Editor’s note: Weight Watchers is still the best choice for both short-term weight loss and long-term healthy eating, while Jenny Craig rules in the prepackaged convenience category. But if neither of those works for you, we also review the top diet books, low carb diets, the Paleo diet and more. We even recommend less-expensive alternatives to the top commercial diets.
Specs that Matter
Prepackaged foods – Optional
Physical activity – Yes
Membership – Yes
Best weight loss program
Health professionals laud Weight Watchers focus on a balanced diet that they say is easier to stick to than plans that restrict food groups. The latest update to the program adds more than 200 “free” foods that you don’t have to limit or track. Weight Watchers strongly encourages exercise and the diet plan is easily customized. The point-based system is easy to follow, and the basic program is relatively affordable. The most important feature of the Weight Watchers plan is ongoing support, in physical meetings and/or online.
Specs that Matter
Prepackaged foods – No
Physical activity – Optional
Membership – No
Best weight loss book
Experts say “The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet: Smart, Simple, Science-Based Strategies for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off,” is your best guide to losing weight, maintaining long-term weight loss, and learning to eat nutritious food. Based upon research showing that low-density food will keep you fuller longer, it mitigates one of the biggest enemies of any diet: Hunger. Volumetrics is the science upon which many other popular weight loss programs are based — including Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. However, it requires you to know your way around the kitchen.
Buy for $28.89
Specs that Matter
Prepackaged foods – Yes
Physical activity – Yes
Membership – Yes
Best prepackaged diet plan
If planning for and preparing healthy foods is the biggest obstacle to your weight loss, look no further than Jenny Craig. The program delivers prepackaged food to your home; you just heat (or open) and eat, and experts and users say the food tastes good, too. There’s no counting calories, no forbidden foods, and little planning required. Reviewers say Jenny Craig is an ideal program for someone who wants a no-hassle diet. It’s pricey, though, and, there’s very little room for eating out or home-cooked meals.
Specs that Matter
Prepackaged foods – Yes
Physical activity – Optional
Membership – No
Cheap prepackaged diet plan
Following the SlimFast diet plan couldn’t be simpler, reviewers say, using the meal replacement bars and shakes for breakfast, lunch and snacks, while eating a balanced, low calorie meal for dinner. The bars and shakes are very affordable and widely available, and the diet has been proven to help people lose weight if they follow it closely. However, the restrictive nature of the Slim Fast diet can be tough to stick to for the long term, and many experts say 1,200 calories per day are not enough for most.
Buy for $13.48
Types of Weight Loss Programs
Commercial Diet Programs
You have to sign up, and they come at a cost — some higher than others depending upon the program — but commercial diet programs offer a lot of tools for the dieter. These may include in-person and online support, smartphone and tablet apps, journaling and record-keeping programs specific to the diet, pre-calculated calorie counts, guides for eating out and plenty of proven recipes for any cooking skill level. They also provide the most support, both in person and online.
Books to help you lose weight or change your eating habits are a dime a dozen — and that’s a very good thing. A good diet book can be an affordable approach to starting and maintaining a healthy eating plan. Many even have free online support forums or extensive websites that can be accessed for free or a small fee. The best diet books not only give you an overview of how their program works, but also offer menu plans, recipes and exercise guidance. Best of all, you can usually try before you buy by checking out the book at your local library.
Prepackaged Food Plans
These are very convenient if you don’t have the time, energy or ability to plan for and prepare meals. A prepackaged food program gives you a no-hassle, no-brainer approach to dieting, but the best come at a cost. Even the least expensive prepackaged plans cost more than just buying your own food, and it can be difficult to find out the true cost until you actually commit. Still, if you can afford it, you get a nutritionally balanced, calorie-controlled eating plan with lots of support and no additional tools needed — except a microwave oven, which are covered in a separate report.
The best weight loss program is the one you can stick to
everyone decides at some point in time that they want or need to lose weight.
For some, it may be a few pounds they’ve put on over the holidays, for others
it’s a serious issue and their weight may be leading to obesity-related health
good news is that if you’re struggling with your size, reducing your calorie
intake and increasing your activity level have been clinically shown to help
you lose weight. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts and no short-term
fixes. Fad diets, herbal supplements, “fat-burning” pills, and highly
restrictive diets don’t work for long, if at all, and some may cause more harm
most important consideration of any diet is finding one that you can stick with
for the long haul. While many diets promise that you’ll quickly shed pounds in
the beginning, the truth is that reining in your eating will almost always
result in quick, initial weight loss regardless of what program you decide to
try. The trick is to find a program that — after that first couple of weeks —
you can adhere to as your weight loss slows to more realistic levels. Experts
say that people who make diets a lifestyle rather than just a “diet,”
while setting a goal of losing a pound or so a week, are more apt to keep the
weight off over the long term.
Move it to lose it
forget exercise. The best diets incorporate or encourage exercise and allow you
to ingest more calories as your reward. Some programs have even more specific
exercise guidelines, suggesting the best foods to eat both before and after you
exercise for maximum energy and recovery.
you don’t know what’s the best exercise for you, head on over to our reports on treadmills, elliptical trainers, exercise bikes and stair climbers for some ideas to help in your efforts to improve your fitness. A fitness tracker can also give you the motivation to get up and get moving.
Phone a friend
either in-person or online, is another key to successful dieting. The best
diets offer support from both trained counselors and fellow dieters. In
addition, studies show that those who keep track of their food and activity are
ultimately more successful at losing weight. This personal accountability can
help you shed pounds whether you follow a commercial diet program or choose a
of our best-rated weight loss programs have tracking software available online,
as well as mobile apps, or even paper-tracking programs for those who prefer
hard-copy journaling. Other programs or diets may not have dedicated websites, but
there are a wealth of free calorie and activity tracking websites that offer
community support, recipes and even free exercise videos.
Finding The Best Weight Loss Programs
“Weight Loss & Diet Plans A-Z”
“Science Compared Every Diet, and the Winner Is Real Food”
is always a lot of controversy when it comes to evaluating diets. Many people
are firmly in one camp or another over the “right” way to eat.
Studies are often contradictory in their findings, and many critics charge that
government recommendations are influenced by the food industry. We present the
controversies and cross-opinions, when relevant, but we do not take sides; in
our opinion the best diet is the one you feel best on and can stick with.
we’ve evaluated expert reviews, most notably those published annually at U.S.
News and World Report. That publication consults medical professionals who, in
turn, consult clinical studies as well as utilizing their own experience and
expertise to make their recommendations. We then work our way down to dieter
opinions posted on survey sites — to identify the most nutritionally sound and
sustainable weight loss programs. That includes diets, meal-delivery plans,
diet books and free, online resources that will help you lose weight and keep
it off over the long-term.
The best commercial
weight loss program rivals Weight Watchers’ (Est. $20 and up per month) record of scientifically
proven efficacy and enthusiastic expert and dieter endorsements. Its
combination of in-person and/or online support and motivation, flexible
points-based meal planning, and physical activity are hard to beat. There are
no off-limit foods, and the program can be customized for any dietary need,
making it a good choice for vegetarians, vegans and anyone who has a specific
food allergy or intolerance. It emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables by
making them “free” foods — in other words, foods that don’t have to
be portioned or tracked.
Watchers has been around for more than 50 years, and has always been a
point-based system — currently known as SmartPoints. Those points are calculated
from a formula that takes into account the food’s fat, sugar, protein and
carbohydrate count. You’re given a specific number of points each day that you
track and log, as well as weekly bonus points for snacks or additional food
items. Fitness is also a bigger component, and you’re encouraged to set fitness
goals when you set up your profile, then track them and, if you wish, exchange
FitPoints for food.
2018, “WW Freestyle” is the new buzz phrase, denoting an expanded
list of “free” foods — more than 200 — that don’t have to be
tracked or logged. The program also allows you to rollover up to 4 points per
day to add to your weekly total to build a points bank — perhaps for a special
see very few downsides to Weight Watchers. Even though it’s fee-based, the fees
are pretty reasonable. Everyone pays a $20 registration fee (although that’s
often waived as an incentive to sign up, especially December through March).
Then, membership fees are as low as $20 a month for online only. You can even
pay-as-you-go if you want to attend meetings just occasionally; it costs about $15
per meeting. There are also pricier plans available that provide you with
individual coaching sessions. Regardless of the plan you choose, experts say
you get a lot for your money, especially in online tools and support. However,
if you’re on a tight budget, these fees may still be a bit too steep. The only
other complaint we noted is that some people say they feel hungry all the time
or often in spite of the plethora of food choices, but we see that with
virtually all diets as calorie restriction tends to have that result.
say that Weight Watchers is one of the easiest programs to follow. There are
hundreds of Weight Watchers recipes available, both in cookbook form and
online, with pre-calculated points values for each recipe. Weight Watchers has
its own line of frozen entrees, and Weight Watchers points values are often
pre-calculated on other brands of frozen entrees. There are many other Weight
Watchers-branded prepared foods available as well. Food preparation-wise, the
program can be as easy or as difficult as your skill level in the kitchen.
do have to track everything you eat, which is easy if you’re following a Weight
Watchers’ recipe or eating a prepackaged food with the points pre-calculated.
It gets a bit trickier when you prepare your own recipes as you have to break
down the ingredients and do the math — although that’s certainly simpler if
all you’re doing is, for example, grilling a chicken breast and making a salad.
And, under the new “Freestyle” program, that’s a meal that could be
points-free under the current guidelines, depending upon whether or not the
salad is dressed.
A similar program, TOPS (Est. $32 per year, plus $5 chapter dues), pairs a wealth of educational material with group
meetings in your community, also called “chapters.” TOPS, which
stands for Take Off Pounds Sensibly, uses The Food Exchange System, which users
say is easy to understand and follow. It has categories of foods with similar
serving sizes and caloric loads, and it’s easy to swap one food for another. You
can even purchase exchange cards that give you food options within categories
at a glance, as well as a variety of other accessories, such as food prep tools
scaled to accurate portion sizes.
TOPS also recommends that you get a diet recommendation from your doctor
or follow the USDA’s MyPlate tool, which focuses on filling half your
plate with fruits and vegetables and the other half with lean meats and whole
grains. TOPS is low-cost, nutritionally sound, provides plenty of support and
is very affordable. However, it’s not as structured as some other commercial
weight loss programs, so those who prefer a diet that offers more specific meal
guidelines may find it more difficult to follow.
There are plenty of low- or
no-cost diet resources
your budget — or your preferences — don’t make either Weight Watchers or TOPS
appealing to you, there are some popular diet programs that are
less-structured, but no less effective if you stick to the program.
The Volumetrics Diet (Est. $10), based upon the well-regarded book “The
Ultimate Volumetrics Diet: Smart, Simple, Science-Based Strategies for Losing
Weight and Keeping It Off” is a sensible, sustainable approach that draws
rave reviews from experts and dieters. You swap high-density foods, which tend
to have more calories, for lower-density foods like fruits, vegetables, soups
and stews. This swap of foods with more bulk but fewer calories helps fill you
up, thus eliminating one big problem with dieting: hunger. It’s a top pick in
most of our expert roundups, and its author, Barbara Rolls, is a leading
researcher in the field of nutrition. Many other diets, most notably Jenny Craig (Est. $20 and up per month, plus food) (covered in our discussion of the best prepackaged diet plans)
and Weight Watchers, have adopted, at least in part, the Volumetrics approach
to meal planning to help keep hunger at bay.
The Volumetrics plan does not have a website, therefore there is no
formal support, but it can be paired with any free online support program, such
as SparkPeople or MyFitnessPal, both free, highly rated diet and fitness-support
websites. For some people the big drawback to the Volumetrics approach is that
food preparation, both shopping and cooking, is not optional — you will need
to have some level of comfort in the kitchen. However, the book features meal
plans, and the recipes are reported as easy to follow by consumer reviewers. At
least one expert says this particular approach is probably best for people who
have hunger or portion-control issues rather than emotional eaters who often
eat for reasons other than hunger. Also, if you’re more a meat-and-potatoes
kind of eater, you may get weary of a diet that’s heavy on vegetables, fruits
Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet, most commonly called the TLC Diet (Free), has
a name that’s about as interesting as cold broth, but experts say it’s a top
choice to lower cholesterol and that you will lose
weight if you follow the eating and activity guidelines. The downside to this
diet is that you have to figure out which foods to eat and there is no support.
Guidelines are available online on the U.S. National Institutes of Health website, but they’re not as specific as with fee-based weight loss
programs. However, while there are no “official” community
websites that accompany the TLC diet, there is plenty of information available
online from dieters who have successfully followed the programs and offer their
suggestions, recipes and tips.
Another diet that’s highly ranked by experts is the Mediterranean Diet (Free).
Experts say that eating the Mediterranean way is the healthiest dietary choice
you can make. The difficulty for most people is figuring out exactly what that
means since there is no formal “Mediterranean Diet;” rather, it’s a
way of eating that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats in
moderation, whole grains, legumes, seeds and healthy fats. However, there are
some guidelines on the Oldways website that may be helpful, and there are
a wealth of other online resources from those who have adopted the
Mediterranean diet lifestyle, as well as plenty of cookbooks.
carbs is the key to weight loss for many
Low carb diets, which eliminate basically all non-vegetable carbs, even
most fruits, used to be considered “fad” or “fringe” diets. However, they’re
becoming more mainstream as more studies show that this approach is effective
for both short and long term weight loss, as well as lowering overall
cholesterol and increasing “good” cholesterol.
Basically every diet that we cover in this report is low carb to some
extent in that they discourage processed foods and foods made from white flour,
and most assign higher caloric/points values even to foods that contain whole
grains than to other types of food. However, many experts are leery of any diet
that eliminates entire food groups — in this case grains and many starches.
However, plenty of others point out that vegetarians and vegans do not receive
this type of criticism even though those diets also eliminate several food
Regardless of which camp you’re in, if you do decide to try out a low
carb diet, the Atkins Diet is the gold standard. Atkins has been proven
effective for both short- and long-term weight loss, and studies show it is
just as effective in lowering cholesterol levels over the long term as low fat
diets for many people. As with any diet program, it may not be effective for
everyone. While Atkins does initially restrict carbs to very low levels, the
plan adds in more carbohydrates as you lose weight. It’s also easy to follow,
say users, and it’s restaurant friendly — hold the bread and order an extra
vegetable instead of a potato.
There are a plethora of resources for getting started on, or
maintaining, the Atkins Diet. In addition to the official Atkins website,
with recipes, many free downloads, and a support community, there are thousands
of websites built by low carb devotees with additional tips, recipes and
encouragement. The book, New Atkins for a New You (Est. $12), is also a good place to start the low carb journey. It’s
highly rated by users, who say it’s a great guide for making a dietary
lifestyle change. Some like that the science of low carb eating is well
presented, others say they would prefer a more casual approach and more
recipes. Others point out that all of the information in the book is available
on the Atkins website, free of charge.
South Beach Diet is also considered low-carb, but it’s not as restrictive as
Atkins in its later phases. In fact, even in the early phases of the South
Beach Diet, small servings of complex, non-vegetable carbs are allowed. South
Beach earns high praise for weight loss and as an overall healthy way of
eating, but gets panned for its complicated meal plans and time-consuming
recipes by both users and experts. The ingredients in its recipes can jack up
your grocery bill as well. Still, it’s popular for those who love to cook, or
prefer meals that aren’t just a hunk of meat and a vegetable (or two).
South Beach Diet started as a book that was originally published in 2003, The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss (Est. $9). The book is still considered to
be the best way to get information on the basic diet, but there are also many
follow up books and cookbooks to supplement the original, as well as South
Beach compliant recipes available around the Internet. The official South Beach Diet website is mostly fee-based.
focuses on different types of carbs
Even its adherents quibble over whether the Paleo Diet is low carb or
not. Technically, it is not in that it allows some starch-based carbs such as
sweet potatoes, yams, and squash. It also allows some fruits. Some Paleo
programs allow white potatoes and certain kinds of rice as well. Most Paleo
programs don’t allow dairy, others do.
The Paleo Diet (Free) is not intended to be a weight loss diet, per se,
but rather a way of eating that is meant to be permanent. In many Paleo
protocols, there is a strong emphasis on grass-fed or organic foods, which can
be pricey and may not be readily available to some, but other programs
recommend that you just purchase the highest quality of food you can afford.
Exercise is strongly encouraged. You don’t count calories; you just eat until
of the Paleo diet say it’s a much healthier way to eat than the standard
American diet, which is often heavy on added sugars and processed foods.
Critics say it’s too restrictive, banning dairy, wheat and legumes — food
groups that many nutritionists feel should be part of a healthy diet. However,
as we noted earlier in this section, veganism and vegetarianism also ban entire
food groups and do not come under the same cloud of criticism.
of where you stand, the fact is that the Paleo way of eating is becoming
increasingly popular, as are “nutritional reset” programs based upon
Paleo, such as the Primal Blueprint 21-day Challenge hosted by Marks Daily Apple,
or the Whole30 program, popularized by the New York Times bestseller, It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways (Est. $15).
many people say they feel great on the Paleo diet — losing weight and lowering
health markers such as blood pressure and cholesterol. However, like most
programs, many simply don’t stick with this way of eating over the long term —
they keep lapsing and going back — the same issue we see with all eating
plans. Again, there is no formal “Paleo” diet, but there are plenty
of books and online resources for anyone interested in exploring the idea.
Regardless of which of these diets appeals to you,
the biggest challenge for any of them is that you have to have at least some
ability in the kitchen — and for some you have to be pretty competent —
because all of them are based, at least in part, upon purchasing and preparing
your own, whole foods. That may be a challenge if food prep is not your thing
or you’re often pressed for time. In that case, Weight Watchers is probably the
easiest program for the non-cook to follow. They not only have a complete line
of prepared foods, they also have tools to give you the points values for the
menus of many popular restaurants. If you really want to make dieting as simple
as possible, skip on over to our discussion of the Best Prepackaged Diet Plans for some really convenient weight loss plans.