Nutrisystem Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • Heat and eat
  • No foods off limits (not even carbs)
  • Comeback of the TV dinner
  • Eating out is limited

Do's & Don'ts

Do: Supplement Nutrisystem meals See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

Jenny Craig, Glycemic-Index Diet

The aim:

Weight loss; diabetes prevention/control (Nutrisystem D plan).

The claim:

Gradual but steady weight loss, at least a pound or two a week. 

The theory:

Losing weight can be easier if you outsource meal-management chores. Nutrisystem determines portions, prepares and delivers your meals, and tells you what to eat and when. It makes for guaranteed calorie restriction, the tried-and-true weight-loss tactic.

Nutrisystem is built around the glycemic index, a measure of how various carbs affect your blood sugar. The program emphasizes “good” carbs, like many veggies and whole grains, that are digested slowly. That keeps you feeling full longer and your blood sugar and metabolism from going out of whack.

How does the Nutrisystem Diet work?

You make a few key decisions, the most difficult of which may be “turkey pepperoni or margherita pizza?” and “chocolate fudge bar or caramel swirl sundae?” Just wait for the breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and desserts to show up at your doorstep then dig in. You can’t completely avoid the supermarket, though. You’ll have to swing by to pick up the mandatory fruits, veggies, protein, and dairy products of your liking to supplement Nutrisystem’s packaged meals. A glossy pamphlet tells you how much and when to add your grocery items. Depending on your plan—there are gender-specific tracks for adults, seniors, diabetics, and vegetarians—you’ll eat five to six times a day. 

You may tire of heat-and-eat. When you’re ready to wean yourself off the program, you’ll chat online or by phone with a counselor for tips on how to get back in the kitchen and in front of the stove without sabotaging your weight loss. You might start, for example, by whipping up only dinners from Nutrisystem’s low-GI cookbook, gradually adding other meals to the mix.

Will you lose weight?

Company research suggests that you probably will.

In a Nutrisystem-funded study of 69 obese type 2 diabetics, published in the journal Postgraduate Medicine in 2009, researchers reported that those assigned to eat meals on the Nutrisystem D diabetic track lost an average of 18 pounds after three months compared with 1 pound for the control group, who attended educational sessions on diabetes management and nutrition. At six months, the Nutrisystem dieters were down an average of 24 pounds, while the controls—who were switched to Nutrisystem meals halfway through the six-month study—were down 13 pounds.

In an unpublished study that was funded and led by Nutrisystem, researchers reviewed self-reported weight diaries of overweight and obese Nutrisystem customers who started the program between 2008 and 2010 and used an online tracking tool to record their weight. Data from more than 100,000 customers showed that at 3 months about 79 percent of them had lost at least 5 percent of their initial weight and 33 percent had lost 10 percent or more. (Even a 5 percent loss can help stave off some diseases.) By 6 months, when 32,000 of the dieters were still recording their weight loss, 86 percent had lost 5 percent of their initial weight; 63 percent had lost 10 percent.

Another unpublished study, conducted independently but funded and designed by Nutrisystem, compared a group on the Nutrisystem D diabetes program with a control group who received a daily calorie target and a structured course from a certified diabetes educator on diabetes management. At 6 months, 50 Nutrisystem dieters had lost an average of about 22 pounds, the 50 control dieters about 5.

A third unpublished study, also funded by Nutrisystem but designed and conducted independently, compared weight lost by dieters in an unnamed Internet weight-loss program (the control group) and by dieters in the Internet program with Nutrisystem meals. At 12 weeks, 22 Nutrisystem dieters lost an average of about 14 pounds while the 25 control dieters lost an average of about 9.

If Nutrisystem does encourage weight loss, it may be attributable more to calorie restriction and portion control than to the glycemic index. An advisory committee to the government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines recently concluded that evidence overwhelmingly shows that diets based on the glycemic index do slightly or no better at weight loss than other types and aren’t markedly superior at keeping off pounds already lost. In 2009, the independent, nonprofit Cochrane Collaboration reviewed six small, randomized controlled trials of low-GI diets tested over periods from several months to a year. Overall, low-GI dieters lost about 2 more pounds than comparison diets on average. Researchers found similar results in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010. They examined weight-loss maintenance of 773 overweight adults on high- and low-GI diets. After 26 weeks, the low-GI dieters had regained 2 pounds less on average than their high-GI counterparts had.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

It should, but so far the only evidence consists of preliminary findings from the company’s research. That data shows decreased blood pressure, total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, and triglycerides, a fatty substance that in excess has been linked to heart disease, for some dieters on the program. If you’re overweight or obese and shed some pounds on Nutrisystem, you’ll undoubtedly do your heart a favor—weight loss is commonly associated with decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, and risk of heart disease.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

Possibly. 

Prevention: Whether diets built around the glycemic index help prevent diabetes is still unknown. However, excess weight is a major cause of type 2 diabetes, so if Nutrisystem’s packaged meals and portion control help you shed pounds and keep them off, you’ll stand a better chance of avoiding the chronic disease. Company-funded research has also shown Nutrisystem helps lower fasting blood glucose levels. 

Control: Nutrisystem’s diabetes program, Nutrisystem D, differs only slightly from its mainstream adult plans—both provide about the same number of calories and similar amounts of fat, protein, and carbs. Dieters on Nutrisystem D have fewer menu options (higher-GI foods are excluded) and may be on a different eating schedule. The “D” program helped dieters lower their fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C levels—a measure of blood sugar over time—according to a small, company-funded study of 69 obese type 2 diabetics published in the journal Postgraduate Medicine in 2009. (The “Will you lose weight?” section above has weight-related details from the study.)

Another small study also showed that, after six months, diabetics on Nutrisystem’s “D” program reduced their A1C (blood glucose) levels more than control dieters did, but the difference was not significant. 

Are there health risks?

No indications of serious short-term risks or side effects have surfaced. But Nutrisystem isn’t necessarily safe for everyone. 

Those who shouldn’t be on the diet include:

  • Pregnant women, who generally require additional calories.
  • Women breastfeeding an infant who is younger than 6 months or who has not yet begun solid foods. (There’s a higher-calorie Nutrisystem plan for lactating women.)
  • Anyone under 18, since children and teenagers are still growing.
  • Anyone with peanut or soy allergies, since these ingredients are commonly found in Nutrisystem meals.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. It’s in line with the federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which say no more than 20 to 35 percent of daily calories should come from fat.

Protein. It’s within the acceptable range for protein consumption.

Carbohydrates. Between 54 and 58 percent of daily calories come from carbs, which meets the government’s recommendations.

Salt. Most Americans eat too much salt. None of Nutrisystem’s plans, including those for seniors and diabetics, meet the government’s 1,500 milligram sodium cap for high-risk groups—those who are 51 or older, African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. (You may still be able to achieve that target by more carefully choosing your Nutrisystem meals and grocery additions, though.) All plans stay under the 2,300 mg. of sodium the rest of Americans should stick to, but your actual intake will vary based on your grocery additions.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount—22 to 34 grams for adults—helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. Almost all Nutrisystem plans, including the “basic” adult plans, provide an adequate amount.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, and you’d have to eat 11 a day.) Most Americans take in far too little. Nutrisystem does not have information on its products’ potassium content, but its emphasis on low-fat dairy and fresh produce should make it “easy” to meet the government’s recommendation, according to a company representative.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 mg. to 1,300 mg. On Nutrisystem’s “basic” adult plans, you can expect to get about 1,000 mg., according to company estimates. Off Nutrisystem, you can meet the goal with low-fat dairy products and calcium-fortified juices and cereals.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. Nutrisystem does not have information on its products’ B-12 content. Making sure your grocery additions include yogurt, a good source of the vitamin, will help you meet the recommendation.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. Nutrisystem does not have information on its products’ vitamin D content, but low-fat dairy additions will help you get the recommended amount. After you’ve weaned yourself off the program, eating just 3 ounces of sockeye salmon, which packs about 20 micrograms of vitamin D, will satisfy the requirement.

Supplement recommended? Yes, a multivitamin for all dieters. Omega-3 supplements are a standard part of the senior plans.

How easy is it to follow?

Can you cut way back on dining out, even give it up entirely? Can you withstand the temptation to eat what the rest of the family is eating? While Nutrisystem certainly makes dieting simple—you don’t count calories, pre-portioned food comes right to your doorstep, and you know exactly what and when to eat—you may still need to muster up willpower to stick to it. At least in the short-term, you shouldn’t tire of your menu choices—Nutrisystem offers lots of options.

In one study, mentioned in the above weight-loss and diabetes sections, there wasn’t a significant difference in the dropout rate of Nutrisystem vs. control dieters.

Convenience:

Main entrées can be ordered with the click of a mouse, but restaurant meals are all but squeezed out. Alcohol is discouraged. Time spent at the grocery store is limited. When you’re ready to wean yourself off the program, recipes are offered. Online resources are free and helpful. 

Recipes. If you crave a break from frozen and pantry foods, Nutrisystem has a smattering of member- and company-generated recipes online. You can also purchase Nutrisystem cookbooks.

Eating out. Discouraged and challenging. The company provides a “dining out guide” with recommendations categorized by cuisine like Thai, Italian, and French. It also grades different food-preparation methods; deep-frying gets a “C,” for example, while roasting gets an “A.”

Alcohol. The empty calories generally make it a dieting no-no. But after making some headway toward your weight-loss goal, an occasional beer or glass of wine can be worked in.

Time-savers. The diet itself is a time-saver, since it emphasizes packaged meals.

Choosing a meal plan and ordering meals is simple. While you can hand-pick each and every meal you eat, the predetermined “favorites package” is just a couple of clicks away, if you’re not picky. You can also sign up for automatic billing and shipping of your food packages.

Trips to the grocery store to stock up on fresh produce, dairy, and protein should be quick. Nutrisystem provides a list of popular choices and their recommended servings.

Extras. You can track your meals, exercise, and weight loss online; start a blog; connect with other members in Nutrisystem chat rooms, and talk with a Nutrisystem counselor for support.

Fullness:

Hunger shouldn’t be a problem. Entrées will likely be smaller than what you’re used to, but you supplement them with protein and fiber-packed produce—some veggies even in unlimited amounts—which generally keep you feeling fuller longer. Eating at regular intervals throughout the day should also keep tummy growls at bay.

In a 2009 National Business Research Institute survey of 9,600 Nutrisystem dieters, four of every five said the program satisfied their hunger.

Taste:

Nutrisystem products should be palatable for most. A Consumer Reports taste test that pitted Nutrisystem’s packaged meals against those of its rival, Jenny Craig, deemed Jenny the winner by a slight margin last February. While Jenny’s meals were slightly tastier, Nutrisystem’s fare was rated “good” overall. (A side test of frozen Nutrisystem entrées did much better than pantry ones, according to the review.) A company survey of 3,500 customers conducted in 2010 found that nine out of every 10 were happy with the quality and taste of their food. 

How much does it cost?

A 28-day “Select Plan,” which includes 10 days of frozen meals and 18 days of pantry food, generally costs between $300 and $340. Pantry-only plans are slightly cheaper. Remember: You’ve still got a monthly grocery bill to add to that. Your tab will vary depending on what produce you buy (go for anything in-season) and your protein choices (chicken and turkey are generally pretty affordable).

Nutrisystem still may be a bargain compared to competitor Jenny Craig. Jenny Craig charges a registration fee on top of its meals, which generally run at least $100 a week.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Not everyone will be able to customize Nutrisystem to their needs—choose your preference for more information.

Nutrisystem offers vegetarian plans (for those who consume dairy and eggs), but you’ll have to be OK with pantry-only food and skimpy variety—there are limited lunch and dinner options, dominated by mostly pasta, pizza, and soup.

No vegan plan.

Too few gluten-free foods to offer a meal plan.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a little variety—and crunch numbers—you can customize meal choices and grocery additions to be as low as 1,500 mg. of sodium, according to the company.

No plan.

No plan.

What is the role of exercise?

Encouraged, but not required.

Nutrisystem offers some pointers to get you started. You can browse beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercise programs online with detailed explanations of stretches and exercises. For extra motivation, you can log every pickup basketball game and bench press and join forums to connect with other Nutrisystem dieters in your area.


Last updated by Kurtis Hiatt | December 12, 2013

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