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In this report

Commercial diet programs offer structure and support

No weight loss program rivals Weight Watchers' 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. There are hundreds of 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.

The fee is $20 to $30 per month plus around $15 each week for meeting fees, but experts say you get a lot for your money, especially in online tools and support. However, if you're on a tight budget, that may be a bit too steep.

A similar program, TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), pairs a wealth of educational material with group meetings and costs about $90 per year. TOPS 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 difficult to follow.

There are plenty of free, effective diet resources

Weight Watchers is the only commercial, fee-based diet in U.S. News & World Report's most recent roundup of top diets that lands in the top five -- the other four are free. These four also rate well in other expert roundups and are based upon solid dietary research and sound nutritional principles.

Online guidelines for the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets are available at no cost, although you'll have to count calories and create your own support system. The TLC Diet was originally intended as a cholesterol-lowering eating plan and was created by the National Institutes of Health's National Cholesterol Education Program. The DASH diet was created to lower blood pressure and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) helped develop it. Although both diets were designed to target specific health issues, experts say you will also lose weight if you follow their eating and activity guidelines. The downsides to these diets are that you have to figure out which foods to eat and there is no support. Guidelines are available, but they're not as specific as with other weight loss programs. However, while there are no "official" community websites that accompany these two diets, there is plenty of information available online from dieters who have successfully followed the programs and offer their suggestions, recipes and tips.

Another free diet that's highly ranked by experts is the Mediterranean diet. 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, 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 is a wealth of other online resources from those who have adopted the Mediterranean diet lifestyle. For those who have time to do the research and figure it out, as well as food planning and preparation, this is generally accepted as the gold-standard eating pattern for lifelong health.

Online support programs can help you stay on track -- and some are free

One way to get around the lack of support and structure of these free diets is to pair them with an online program that specifically offers support to dieters. SparkPeople.com and MyFitnessPal.com are both free, popular programs that offer tools like calorie counters, fitness trackers, recipes, tips and a community of fellow dieters, as well as mobile apps. MyFitnessPal.com also syncs with a range of electronic fitness trackers. Diet.com has both a basic and a premium membership (Est. $40 per month). Weight Loss Buddy is more forum-based, and connects you with other dieters. There are others programs as well, and most offer a wealth of educational material, meal plans, buddy systems and expert consultations.

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