If you're looking for a healthy weight-loss program with support, reviewers recommend Weight Watchers (*Est. $30 to join, plus weekly fees) over all others. This plan is reasonably priced and you can pay as you go, without any major up-front expenses. Better yet, if you reach your goal weight and maintain it for six weeks, you can continue as a lifetime member and receive maintenance support for free.
The Weight Watchers program is inherently flexible and can accommodate those with special dietary needs, including vegans and the gluten-intolerant. It encourages eating from all the food groups, as well as reducing fat, increasing fiber, consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables, and getting enough water and calcium. Each food is assigned a point value, and you have an allocated number of points to use each day. Reviewers say that because you eat real foods from the beginning, you also learn about appropriate food choices and portion sizes.
In 2010, Weight Watchers overhauled its points system to encourage dieters to choose fresh produce over processed foods and drinks. Certain fiber-rich fruits and vegetables are worth zero points so you can eat as much as you like, while alcohol and sweets are worth more points than under the older system. (Cookbooks or other resources published before November 2010 are now outdated.) The Points Plus system garners praise from experts who are largely impressed with Weight Watchers' focus on fresh, whole foods. When the changes were launched, Roberta Anding, RD, of the American Dietetic Association said they made the Weight Watchers plan even better. "This is the first time there has been an emphasis on whole foods from Weight Watchers, the first time they recognized that a 100-calorie apple and a 100-calorie cookie aren't metabolized the same way," she told the New York Daily News.
Weight Watchers' strong track record is backed by a number of medical studies. A 2005 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that Weight Watchers dieters were one of the two groups (out of four) most likely to stick with their diet and continue losing weight. In a report in the British Medical Journal (and publicized as the BBC reality show "Diet Trials," dieters were sponsored on one of five weight-loss programs for six months, then left to their own devices. Again, Weight Watchers was one of only two plans that showed continuing positive results. Health magazine also names Weight Watchers as one of America's healthiest diets, calling it "the gold-standard weight-loss program" thanks to its motivational support. U.S. News & World Report awarded it top honors in its Best Diets report for weight loss; it also tied for third in the best diet overall category with the Mayo Clinic and Mediterranean diets.
User feedback of Weight Watchers is also highly positive. At Viewpoints.com, more than 800 individual reviews combine to give the weight-loss plan an average rating of 4.41 stars out of 5. Overall, 91 percent of reviewers would recommend this diet. Most report that Weight Watchers is easy to stick with; they love the point system and appreciate not having to cut out any particular food groups. However, some would prefer more structured daily meal plans. "This program has too much freedom for me and not enough structure to help me know what I should be eating," says one dieter. Others wish that Weight Watchers led to faster weight loss, but health experts say a slow and steady loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week is best.
Commercial weight-loss plans like Weight Watchers have been proven to work, but the cost may be prohibitive for some dieters. A less-expensive alternative is Take Off Pounds Sensibly, or TOPS (*Est. $26 per year), a national nonprofit that provides a diet plan and group support with weekly meetings and weigh-ins. TOPS has nearly 170,000 members in 10,000 chapters worldwide. Dieters pay just the $26 annual fee, plus a small monthly fee to their local chapter that averages $5 per month. The fee includes a subscription to TOPS News magazine, which provides the latest weight-loss research, success stories and member news. TOPS also offers an online component (*Est. $27.50 per year) for those who prefer virtual support, with access to weight-loss resources, recipes and chat rooms.
TOPS differs from most commercial diets because it doesn't specify what you can or can't eat. Instead, the organization encourages you to select a meal plan in conjunction with your doctor, then it provides support and motivation to help you meet your goals. Food exchanges -- swapping one food for another with similar nutritional content -- give you a way to enjoy variety while still following your meal plan. New members receive the My Day One publication, which includes a six-week weight-loss program, and the site publishes a 28-day meal plan (1,500 or 1,800 calories per day) based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid.
In a study published in the September 2010 issue of the journal Obesity, researchers evaluated the weight loss of more than 40,000 TOPS participants to see if the program is an effective, low-cost alternative to commercial diets. Subjects who stuck with the diet for at least one year lost 6 percent of their body weight, then kept the weight off for up to three years. Scientists concluded that TOPS provides "similar results" to commercial programs. "TOPS is associated with moderate weight loss among participants who remain in the program for at least one year," they noted. "This degree of weight loss is likely to be clinically important for many individuals." According to statistics from TOPS, members lost a total of 431 tons (862,000 pounds) in 2009. U.S. members lost a whopping 691,000 pounds, more than 80 percent of that total.
TOPS doesn't receive as many user ratings as the popular commercial diets, but available reviews are very positive. About a dozen people comment on the diet at Viewpoints.com, and nearly all give it a perfect score. Many rave about the level of support they receive. "The journey has been easy at times and hard at times -- just like life -- but what makes is easier is the people and support that TOPS gives me," says one woman, who reportedly lost more than 130 pounds on the program.
The plan's low cost is a huge plus for many of these reviewers, including some who say they couldn't afford Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. "These people are not out to make a buck, they're here to help and support you in your weight-loss efforts," says one dieter. Some users wish that TOPS had more structure and provided more meal plans, but others say the program encourages a lifestyle change rather than constant dieting. "I feel this is a program that you will be able to do for a lifetime," writes one reviewer. TOPS is very social and group-based, and dieters who prefer to keep their weight-loss struggles private say it's not for them.
The Mediterranean diet has also become increasingly popular in the past few years, and several studies have proven its health and weight-loss benefits. The diet mimics the eating habits of people living in the Mediterranean, with a focus on consuming whole grains and "good" fats such as olive oil, nuts and oily fish as a way to prevent heart disease. Some also consider red wine an important part of the diet, although it's not mandatory. Several stand-alone diet plans are patterned after the Mediterranean model; for example, \"The Sonoma Diet\" (*Est. $5 for the book) was developed by Connie Guttersen, RD, and is recommended by Health magazine. Nothing is off-limits on the Sonoma diet, although Guttersen recommends avoiding saturated fat, sugar and refined carbs like white bread.
A Mediterranean-style diet plan was studied alongside low-carb and low-fat diets, with results published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The Mediterranean plan produced significant weight loss of nearly 10 pounds -- several pounds more than a low-fat diet -- over two years. In a study published in The American Journal of Medicine, researchers analyzed six medical trials and, after a two-year follow-up, concluded the Mediterranean diet was more effective than a low-fat diet for inducing "clinically relevant long-term changes in cardiovascular risk factors and inflammatory markers."
A Nutrition Research study found that a structured "whole of diet" approach toward counseling patients that was patterned after the Mediterranean diet helped them better optimize their dietary fat intake than just giving general diet advice. And finally, a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants found that the Mediterranean diet is more effective than the American Heart Association's low-fat diet for sustaining long-term weight loss.
After a panel of 22 experts evaluated and compared 26 diets for U.S. News & World Report, the Mediterranean diet earned a third-best ranking for overall diet, healthy eating and easiest to follow. The expert consensus is clear: This diet can help you lose weight and keep it off, and it can also help reduce your risk of heart disease. Because the Mediterranean diet isn't a single formalized diet plan, there's some flexibility in which foods you eat. However, it lacks the elements of both professional and peer counseling, and all the support systems, that you find in a formalized diet plan like Weight Watchers. (Weight Watchers dieters often say the group support is one of their favorite elements.)
The Paleo diet (also known by several other names, including the Caveman diet) focuses on eating as our prehistoric ancestors did, consuming a diet of wild game and foraged wild vegetables, starches and fruits. Some experts dispute whether this is an accurate portrayal of the early human diet, and others say that although eating more foods "direct from nature" is a step up from the typical American diet, eating all-wild just isn't feasible for most people. In an article for WebMD.com, Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, states: "At best, you can eat a modified version of the original diet." In her interviews with other nutrition experts, they express concern about insufficient information regarding the Paleo diet's long-term effects and unspecified "potential nutrient inadequacies."
Jenny Craig (*Est. $30 per month, plus food costs) is often mentioned as a competitor to Weight Watchers, even though it relies more on prepackaged food instead of cooking for yourself. The meal purchases add up, making Jenny Craig much more expensive than Weight Watchers when all is said and done. Dieters on Jenny Craig's forums say the cost of food ranges from $120 to $130 per week; in a review published in CBS MoneyWatch, experts estimate that losing 20 pounds in 13 weeks with Jenny Craig would cost about $1,910, or about $147 per week.
Like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig provides support through meetings with counselors. Although Jenny Craig counselors receive some training, they aren't dietitians, nor do they have any other medical qualifications. Experts say the nutrition behind Jenny Craig meals seems sound, but using the prepackaged meals is expensive and unlikely to help you keep the weight off, because you don't learn to cook for yourself or make healthful decisions on foods and portion sizes. Counselors teach you how to cook for yourself once you're halfway to your goal weight, but it's up to you to take advantage of this service. A review at WebMD says that to get the most out of Jenny Craig, you must make full use of the counseling support you're offered "as you make the transition from packaged food to your own healthy menu planning and meal preparation."
Jenny Craig has been the subject of one major study, released by The Journal of the American Medical Association in October 2010. Researchers observed more than 400 overweight or obese women for two years as they underwent either a Jenny Craig-style regimen provided free of cost or a "usual care" diet. The Jenny Craig group lost more weight than the usual care participants, but analysts suggest that this group's high retention rate and level of success don't reflect a real-world environment where the women would have to pay for their own care (an estimated cost of $1,600 per 12 weeks, including food).
Although experts are critical of the program's cost and its lack of emphasis on preparing your own meals -- a review in Health magazine says, "If you have this much money to spend, fork it over to a registered dietitian and a personal trainer instead" -- Jenny Craig has been shown to work. Its meals also came out on top in one blind taste test, and second best in another, when compared to other prepackaged diet meals. More than 50 Jenny Craig dieters share on Viewpoints.com that they appreciate the simplicity of not having to cook or plan meals. However, the plan gets only a 3.59-star rating out of 5 because of its cost, and because some users report regaining weight after they stopped eating the prepackaged meals.
It's worth noting that Jenny Craig has an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau, including almost 80 complaints filed in the last three years. More than 60 of those fall under the "Problems with Product/Service" category, although no details are offered about individual complaints. Nonetheless, Jenny Craig still receives the most recommendations of all the prepackaged diet plans. If you're not comfortable with the criticism it receives or with its low BBB rating, however, you have a few alternatives.
Perhaps best known for its extensive online support network, eDiets.com (*Est. $19 per month) also offers a meal delivery program (*Est. $162 per week) that beat Jenny Craig and three other prepared-food programs in an Epicurious.com taste test. The eDiets.com program is highly customizable, allowing you to switch out foods you don't like for those you do; you can also choose your foods from menus based on several commercial diet plans, such as the Zone Diet and PureFoods. Reviewers say "everything seemed pretty fresh," and "we didn't encounter the sickly sweet artificial flavors we found with some of the other plans."
eDiets.com also had an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau in early 2011, but as of December 2011 it was upgraded to a "B-." We found only one expert comment on whether the fresher, more natural ingredients in eDiets.com's meals make the transition to real food any easier. Monica Reinagel, LDN, chief nutritionist for NutritionData.com, says in the Epicurious taste-test review, "These look more like the types of meals that I'd prepare myself, which not only bodes well for sticking to the diet but also for a successful transition from 'diet' to 'real life.'" However, it's worth noting that some eDiets customers have complained about a lack of transparency about charges.
Nutrisystem (*Est. $300 per month) also offers prepared food shipped right to your door, at a slightly lower cost than both Jenny Craig and eDiets.com. However, it lost out to those plans in two blind taste tests, and some users complain that the food doesn't taste good and is still too expensive. They also report feeling hungry soon after eating because most Nutrisystem meals contain fewer than 400 calories. However, experts point out that these meals are relatively low in sodium and saturated fat, which can also affect satiety. Nutrisystem has struggled with a poor rating from the BBB, as well, although it was recently upgraded from a "D-" to an "A+" for responding to and resolving more than 180 complaints in the past three years.
Although these prepackaged meal plans are great in terms of convenience and almost any diet plan can help you lose weight, experts still warn that the key to avoiding regaining the weight is to make sustainable lifestyle tweaks that you can maintain over the long term -- the one consistent weak spot for all prepackaged meal plans.