Rating the weight-loss plans

In the world of diets, apparently not all are created equal. Consumer Reports recently evaluated seven of the most popular diet plans and picked a winner: Jenny Craig. The commercial program edged out Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers and Slim Fast as the most successful at helping people shed pounds.

The diet plan ratings, which were issued this week, inject some facts into the often confusing and hyped-up discussion about which diets work best for whom.

The Consumer Reports health team based its rankings on the published evidence from reputable medical journals: Were people able to stick with the diet? Did they lose weight? Was the diet supported by current science on nutrition and weight loss?

Jenny Craig, which combines counseling with a regimen of prepackaged, portion-controlled foods, rose to the top on the basis of a study, published last October in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that found participants achieved an average 8 percent weight loss over two years. The study involved 332 people. In what Consumer Reports called “a remarkable level of adherence,” the majority of the participants – 92 percent – stayed with the diet plan for the entire two years of the study.

Impressive as this might sound, it doesn’t necessarily mean people who want to lose weight should rush to sign up for Jenny Craig, Consumer Reports cautioned: “It’s obviously worth considering, but if you don’t like the idea of eating prepackaged meals, it might not be for you.”

In the long run, the best diet is the one you can live with, Kathleen Melanson, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island and director of the university’s Energy Balance Laboratory, told Consumer Reports. “If you’re forcing yourself on a diet you hate, it’s going to be really hard to stick with long term,” she said.

More food for thought from the Consumer Reports ratings:

– No matter what kind of diet you’re on, you won’t lose weight unless you burn more calories than you take in. But the evidence is beginning to show that some types of calories are more filling than others. Diet plan creators are increasingly incorporating this knowledge into how they design their menus – higher in protein, fiber, fruits and vegetables that fill people up and reduce hunger pangs without upping the calorie count.

– The evidence is growing that refined carbohydrates, such as those found in white bread and potatoes, contribute to weight gain and type 2 diabetes because of how they affect blood sugar and insulin levels.

– Fat appears to be less detrimental to health than commonly believed. Although it’s still “a subject of vigorous scientific debate,” saturated fat doesn’t seem to raise the risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke, according to Consumer Reports.

– Some studies suggest that dieters are better off if they replace the saturated fat in their diet with unsaturated fat rather than refined carbs.

– A dietary middle ground, suggested by Dr. Michael L. Dansinger, assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University and a weight-loss researcher: “a low-ish carbohydrate diet that’s high in vegetables and lean protein, including dairy; moderate in fruit; with nonsaturated fat from sources such as olive oil, nuts, avocados and fish.”

– Emotional support systems can make a difference. Jenny Craig offers both telephone and in-person counseling. Support group meetings also are one of the foundations of the Weight Watchers plan, which came in third in the Consumer Reports ratings, and the Ornish diet.

Update: As the ratings are further analyzed, some criticism and caveats have been emerging. The most notable objection: The study on which Consumer Reports based its rankings didn’t reflect diet conditions in the real world. Consumer Reports is defending its evaluation of the diet plans, pointing out that it was based on current science.

Is Jenny Craig really the best? It depends. For people who have difficulty with portion control or menu planning, or simply don’t like to cook, the prepackaged food may be an approach that works for them. Other people might have better success with a different strategy.

What the debate seems to underscore is that there’s no single approach that objectively works for everyone – and that losing weight, let alone sustaining weight loss over the long term, is extremely difficult for many of us.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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