Thinking "outside of the box" was harder than I imagined it would be.
Credit: Amazon

Despite the fact that I work at a magazine that’s really all about delicious, healthy cooking, I fell into a rut some months ago. I didn’t have access to a kitchen (looooong story), so I wasn’t able to cook. Cue fattening salad bar meals and fast-casual sandwiches. I ended up overweight and miserable, and I needed to do something.

We’d written about the HMR diet before—it’s consistently ranked number one for fast weight loss by U.S. News and World Reports. We even had our nutritionist weigh in on it.  So, because I am super lucky to work at a healthy magazine, I was able to call up the nice people at the HMR diet to ask for help. Full disclosure, they did send me their products to try for free—but they never once tried to influence the story in any way. In fact, once I began the diet, I never heard from anyone on the “inside” again.

The skinny on the HMR (Health Management Resources) diet: the basic concept is “3-2-5,” which in HMR parlance means three of their branded shakes, two of their entrees, and five servings of fruits or vegetables—totaling approximately 1200 calories a day. That’s the basic plan. You’re also encouraged to contribute 2,000 calories per week in PA, or physical activity. A starter kit, which contains three weeks of HMR foods as well as a cookbook (more on that later), runs about $189.

And so, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, my HMR adventure began.

What I Loved About the Program

Let me start by saying that I really didn’t like the idea of participating in group counseling—but it’s a feature of the HMR diet, and so I was committed. Every person who does the diet at home gets set up with a once-weekly telephone group.

From the first time I called in to “group”,  my coach, Coach S., was a highlight of my time on the diet. Her coaching was very positive—if I cheated and ate something not on the diet, she didn’t scold, she problem-solved. And she did it for every single person. When I fell off the wagon, she sent me emails, scheduled phone calls, and managed to relay her genuine wish for my success. It’s like if your favorite teacher from elementary school was trying to help you fit in your pants again. The telephone support groups—and all of the extra support from coaches—is included in the price of your food. So, while some may find the diet foods expensive, it’s important to remember that part of that cost goes toward this support system.

And listening to the group, week after week, hearing them learn from each other—one married couple discovered eggplant, so others tried it, one man discovered that hotel kitchens are accommodating to travelers on special diets—was actually pretty inspiring.

Another good facet of the diet? The “More is Better” mantra. Basically, the diet encourages you to eat your 3-2-5, but, if you should remain hungry, it invites you to have extra shakes, entrees, or produce. With no limit. And more importantly, no shame. As any dieter can attest, being told you can’t have something is guaranteed to make you crave it. Having permission to add in extra food made me somehow less inclined to want it. And to be honest, I never felt hungry or deprived, even though I was taking in approximately 1200 calories a day.

What I Didn’t Love About the Program

So, this is my fault (I should have checked), but it came as a complete surprise to me that the entrees in the package were shelf-stable. The idea of something creamy like fettuccine being packed into a teeny tray just sitting on my desk before I warmed it up? It made me want to gag. The entrees themselves had a zillion ingredients in them, and they tasted highly-processed (which, well, they are). Often, even after mixing in a massive two cups of veggies with no seasoning, the end result was quite salty. That was hurdle one.

Hurdle number two was the shakes. There are lots of suggestions in the included “cookbook” about how to make the shakes more palatable. (Blend with frozen fruit, blend in coffee and ice, etc.) But I couldn’t get past the artificial flavoring. I put the question to my group: how can I make the shakes taste less artificial? The responses? Add sugar-free gelatin mix and shake them up. Add diet soda to make a “float.” Add sugar-free pudding mix. All artificial ingredients. The group was enthusiastic about their hacks, but they weren’t going to make my shake any less appetizing.

Hurdle three was this: one day, craving the roast chicken my parents were having at a Sunday dinner, I ate half of a chicken breast. I duly omitted a 120 calorie shake. I admitted this in group and the response was one I would hear again: “Never eat “outside the box” (this is another HMR catchphrase meaning outside of HMR foods and produce)! Pretend like you are allergic to other foods.” My gut-check on this was… not great. Encouraging people to avoid perfectly healthy food was so counterintuitive to me—as was the use of “allergic,” which feels like a triggering word because it is one.

The Takeaways

The HMR diet is designed for swift weight loss by replacing your normal foods with HMR foods. As we learned in group, these foods contained an average of 17 calories per ounce, versus “normal” foods, which contain closer to 100. Once you’ve reached your desired weight loss, you transition to phase two of the HMR diet, which introduces back into your diet lean proteins and other foods, while asking you to continue consuming a number of HMR foods as well.

Look, I did lose weight. I didn’t lose a ton of weight because, though there were some days when I went off the plan. In fact, I cheated with such junk food that I’m surprised I didn’t gain weight. But I can confidently say that it works.

I had group with people who had lost anywhere from 12 to 75 pounds in a matter of just a few months. That’s amazing! Those who succeeded were enthusiastic about the guidance, enjoyed the food, and earnestly worked with Coach S. on things like trying new produce, packing a lunch, or even trying a non-microwavable way to warm up the entrees. Sauteeing was such a revelation to the group that I realized that many of them did not like to cook, a fact that precipitates a lot of struggles with weight—including the one that brought me to the diet.

But, just before I got started on the diet, I moved and suddenly had a kitchen again. Now, I love to cook. I think a fun time is spending an hour and a half babysitting onions while they caramelize. Asking me to eat “out of the box” for weeks on end felt like tying not one, but both of my new, kitchen-having arms behind my back. It made me feel crazy. I could have baked sweet potato chips (and believe me, I did), but I couldn’t have a tablespoon of Greek yogurt to dip them in. A teaspoon of nonfat sour cream was allowed, but I’m a big proponent of the satisfying effects of full-fat dairy. Plus, nonfat sour cream just sounds depressing. Why couldn’t I have salsa? Or nuts? Or any of the other foods I know to be healthy?

One good thing came out of the experiment: I got pretty wily in the kitchen. Baked sweet potato slices spread with rich, silky, caramelized onions are still a feature in my kitchen, post-diet. I remembered the different ways I like to cook with acid—I still keep a bowl of lemons in my fridge, and at least three kinds of vinegar—they were essential for helping to mask the salty flavors of the entrees. Simple sauteed veggies (I’m inclined, usually, to complicate things) are still on rotation. My hot sauce collection is amazing now (heat is another handy helper to add to the HMR foods.) And, to be honest, there were one or two entrees that I’d definitely eat again—I’m lookin’ at you, Three Bean Casserole!

My main takeaway is that yes, just like any other diet that restricts calories, the HMR diet will help you lose weight. If you don’t like to cook—this is the diet for you! If you don’t like to think about food, or if you think of food as fuel instead of art, then this is the diet for you. If you’re super busy, but need an alternative to fast food and convenience foods, then this is actually pretty handy—regular shipments arrive every two weeks, and you can customize them with entrees you did/didn’t like. And I can’t stress enough how much it makes a difference to have someone that you only talk to about weight loss. Not only does it mean you can spare your friends, but it’s pretty handy to have someone whose job it is to offer you solutions. Coach S., if you’re out there, you’re the best.

But for me? I found myself skipping shakes because I didn’t like the taste. Limiting my kitchen tinkering to veggie sides, twice a day, felt unbelievably restricting. It stripped joy from my day and left my evenings—usually centered around cooking dinner—shapeless and sad. I realized that the restriction on cooking caused more feelings of deprivation—so now, post-HMR diet, I try not to eat any restaurant food or any processed food. It’s starting to work. And that’s just way more my speed.