans. Again, there is no formal "Paleo" diet, but there are plenty of books and online resources for anyone interested in exploring the idea.
Regardless of which of these diets appeals to you, the biggest challenge for any of them is that you have to have at least some ability in the kitchen -- and for some you have to be pretty competent -- because all of them are based, at least in part, upon purchasing and preparing your own, whole foods. That 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. If you really want to make dieting as simple as possible, skip on over to our discussion of the Best Prepackaged Diet Plans for some really convenient weight loss plans.