Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, two of the most popular commercial diet programs, are wrestling over advertising claims. Weight Watchers yesterday sued its rival, saying ads featuring a lab-coat-clad Valerie Bertinelli falsely implied the two programs had been subject to head-to-head competition—and that Jenny Craig came out on top. The claim, filed in federal court, says the ads are actually based on separate studies that compared each diet plan with a control group and that the Weight Watchers study is a decade old.
But as SmartMoney writer (and my former U.S. News colleague) Angie Marek reported earlier this month, any scientific studies supporting one commercial program over another should be taken with a massive grain of low-sodium salt substitute. In "The Skinny on Big, Fat Diet Programs," she writes, "The science on most of these plans is hardly conclusive, since most of the research has been paid for by the diet companies themselves." Marek's great article details the budget crunch dieters can run into when following one of the big commercial diet programs:
But eating light isn't always easy on the wallet, whether signing up for a monthly load of freeze-dried food or opting for the weekly weigh-in and rap session. Indeed, choosing one of the mass-market diet routes can set you back between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, depending on how much food you order, how much counseling you seek, and how many calorie counters and exercise gadgets the companies can upsell to you.
Here's a secret to weight loss: Any diet, whether it costs nothing or $10,000 a year, will work if you stick to it. In fact, when independent researchers compared four popular brand-name diets—Atkins, the Zone, Dean Ornish's super low-fat plan, and a plan based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid—in 2007, they found only small differences between them. While Atkins worked marginally better for the woman being studied, none worked particularly well. Similar results came in 2008 when independent researchers published a study comparing the Mediterranean diet, a low-fat diet, and Atkins. All worked; none proved to be a magic ticket to shedding pounds.
Rather than marketing hype, the choice of diet program should be based on how healthful, sustainable, and appealing the plan is to you. Healthful means it hews fairly closely to what researchers concur is a generally good diet: a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and predominantly "good" fats. Sustainable means it doesn't promise a quick fix and is something you can keep up for a lifetime rather than some finite period. And appealing means it satisfies your own personal preferences and values, allows your favorite foods (even if in limited quantities), and fits your lifestyle and schedule.