Best weight loss programs for 2021
Dietitians discuss the pros and cons of the most popular paid weight loss programs.
Amanda CaprittoApril 21, 2021 12:00 p.m. PT
Losing weight is far from easy. In fact, it’s so tough that many people turn to online programs and done-for-you meal prep services for help. However, dietitians say that while programs such as WW and Optavia might kickstart your weight loss, they might not set you up for long-term success — and the last thing anyone needs in 2021 is a New Year’s resolution that falls flat.
If you are considering a subscription weight-loss program such as Noom or Jenny Craig, this guide to popular weight-loss plans should help you evaluate the best weight loss program for your needs and make a final decision. CNET talked to registered dietitians Emily Wunder and Kristin Gillespie to help make sense of successful dieting to start the New Year off on the right track.CNET HEALTH AND WELLNESS
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What makes a diet successful?
There’s no best approach to weight loss — everyone is different and will find success with different tactics. However, Wunder and Gillespie have concluded that some generic strategies tend to work for most people.
Just because you have to eat fewer calories to lose weight doesn’t mean you have to eat fewer types of food to lose weight, Gillespie says. “Diets are often most successful when they offer a wide variety of foods and we feel less restricted,” she says. “When diets cut out or restrict entire foods or food groups, we feel like we are missing out on something (because we are).”
On the other hand, Gillespie continues, “If we are allowed to have pretty much anything but with a focus on consuming less healthy foods in moderation, we are more likely to be successful.”
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Make it enjoyable
The word “diet” has such negative connotations because of the way it’s thrown around regarding weight loss. But diets don’t have to suck so bad, Wunder says. “An eating pattern should be enjoyable and interesting for someone to stick to it,” she explains. “The hope is for people to make changes in their current diet that would point them in a healthier diet direction.”
Find your motivation
Go beyond generic goals like “lose weight” and “get healthy.” Dig deeper and find out why you’re really embarking on a diet, Wunder encourages. “No matter what plan or diet you are following, unless you are motivated and really want change, it is going to be very difficult to follow,” she says.
Give yourself tangible assets to keep your motivation high, too. “Some people are motivated by seeing change, so take pictures to document your journey,” Wunder says. “Some are motivated by prizes, so map out some special gifts for reaching different goals.”
Restriction isn’t the ticket
A truly sustainable diet plan includes foods you love, even those traditionally viewed as “unhealthy.” Getty Images
Studies show that less restrictive diets lead to better long-term adherence. It makes you wonder, then, why so many people get stuck in restrictive eating cycles that lead to yo-yo dieting and weight fluctuation.
“Crazy, right?” Wunder says. “The restrictive diets out there tend to promise fast results, and this lures in so many people, whether or not [the diet] is good for them.”
Wunder says she has worked with clients who fall for strong marketing, lose a lot of weight and then gain the weight back. Eventually, Wunder says, most people come to realize that a more stable and enjoyable weight loss plan would result in long-term success.
Gillespie has experienced the same thing in her practice. “When it comes to healthy eating and weight loss, many people are looking for the quick fix,” she says. Even though most people understand the fact that following a general healthy diet will eventually result in weight loss, those same people want results right now — a few months is too far way, and why wait when the latest detox diet promises to help you shed 20 pounds in two weeks?
Well, let’s bring it full circle: Research makes it clear that adherence is the No. 1 factor in successful weight loss. You need a diet plan you can stick to for the long haul, and typically, restrictive fad diets are nearly impossible to adhere to for more than a few weeks.
5 weight loss programs rated by dietitians
With the above in mind, I asked Wunder and Gillespie about a few of the most popular weight loss programs. From self-guided app-based programs to premade food deliveries, there are a lot of weight loss programs to choose from.
I want to make it clear that no one needs to purchase any of these programs in order to lose weight, but they can be helpful for people who need guidance, convenience or accountability. WW (formerly Weight Watchers)
WW has been around for decades. It’s a legacy weight loss program that often tops lists of “best diets,” with a primary reason being the education provided to help users make positive diet changes for healthy weight loss.
WW offers a few different plans. You can sign up for a virtual-only program for about $17 per month; virtual plus in-person workshops for about $38 per month; and virtual plus one-on-one coaching for about $51 per month.
“Overall, this is one of the better weight loss programs because it is relatively sustainable for long-term periods,” Gillespie says. “Because the points system allows users to still have seemingly any foods they want, it is not perceived to be as restrictive.”
The accountability from group meetings (with an in-person option) and weigh-ins also helps with sustainability.
The main drawback to the WW program is that it could encourage the development of poor habits — the opposite of the intention. “Points are focused exclusively on calorie consumption and not nutritional content of the foods,” Gillespie notes. “So essentially, you could opt to have a king-size Reese’s in place of a balanced healthy lunch and still fall within your allotted points.”
Should you try it?
Noom is a relative newcomer to the weight loss game, calling itself “Weight Watchers for millennials.” This app-based program employs the stoplight approach, assigning colors (red, yellow and green) to foods based on their nutritional quality.
Noom’s prices are hard to find online, but a Noom spokesperson explained that the current cost (at the time of writing) is $59 per month, $99 for two months, or $140 for four months. Basically, Noom rewards you with discounted prices for a longer commitment. You can sign up for a 14-day free trial, which turns into a paid subscription if you don’t cancel.
“Noom can help with creating a sustainable diet by learning through the tips offered and food logging,” Wunder says. “When fully participating, you have to be accountable, which can definitely help with weight loss.”
The social media-like aspect of Noom can also help, Wunder says, because people who thrive in online social forums will enjoy sharing their weight loss success experiences.
Based on several online reviews, it seems that Noom tends to give really low calorie recommendations. CNET reporter Shelby Brown tried Noom and the app told her to eat 1,200 calories per day, which is far too low for a 5-foot-9 adult woman.
Wunder says Noom might not work for people who don’t like social media or don’t want extra screen time. She also doesn’t recommend Noom for people who have a history of disordered eating, because calorie prescriptions and categorization of foods can trigger bad habits.
Should you try it?
Noom might be a good fit for you if: You’re generally a self-directed person but could use some structure, or if you need a digital-only weight loss program to work with your busy schedule.SEE AT NOOMNutrisystem
Nutrisystem is a done-for-you weight loss program that features premade meals and snacks delivered to your home. This makes it easy to follow, but it doesn’t offer strategies to use to maintain weight loss once you stop eating meals from the Nutrisystem diet plan.
Nutrisystem starts at about $200 a month for the lowest plan, and in addition to your prepackaged meals, you’ll still have to buy kitchen staples and some other items. If the convenience factor outweighs the cost for you, Nutrisystem might be worth it.
Having meals delivered to your door is certainly convenient and can help you stick to your plan, but according to Gillespie and Wunder, that’s about the only benefit to Nutrisystem weight loss programs.
Gillespie says Nutrisytem “does not embody the elements of successful weight loss and is not sustainable long-term,” and that it’s expensive given what you get out of the program.
Wunder cautions people to watch their sodium intake if they follow a Nutrisystem weight loss plan, because the prepackaged meals come with a lot of salt. Plus, she explains, “while this plan does help to educate on portion sizes, the food provided does not totally support learning how to eat healthy.”
Should you try it?
Nutrisystem might be a good fit for you if: You value convenience and are willing to pay a premium for it; you can commit to monitoring your sodium intake and don’t have any preexisting health conditions that require you to keep your sodium intake low; and you’re confident in your ability to maintain weight loss after stopping the plan.SEE AT NUTRISYSEMOptavia
Optavia offers several different (but very similar) weight loss plans that rely on shakes, bars, and other Optavia-branded packaged foods to produce results. It’s easy to follow, but might not give you lasting results.
Expect to spend about $400 per month on an Optavia weight loss plan, plus the cost of purchasing any fresh produce or proteins you want in addition to the premade meals and snacks. “Considering the convenience and enjoyment of these products would definitely be a factor in determining if it is worth the price,” Wunder says.
Certain Optavia plans have one-on-one coaching available, but it’s not clear if Optavia coaches are registered dietitians. When asked about the coaches’ credentials, An Optavia spokesperson responded that the coaches “come from all backgrounds” and that many are previously clients, so they know the ins and outs of the program.
In addition to their coach, Optavia clients also get access to a nutrition support team that includes registered dietitians, behavioral health specialists and more.
The main advantage to this weight loss program is that Optavia is convenient and easy to follow.
Optavia plans seem to be pretty restrictive, ranging from just 800 to 1,200 calories that mainly come from Optavia-brand processed foods. You can certainly lose weight on an Optavia plan, but you may gain it back when you stop using Optavia.
Optavia plans also encourage you to consume many of your calories through Optavia “Fuelings,” which includes bars, shakes, cookies, puddings, cereals and soups. Relying on these foods for weight loss won’t exactly set you up with healthy habits to employ later on.
Should you try it?
Jenny Craig is another done-for-you weight loss program. It embodies many of the same characteristics as Optavia and Nutrisystem, but it’s even more expensive.
Jenny Craig is the least affordable plan on this list. The lowest plan starts around $390 per month, and that only provides two meals per day. If you want the Complete Weight Loss Plan, which includes a meal plan with all daily meals and snacks, along with coaching (which doesn’t come from a registered dietitian), your tab will run close to $670 per month.
“This program will help with visually showing portion sizes, but depending on the plan chosen may not provide much else to lead to a healthy, sustainable diet,” Wunder says. Convenience is the key benefit with Jenny Craig, but as we know from Wunder’s and Gillespie’s earlier input, convenience is not always the best way to achieve sustainable weight loss.
“Willingness to pay a premium is needed to access this plan,” Wunder says. “Again, with processed foods, being mindful of the sodium levels is definitely necessary.”
Like the other plans that ship food to your door, Jenny Craig doesn’t do much in terms of education. This weight loss plan will likely leave you without the information you need to continue losing weight or maintain your weight when you stop eating Jenny Craig meals.
Should you try it?
Jenny Craig might be a good fit for you if: You don’t have a medical condition that requires you to limit sodium; and you can afford to pay the monthly fees. SEE AT JENNY CRAIG
Working directly with a dietitian
Of course, Wunder and Gillespie agree that working with a dietitian is the best way to lose weight and keep it off. Doing that means you get access to a trained professional’s knowledge of nutrition science and behavioral change strategies — the top two factors that play into weight loss.
However, working with a dietitian to develop a meal plan can be costly and time-prohibitive, and it’s not accessible for everyone because of those two drawbacks.
Working one-on-one with someone who knows your lifestyle, medical history, and eating habits is an ideal way to lose weight.Getty Images
The cost will vary by practice, Wunder says, but your insurance may cover the cost if your provider deems nutritional therapy medically necessary. For example, people with Type 2 diabetes can often get their health insurance to cover the cost of working with a dietitian.
Either way, “The value of an individualized approach definitely should be considered,” Wunder says, because that’s something you just can’t get, even with the more customizable weight-loss programs discussed above.
“Dietitians are much more accessible than people think,” Gillespie says, echoing the possibility that insurance might cover it.
If you’re interested in working with a dietitian, go to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics database of experts: This database includes only registered dietitians who have passed the board-certifying exam and are licensed to provide individualized nutrition advice.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.