We looked at four well-known commercial plans—Jenny Craig, Medifast, Nutrisystems, and Weight Watchers—and nine do-it-yourself plans such as the Atkins Diet, Slim Fast, and the South Beach Diet. The survey, one of the largest ever to compare specific diets, allowed us to rate them based on people’s overall satisfaction with the programs. We also looked at the typical amount of weight our dieters said they lost.
The people we surveyed freely chose the diets they used and decided for themselves how long to stay on them. They had to rely on their own motivation or seek a boost from meetings or counseling, but they did not benefit from the frequent reminders, free food, and other methods often used to keep participants in clinical trials until the very end of a study. As a result, our Ratings provide a unique view of how the diets work in the real world.
Here are some highlights of our survey:
An app scores big. One of our highest-rated diets was a free smart-phone app and website.
DIY rules. Low-cost, do-it-yourself diets typically received higher scores than commercial diets.
Satisfaction depends on more than pounds lost. Survey respondents gave higher marks to diets that helped them maintain their weight loss and prescribed lifestyle changes that were easy to make.
Significant weight loss is possible on all plans. The median loss among respondents who reported their before and after weight was about 18 pounds for men and 15 pounds for women. That was enough to move many of them from obese to overweight or from overweight to a healthy weight. And they did it on all 13 diets.
What works for weight loss: Psychologists weigh in
As a companion to our survey of dieters, we worked with the American Psychological Association to survey 1, 328 licensed psychologists on how they dealt with patients’ weight and weight-loss challenges in their practice. They repeatedly identified emotional factors as not only an important factor in clients’ weight problems but also the major barrier to overcoming them.
Asked what they found helpful, seven of 10 psychologists who worked with patients on their weight problems identified these three strategies as “excellent” or “good”:
• Cognitive therapy, which helps people identify and correct dysfunctional thoughts that lead to unhelpful emotions and behaviors. For example, someone who eats a cookie at a party might blame it on a lack of willpower, conclude she’ll never get the weight off, then proceed to eat more cookies. Cognitive therapy would teach the person to think of the cookie as a one-time-only slip-up, because everybody makes mistakes.
• Problem-solving aimed at overcoming barriers to weight loss. A patient who says he’s too tired after work to go to the gym might consider, with the therapist’s help, alternatives such as a run or walk at lunchtime or working out in the morning or on weekends.
• Mindfulness training, an approach that trains people to allow negative thoughts and emotions to come and go without dwelling on them, and instead concentrate on living and enjoying the moment.