Our Nutritionist Weighs In on the Top Diets of 2018
Have a New Year's Resolution? Our James Beard-winning dietitian can help decide what's the best diet plan for you.
Well, this is fun! Thanks to the interest in my first article, I've been invited back to give my review of five more top diets. I'm excited to do this because, let's be honest, there's never a lack of new diet trends and fads, and choosing just five the first go-round was hard. So here's part two, which includes Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Cooking Light Diet, the Paleo Diet, and the Fast Diet. This time I've added the cost for diet plans requiring memberships and/or products. Also, full disclosure here: I've had either a present or past working relationship with Weight Watchers and the Cooking Light Diet. However, I did my best to assess them as unbiased as possible just like the others by using current research, my background in nutrition, and my perspective as a busy mom, and was not paid to promote any one diet over the other.
Weight Watchers (WW) was started in the early 1960s, and the plan has gone through several overhauls over the past five decades. The current WW plan is based on SmartPoints, a unique value that's assigned to every food based on calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein using a formula that's proprietary to WW. You get a set amount of SmartPoints to use each day on food and are encouraged to make healthier choices from all food groups using these points. You also get a set amount of weekly points to use at your discretion for additional food and less healthy items. The traditional WW program requires members to attend weekly meetings with weigh-ins, but there is an online-only plan now. While food is the focus, regular activity and behavior modification for long-term success are also key principles of the program.
The Good: The freedom to choose foods within your set amount of SmartPoints allows the plan to fit almost any person's needs, age, or diet restrictions. Also, the ability to calculate SmartPoints using nutrition information means it's easy to incorporate new products and restaurant foods, not to mention that the extra weekly points allow you to have a few less healthy items. The plan provides adequate calories, and the weekly accountability and weigh-in appear to be key to a member's success. Once reaching goal weight, members are transitioned to a maintenance level of points, and they become Lifetime Members if weight loss is maintained for a period of time. The in-person and online support is impressive, and the WW app makes it convenient to track points at all times.
The Bad: While many love the program's flexibility in food choices, this can lead to less healthy food choices if strictly following points values and not following the program's healthy eating recommendations. To meet nutrient needs, it's important to make good food choices within your points range, but this comes down to the individual. For example, let's say I have 30 SmartPoints to use each day. I could use the 30 points for a day of meals and snacks full of produce, beans, yogurt, lean protein, and whole grains. Or, I could skip all that and just use the 30 points on a king-size candy bar and a can of soda instead. Along the same lines, there's a lot of processed food products that may appear as healthy (or healthier) than whole foods simply because they have the same or lower points values. The weekly check-ins deter some people not keen on groups, and while the online version is available, it seems that the weekly in-person accountability does play a big role in success.
The Bottom Line: WW is a diet program that I've recommended to many due to the eating principles being what long-term eating changes are based on. Using points values aren't always an indicator of health value, so users should consider the contents of a food along with points. However, WW's longevity is partly because they periodically revise their plan based on new science, and rumor on the street is that 2018 will bring an updated plan that encourages more whole foods.
Cost: $44.95/month, with occasional 3 or 6-month specials
Jenny Craig is one of the last true diet programs where you purchase meals and go for weekly weight checks and individualized counseling sessions. The plan focuses on calories and portion sizes, and a daily calorie amount is set by your consultant based on your weight, activity levels, and goals. During the first half of the weight loss process, you eat three prepackaged meals and one snack a day, and are encouraged to also add five servings of fruits or non-starchy vegetables and two nonfat dairy servings. Once half your weight loss goal is met, you then begin to slowly transition back to cooking; two meals a week using recipes provided by Jenny Craig while you continue eating like you did during the first half for the other meals. When you meet your goal weight, you enter the maintenance phase, and meet with your consultant for at least four weeks to help you adjust to preparing all meals and a slightly higher calorie intake.
The Good: The weekly one-on-one meetings take support and accountability a step further—particularly when compared to group meetings or online support groups—and this level of support is key for some people. Also appealing is the idea of prepared meals. There's no planning and no messing up with food prep or portion sizes when your main nutrition comes from pre-portioned meals and snacks, which saves a ton of time. Since you can't eat their food forever, the program's slow integration of cooking meals is a positive aspect and something that's not always offered in programs based on packaged foods or shakes. Also, while many diet programs may be appropriate for people with type 2 diabetes, Jenny Craig is one of the few that has a specific eating plan and program for those with pre-diabetes or diagnosed type 2 diabetes. Finally, the meal and snack selection has consistently grown over the years so the selection of meals to choose from is pretty varied and extensive, helping to prevent meal repetition.
The Bad: Jenny Craig is a plan that appeals to specific needs and personality types, and people seem to either find the concept of the program appealing—or not at all. Negative aspects may include the idea of eating prepackaged food, the expense, and individualized meetings. This plan is the most expensive that I've reviewed, partly due to purchasing their food. However, grocery costs likely reduce greatly for that member of the household. I haven't eaten any of Jenny Craig's packaged meals so I can't comment on the quality and taste. My general experience, though, is that lower calorie, lower-fat packaged meals are never as good as what you could make on your own for the same amount of calories. There are vegetarian options, but they don't appear to be vegan or gluten-free ones. Finally, I'm all for individual counseling by a registered dietitian or health professional with nutrition expertise, but Jenny Craig consultants aren't required to have an actual college degree or background in nutrition. In fact, the only requirement seems to be an interest in health and nutrition and, once hired, completing training that was originally created by a dietitian.
The Bottom Line: This program either appeals and works for you—or it doesn't. The prepackaged food is a deterrent for me, but I'm pretty comfortable navigating the kitchen. Others that aren't so comfortable may find that aspect as a positive. You'll likely meet all nutrient requirements if you get the suggested five produce and two dairy servings each day, but the lack of credentialing required to be a consultant and the level of counseling provided by the consultants is really concerning as a health professional.
Cost: $39/month plus the cost of their food (approximately $154/week for food)
Cooking Light Diet
The Cooking Light Diet, or "Un-Diet" as it is sometimes referred, is designed for those who appreciate good food and like to cook, but also want to lose weight. When signing up, a person can choose between two rates of weight loss—or simply to maintain their weight. This response, along with your daily and weekly activity and exercise, is then used to calculate a recommended calorie level. Each week, a new menu is generated and emailed based on your calorie level and preferences which includes three meals with simple sides, snacks, and recipes for each day. Meals have a whole-food approach with occasional convenience items thrown in when they can save time or streamline preparation. While the underlying plan is designed for weight loss, the individualized eating plan is somewhat unique in that it focuses on enjoying and making the most out of the food you're eating—not deprivation or off-limit foods. In fact, a glass of wine is oftentimes an option for most dinners, and there's an occasional dessert or sweet treat like dark chocolate as a snack option. While one of the newer online diets, it has developed an active social media presence and support group.
The Good: Eating good food that satisfies makes a huge difference when it comes to losing and maintaining weight, and this is the premise behind the plan while staying within calorie parameters. In fact, some members remark that they forget they're dieting. Recipes from the magazine, as well as "diet-only" recipes, are added to the plan monthly. The eating plan also lets users choose specific diets or specify food restrictions, such as vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, tree nut-free, and their proprietary SmartCarb plan. Users also have the ability to change their menus and swap out recipes, and they can also choose if they want dinner recipes that make 4 to 5 servings, or 2 servings. Customer service is individualized and personal, and it's not unusual for you to get a response to a question from one of the diet's registered dietitians. The Cooking Light Diet prides itself on being a realistic plan that you can stick with long-term, as well as adapt for the whole family—no matter if they're trying to lose weight or not. Being able to cook one meal for the whole family is perhaps the biggest selling point for me. In fact, when I followed the plan, my kids ate—and liked—most of the recipes.
The Bad: If you don't like to cook, then this is probably not the best plan for you. The weekly menus and grocery lists can seem overwhelming initially because they give the appearance that you've got to cook every day at every meal. However, closer inspection shows that most breakfasts and lunches are what I would call "throw-together" dishes, not necessarily full-blown cooking. Also, it's key to edit the plan to fit your schedule, meaning changing all breakfast meals to the two options that you like and are easiest for you. Same goes for lunches and dinner. Also, you don't have to cook every night, as you're able to schedule leftovers into the plan. But, all of this requires making modifications to your weekly plan, and sometimes how to do that isn't straightforward. Another complaint is that you aren't able to pick a specific breakdown of carbs, protein, and fat. I agree that this would be a nice feature, but I don't think there are many—if any—online meal planning programs for weight loss that are currently able to offer this in their programming.
Bottom Line: This plan is ideal for individuals who don't want to feel like they're on a diet, as well as those that are cooking for others in the house. Look for even more personalization and a more user-friendly platform to come, along with an egg-free option and added nutrient information like added sugar amounts.
Cost: $38 for 6 months
The Fast Diet
The Fast Diet is one of the reasons that intermittent fasting has gotten so much attention lately. The Fast Diet is based on a 5-2 breakdown, which basically means that five days out of the week someone eats at their normal calorie level, but on two non-consecutive days of the week only about 25 percent of daily calorie needs are consumed. These two days are considered your "fast days," and equate to about 500-to-600 total calories. On these days, one is encouraged to use the small calorie allotment on nutrient-dense foods like vegetables and lean proteins. The other five days have few eating requirements. The premise behind the approach is that short fasting periods (or days with very low calories) cause the body to tap into fat stores and burn a greater percentage of fat mass or energy, and that eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day—something we've been told to do for many years now—may actually prevent the body from doing this.
The Good: A positive aspect of this plan is that no special foods are required, guidelines are minimal, and nothing is off-limits—as long as you stay within your calorie parameters on fast days. Because of this, the Fast Diet could be adapted to work for most all special diets like vegan and gluten-free. Another interesting—and potentially very helpful—aspect is that many report their appetite actually decreases following a fast day, which I had a hard time buying into. In fact, from a dietitian's perspective, I thought a fast day might trigger overeating the next day. However, I followed the plan for two weeks and was shocked to find that my appetite, hunger, and cravings were significantly decreased on my "normal" days so I wasn't tempted to overeat. Also, concerns surrounding this eating approach possibly slowing metabolism don't seem to stand. In fact, many studies now suggest that following an intermittent fasting plan like the Fast Diet has the same or possibly less negative impact on metabolism.
The Bad: Because of the extremely low calorie level two days a week, this plan isn't ideal for some people, including athletes and those with high activity levels, diabetics, and anyone who has a health condition or takes medication that's dependent on regular, consistent food intake. Also, it's important to make sure that "normal" days are made up of a variety of healthy foods from all the food groups to get what's needed for that day, as well as make up for previous or upcoming fast days. I found that for me it was essential to coordinate my fast day with a really busy workday, or one where I was on the go—basically, a day where I didn't have time to even think about food. The other thing I found essential was to plan my 500 calories out to a T the night before. It's way too easy to get off track on fast days if you wait until hungry to decide what you're eating.
The Bottom Line: This is not for everyone, so if the thought of consuming only 500 calories two days a week seems dreadful, then keep shopping. Long-term weight loss is sustainable only if you find an eating plan that works for you. Also, while weight loss from fasting isn't debated, research studies vary as to whether intermittent fasting is a more effective dieting method. More studies are needed before the health perks of fasting are accepted as the equivalent—or better—to traditional diet methods.
Cost: None, other than weekly groceries.
The Paleo Diet
Eat what the cavemen ate—or at least try to by getting rid of processed foods, added sugar, dairy, grains, beans, salt, and refined vegetable oils. The premise behind the Paleo Diet is that our bodies carry excess weight and are more prone to chronic diseases due to today's high intake of processed food. The answer, according to Dr. Leo Cordain, is restructuring the diet so one eats like our cavemen ancestors who were hunter-gatherers. This means a diet focused on lean meat (poultry and fish), vegetables, fruits, eggs, nuts, seeds, and healthier oils such as coconut oil and olive oil. Since Dr. Cordain's book was published, there have been other variations of the Paleo Diet eating style, and all seem to vary slightly in guidelines and stringency. The Paleo Diet is designed to make your body leaner while also improving overall health, which is likely why the eating style seems to be popular among Cross-Fitters in particular.
The Good: The diet's emphasis on decreasing processed foods, increasing whole foods, and focusing on satiety at meals is something that most of us could benefit from. The Paleo Diet is very similar in design to the Whole30 diet, and the guidelines of both eating plans align with what research suggests we need in order to reduce inflammation to decrease disease risks. What differentiates the Paleo Diet from a low-carb diet is that it's moderate in carbs and high in fiber thanks to lots of produce. The most helpful aspect that I found when following it is how it shifted my carb mindset. Once grains, beans, processed food, and added sugars were off the table, I was forced to increase my fruit, vegetable, and nut intake and realize just how many less healthy foods I'd been eating (even though I'd considered my diet pretty good), not to mention that my repertoire of usual produce expanded greatly. Granted, I couldn't keep this up forever, but it's been several months since I tried it out for two weeks and I'm still much more likely to consider vegetables in place of grains. I'm also more diligent in cutting out added sugars—two things I consider "wins."
The Bad: As a working mom, the only way I could stay on plan was if I did a lot of prep work at the start of the week. There's no falling back on convenience items—or running out to a fast-casual restaurant—so I found planning and packing my lunch and snacks was essential. Also, cooking dinner seemed to take a little longer—nothing processed means no shortcuts in preparation—something that was hard when you come home hungry. Vegetarians will likely find the plan hard since dairy, legumes, and grains are off-limits. Also, anytime whole food groups are avoided, the chance of nutrient deficiencies increases, and in this case, intakes of calcium and vitamin D are worrisome. However, the plan does suggest taking supplements of both, along with fish oils if little to no fish is consumed. Finally, the jury is still out on the health effects of coconut oil since there have been conflicting research findings, yet coconut oil is a key fat used in the plan.
The Bottom Line: The challenge to get out of your "normal" vegetable box, increase produce intake, and decrease processed foods makes this a fairly healthy—yet challenging—plan. The thought of following similar guidelines in Whole30 seems much more palatable for a set 30 days, rather than adopting this eating plan for the long haul. Also, as a dietitian, I really struggle accepting some of the foods—like beans—that Dr. Cordian advises to avoid because of their negative effects on the body.
Cost: None, other than weekly groceries