The best weight loss programs have

  • Enough calories to keep you healthy. If a diet provides fewer than 1,200 calories per day, experts say you should be under a doctor's supervision.
  • A nutritionally sound diet. Completely eliminating food groups is one of the biggest red flags that a diet may not be providing you with all the nutrients you need.
  • Real food. Delivered meals and proprietary meal-replacement diets are convenient and can be effective weight-loss tools, but ultimately you need to learn to cook healthful meals for yourself.
  • Gradual, sustainable weight loss. Fad diets that promise sudden weight loss may be appealing, but the pounds usually come right back on, and fad diets can be harmful to your health. Losing weight slowly but steadily makes it more likely you will succeed over the long term.
  • Support when you need it. Not everybody wants group meetings or an online diet buddy, but having some form of professional guidance and peer support available when you need it -- whether online, by telephone or in person -- is a valuable resource.
  • Flexible eating plans. The best diets are flexible enough to accommodate almost any dietary need or preference, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, low-sodium, kosher and halal.
  • Long-term maintenance goals. Learning maintenance skills -- basically, a new lifestyle -- helps you keep the weight off once the diet's over.
  • A clear pricing structure. Most diet programs are honest and upfront about their costs, but quite a few draw complaints for hidden fees and less-than-transparent billing practices.
  • No diet pills. If the plan you're considering requires you to buy pills, its focus is on you losing money -- not weight. Over-the-counter weight-loss supplements, which don't require approval from the FDA, can even interact with other drugs you may be taking and pose a health hazard. Diet pills may be used in conjunction with a physician-prescribed weight-loss program, but only under your doctor's supervision. (See the companion ConsumerSearch report on diet pills.)

Know before you go

What type of support are you comfortable with? Studies show that dieters who have a support system are more successful than those who try to go it alone. Some folks prefer group support, while others would rather have individual attention. Many do fine with an online buddy or community. If you choose something that fits your lifestyle and preferences, you're more likely to stick with it.

Which diet best fits your lifestyle? Do you need a plan that's adaptable for vacations, quick commuter meals or socializing? Should it accommodate meals you can serve to your family, or are you willing to prepare one meal for yourself and another for everybody else in the house? Taking an honest look at your lifestyle will help you choose the diet that works best for you.

Do you like to cook? Virtually all diets have meal plans and recipes to accompany them, but some are more complex than others. If you're practically a gourmet cook, just about any diet will suit you; if you hate to cook or just aren't good at it, look for simple meal prep or even a prepackaged plan.

What are your long-term goals? The best diets help you incorporate all elements of a healthy lifestyle, such as fitness, life-long eating strategies, stress management, recognizing psychological or situational triggers for overeating, or developing an appropriate body image.

What does your doctor say? Your health-care team can help you determine your ideal goal weight, and, if your plan involves calorie counting, they can help you set a safe caloric goal for yourself. They can also help you identify and manage any underlying health conditions, including diabetes.

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