Ready to Lose a Few Pounds? They've Got a Plan for You.

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Performer Queen Latifah is about to be cast in a new role: weight-loss spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, the commercial diet that has recently helped formerly "fat actresses" Kirstie Alley and Valerie Bertinelli shed pounds. Latifah, who is known for her curves, isn't trying to get starlet skinny but hopes to lose about 15 pounds to cut her risk of Type 2 diabetes, a condition that affects about 20 million Americans.

Like NutriSystem and Slim-Fast, Jenny Craig is a meal replacement plan that provides perfectly sized food portions in a supersized world. Dan Marino, Rachel Hunter, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, Tommy Lasorda and Kimberley Locke are just some of the celebrities who have used these programs to lose weight.

Once spurned by many weight-loss experts, the meal replacement approach is earning a place as one option to shed pounds or maintain weight.

"The old thinking was that these programs didn't provide real food or real-life experience, and that people who followed them didn't learn anything" about nutrition, says Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia, who serves as an adviser to NutriSystem and has consulted with Slim-Fast. "But we've found that you can use these programs to your advantage."

Tight structure is what the programs offer to those who hate counting calories or points. "They're best for those who want someone else to make the decision about what to eat," says John Foreyt, who directs the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and has served as a consultant to several meal replacement companies. "They simply provide the food."

Some plans, including NutriSystem and Jenny Craig, will even deliver it to your door, eliminating the need to go grocery shopping. That also presumably reduces the temptation to buy foods likely to undermine your weight-loss efforts. There's no need to do much cooking, either. Most of the products are ready to eat, or just need to be reheated or popped into the microwave.

What the plans do best is teach proper portion control -- a lost art for many consumers who are used to bloated servings of everything from burgers to lattes. "They give you an approximation of what a meal should look like," Foster says.

The programs also offer plenty of support to help keep participants on track. Extensive Web sites provide tools to record food intake, track exercise, chat with other participants and seek help from diet counselors, exercise experts and registered dietitians.

All the sites can be used free of charge, although registration is required. More help and encouragement is provided through toll-free help lines and by e-mail.

Does that knowledge and support translate to success?

"If you stick with the plan, they can work like a charm," Foreyt says.

More than three dozen published studies of Slim-Fast alone suggest that this structured approach produces about an 8 percent loss of body weight in approximately six months. (Other studies point to similar results for the other plans.) For a 200-pound person, that's about 16 pounds -- far less than the 30 to 40 pounds most dieters hope to shed. But it's an amount that the federally funded Diabetes Prevention Program shows can significantly reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

The findings are also consistent with other weight-loss research that shows structure helps boost success, at least in the near term. These programs are well suited to use "for a period of several months," Foster says, noting that they are good at helping people lose 10 or 20 pounds or maintain weight.

Yet the structure that draws participants can get irksome and constraining and "lead to boredom and monotony over time," Foster says.

Cost can also be a drawback.

Jenny Craig, for example, charges a $399 annual membership fee in addition to food, which runs $12 to $17 per day. NutriSystem costs about $10 per day, while Slim-Fast averages about $3 for two meals and a snack, plus the cost of the third meal, which you buy and make on your own. All the programs run special deals throughout the year that can help trim prices.

But it's possible to find the same types of food at your local grocery, often at a lower cost.

That's what Susan Creekmore, 50, of Northern Virginia did last year. In May she signed up for a one-week trial membership with Jenny Craig and paid $138 for a week's worth of food that included pesto pizza, bruschetta veggie chips, chicken fettuccine, meat loaf with barbecue sauce and double chocolate cake.

"Ninety-five percent of the food was very tasty," says Creekmore, who wanted to lose about 10 pounds. "There were a lot of choices . . . and it was a great way to regiment yourself. And it really worked. I lost a couple of pounds the first week."

But Creekmore was troubled by some of the ingredients in the Jenny Craig products, including small amounts of high-fructose corn syrup and the lack of whole grains. "When you're spending that kind of money, you expect healthier food," she says.

So she shopped at her grocery for similar products that provided whole grains and had no high-fructose corn syrup. "Not only did it cost a lot less," she says, noting that it ran about a third of the price of the Jenny Craig products, "but it was healthier."

And those 10 unwanted pounds? They're gone.

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