Six low-fat meals a day contradicts what most trendy diets are recommending, yet the Optavia Diet continues to grow in popularity. So what exactly is the program all about?

By Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
April 19, 2019

Anyone remember Medifast? Popular in the 80’s and 90’s, it was a low-calorie, physician-overseen weight loss program that largely consisted of shakes and pre-packaged meals, and the same company that owns Medifast now markets a new plan called the Optavia Diet.

Similar to the Medifast program, the Optavia Diet relies heavily on like shakes, bars, and packaged meals for food, incorporating at least one lower-carb meal—referred to as a “Lean and Green Meal”—that you prepare on your own.

What sets Optavia apart from the original Medifast program is that you don’t have to visit a doctor’s office to sign up for the Optavia Diet or to buy products. In fact, getting started means simply registering online and paying to have your first kit sent to you. And it’s this ease, combined with direct sales and social media, that has likely played a big role in making Optavia a mainstream name in the weight loss world. Intrigued by its popularity, I decided to find out more to get a feel for its potential effectiveness and health value. Here’s what I found.

What Can You Eat on the Optavia Diet?

Eating plans on the Optavia Diet vary slightly depending on how much weight you need to lose and how far along you are in the weight loss process, but all programs consist of two main components: Optavia Fuelings and Lean and Green Meals.

Fuelings are Optavia’s pre-portioned packaged meals designed to be “nutritionally interchangeable meal replacements that are carbohydrate-controlled and lower in fat,” and options range from shakes and bars to more hearty meals like Spinach Pesto Mac & Cheese.

Lean and Green Meals are prepared on your own and focus on lean protein, healthy fats, and lower-carb vegetables. Plans vary based on the number of Fuelings and Lean and Green meals prescribed daily (see below) slowly increasing in calories and carbohydrates.

*A healthy snack is considered one fruit or low-fat dairy serving.

How Much Does the Optavia Diet Cost?

The primary food expense when following the Optavia Diet is purchasing Optavia’s pre-packaged meals. One is expected to consume 112 to 140 over a 4-week period, and the cost for a month of Fuelings kit (approx. 119 meals) runs between $390 to $425. This breaks down to approximately $3.50 per meal.

You also have the option to buy additional boxes of specific Fuelings you like, and Purposeful Hydration kits ($39.99 for a box of 30) which are powdered flavorings to add to water. One Lean and Green Meal per day keeps additional grocery expenses fairly low, but these meals are centered around lean proteins and produce which aren’t always the lowest-costing grocery items. In addition, you may still have grocery expenses if cooking for a family.

How Healthy Is the Optavia Diet?

Optavia provides nutrition information for all products, and the 5 & 1 program is advertised as providing at least 72g protein, 80 to 100g carbohydrates, and less than 30% of calories from fat each day. The daily nutrient averages suggested a macronutrient breakdown on the 5 & 1 program of 40% carbohydrates, 40% protein, and 20% fat based on a daily nutrient breakdown that Optavia supplied to U.S. News & World Report. The program’s material also says that all Fuelings have vitamins and minerals added and contain “high-quality protein which retains lean muscle mass,” as well as a proprietary probiotic called GanedenBC30 for “making a healthier digestive track easier.”

Optavia Diet Potential Benefits

Ease and Potential Effectiveness of Meal Replacements

The Optavia Diet centers around the use of meal replacements, which can appeal to those who struggle with planning meals and cooking. While I could find no research specifically looking at the Optavia Diet, there is  research looking at the effectiveness of using Medifast meal replacements. According to the company, the Medifast and Optavia plans have the same macronutrient profiles and products are interchangeable; the only difference is the specific products offered by each. Because of this, Optavia references the Medifast studies to support program’s effectiveness, and several studies suggest positive results when following the Medifast pre-portioned food plan in comparison to simply reducing intake using other methods.

One 2010 study suggested that those following the Medifast 5 & 1 program has significantly greater weight and fat loss at one year when compared to those who ate a reduced-calorie diet with foods of choice. Similarly, when a review of charts for people following the 4 & 2 & 1 plan at Medifast centers was completed in 2015, the average weight loss at 3 months was 24 lbs and at 6 months was 42 lbs, loss of lean mass was kept to a minimum, and both blood pressure and heart rate decreased. Also, individuals who then followed the maintenance program had less than a 2% change of regaining the weight. While the stats are impressive, it should be noted that most all of the studies I reviewed were funded by Medifast.

Variations Available for Specific Conditions and Ages

The Optavia Diet is designed for healthy individuals with more than 15lbs of weight to lose, but they also have plans that can be tailored to work for individuals with certain health or lifestyle needs. Optavia provides guidelines for those over 65 and sedentary, individuals who are very active, individuals who have less weight to lose, individuals who want to incorporate more carbohydrates into their diet, nursing mothers, and plan for those with gout, and it suggests that those with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can follow it under a doctor’s supervision. Additionally, it offers a teen program for those ages 13 to 18 years, making it one of the very few commercial diet available for teens.

Nutrient Intake

Thanks to fortification of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, the Optavia Diet comes closer to meeting some nutrient recommendations than other programs that I’ve reviewed. In fact, the Optavia nutrient profile suggests that needs for fiber and calcium can be fully met, both nutrients that are chronically under consumed by the U.S. population. In addition, Optavia describes its products as “clean” which they appear to define as containing no artificial colorings, flavorings, or sweeteners.

Optavia Diet Health Concerns

Packaged Food With Limited Choices

To follow the 5 & 1 Plan, an individual consumes approximately 35 Fuelings per week, and there are a limited options (approx. 60). Savory, entrée-like ones are the most limited and appear to be primarily vegetarian and starch-based. Sweet options like bars and shakes have a little more variety. Considering the rate at which Fuelings are to be consumed, though, the selection is low. Individuals who like having meal options and freshly prepared dishes may find the plan boring, repetitive, and limited in flavor.

Nutrient Profile

I mentioned some positives in regards to the nutrients in a typical Optavia day, but there are also significant concerns—a primary one being the overall calories. The 5 & 1 plan is considered a very-low-calorie diet since it provides only 800 to 1000 calories. An energy intake this low makes it very hard to get all recommended nutrients, and research does not suggest the diet or the weight loss is necessarily maintainable. Also, the addition of a probiotic sounds good, but the reality is that it may offer little, if any, benefit. New research suggests that to be effective probiotic strains need to be individualized to one’s specific gut needs.

Coaching and Sales

The Optavia Diet provides support from coaches, but it’s important to note that the coaches don’t necessarily have any type of health background and have limited, if any, training when it comes to nutrition and weight loss principles. Additionally, the program is based on direct sales, where existing customer get referrals fees or commissions for recruiting someone new to sign up. While I’m sure intention of most reps is good, income still plays some role when recommending and encouraging use of the program.

Sustainability

Similar to other meal replacement programs that I’ve reviewed such as HMR Diet, the main concern surrounding these type of weight loss plans is that they don’t teach real-life skills in regards to planning, food choices, and cooking. Individuals tend to do well when following the program using pre-portioned meals, but then they struggle to incorporate more real foods once transitioning to maintenance. While the Optavia Diet encourages healthy eating to be a lifelong process, individuals in maintenance still consume about half of their daily intake from pre-portioned Optavia foods—something which most don’t consider a practical long-term solution.

Should You Try the Optavia Diet?

Meal replacements are at the center of this low-calorie diet. This may appeal to some since it largely eliminates the need for most planning, shopping, and food prep. However, individuals who prefer freshly prepared food and variety in their diet are not likely to find the program sustainable or realistic.

The Optavia Diet does address more health concerns, lifestyle conditions, and age groups than most other commercial diet programs, but special populations, particularly those with diabetes, should always consult a physician before making changes to diet.

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