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Commercial 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 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.

Best weight loss program

Weight Watchers
Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers uses a program called PointsPlus, which is based upon food "points," that are calculated from a formula that take 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 bonus points for snacks or additional food items. 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 PointsPlus program, Weight Watchers offers a Simply Filling program 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. You can also do Weight Watchers completely online, skipping the meeting fees, and Weight Watchers for Men (Est. $20 per month) is tailored around that approach. 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. $90 per year), 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 free, effective 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 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 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.

Paleo is free, unstructured, and increasingly popular

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. Also known as the Caveman Diet or the Primal Diet, the general idea is that our far ancestor's diets were much healthier because they ate nothing but natural foods and had to be active to obtain those foods. Thus, the guidelines of the diet include meats of all kinds, eggs, fish and shellfish, sweet potatoes (some versions of this diet allow white potatoes as well), vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, and fats from natural sources, as opposed to processed vegetable oils. It is often classified with low carb diets, but, in fact, it allows foods, like potatoes, starches and fruit, that low carb diets do not. 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 common 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, many point out that 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, 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." According to Google, the Paleo Diet was the most searched-for diet in both 2013 and 2014.

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.

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 PointsPlus values for the menus of many popular restaurants.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Reviewed Weight Loss Programs: Whether you just need to lose a few pounds, are having weight-related health issues, or just want to find a healthier of eating, there's a diet that's right for you. The top diets are healthy, effective, easy to follow, and come with the support you need.

Best Diabetes Diet: If you suffer from diabetes or prediabetes, you really need to watch what you eat. These eating plans have been proven to be effective in helping to manage -- or even cure -- type 2 diabetes.

Best Prepackaged Diet Plan: If you're short on time or cooking skills, a prepackaged diet plan can save the day. Delivered right to your door, they offer heat and eat convenience, with healthy, controlled portions.

Best Diet Book: Diet books can be a terrific guide in your journey to a new way of eating. They're very affordable and are the basis for many of the most popular diets.

Buying Guide: Not sure which weight loss plan is right for you? We offer a thorough overview of what you need to know to find a great program for the long term.

Our Sources: These are the expert and user sources we consulted to find the best weight loss programs. They are listed in order from most helpful to least.

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