By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
What It Is
The NutriSystem diet is the ultimate in convenience. Dieters who don’t want to think about portion sizes, planning, shopping for or cooking meals will love the NutriSystem diet plan. You simply make your food selections and then get a month’s worth of meals delivered to your door in microwave-ready pouches.
Overall, the diet is healthy. The meals are low in sodium, saturated and trans fats, and include whole grains and a wide variety of foods. And portion-controlled meals offer an advantage for anyone who has trouble with portion size.
The NutriSystem diet plan started in 1972. Since then it has undergone many changes, and today features the NutriSystem Advanced plan (launched in 2008), a “glycemic advantage” approach promoting “good carbs,” low fat, healthy protein, and high-fiber ready-cooked meals. NutriSystem Advanced meals also contain soluble fiber and omega-3 fatty acids to promote heart health and feelings of fullness.
The glycemic index is a popular weight loss tool, based on the idea that foods ranking low on the glycemic scale help stabilize blood sugar and reduce cravings. The premise of the NutriSystem plan is eating high-fiber, low-fat foods with optimal amounts of lean protein to curb cravings and satisfy hunger on fewer calories.
Women follow a 1,200-calorie plan and men are allowed 1,500 calories per day. Meals are chosen and delivered via mail from the Internet-based diet program (nutrisystem.com). Meal and dessert options are available in shelf-stable pouches that can be conveniently heated in a microwave oven. The food costs approximately $280-310/month (plus additional costs for supplemental items from your local grocer).
In addition to receiving the prepared meals, dieters are encouraged to learn to modify their eating behaviors. They receive a 12-week, self-guided “Mindset Makeover” behavioral guide, written by Temple University obesity expert Gary Foster, PhD, which addresses everything from curbing cravings to the importance of social support. In addition, diet andfitnessguidance, a weight loss community, and support are available online. Counselors are also available over the telephone.
Exercise is recommended while following the NutriSystem diet plan. Dieters can use the demonstration CDs included in their packet or choose online fitness plans that can be tailored to various fitness levels. Options include aerobics, yoga, and resistance-training programs.
What You Can Eat
Dieters choose from more than 120 entrees and desserts that promise to be balanced in protein, fat, and “good” carbs. The diet is made up of 55% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 20% fat. Most of the NutriSystem meals are lower in saturated and trans fats, sodium (approximately 1,800 milligrams per day), and rich in whole grains. The meals are supposed to be supplemented with 6 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Dieters eat five meals a day, which should help control hunger.
What You Can Eat continued…
The monthly shipments of food include 28 breakfasts, 28 lunches, 28 dinners, 28 desserts, and the option of one week of free food. No meal replacements are used, but dieters are encouraged to supplement the monthly shipments with fruit, vegetables, salad, protein, and milk purchased at your local market. Sugar, white bread, candy, cakes, processed foods, and alcohol are not permitted.
A typical 1,200-calorie meal plan includes:
- Breakfast: NutriSystem breakfast entree, 1 serving fruit, and 1 serving dairy or protein
- Lunch: NutriSystem lunch entree, 1 serving salad, 1 serving dairy or protein, 2 tbs. fat-free salad dressing
- Snack: 1 serving fruit, 1 dairy or protein serving
- Dinner: NutriSystem dinner entree, 2 vegetable servings, 1 salad or fruit serving, 1 fat serving
- Dessert: NutriSystem dessert
How It Works
NutriSystem has programs designed for men and women, and the plan can be further customized for people with type II diabetes, vegetarians, and older dieters. There is no weighing, measuring,counting calories, or cooking — other than adding water and heating pouches in the microwave.
“It takes the thinking out of healthy meal planning and helps dieters get accustomed to proper portion sizes and smart carbs,” says Delphine Carroll, NutriSystem vice president for public relations.
If you take advantage of the education and counseling, she says, you should be able to prepare healthy meals on your own at the end of the program.
NutriSystem dieters choose meals and desserts from a catalogue of products for 28 days at a time, or until they reach goal weight. Most dieters stay on the program 10-11 weeks, according to the company. The program includes a planner that has step-by-step instructions for what and how much to eat at each meal, as well as a dining out guide to help with restaurant food choices. Dieters are encouraged to track everything they eat in the included meal planner. Counseling from health advisors is free with the food purchases.
The plan does not include a maintenance or long-term phase, only guidance from the web site and Mindset guide.
What the Experts Say
The real question is whether dieters can continue losing weight when they no longer rely on prepackaged foods, experts say. The plan offers a great jump start to healthier eating but some folks might stumble right back into their old eating habits afterward.
“Dieters may only experience success while they are ordering the prepackaged foods because once they are on their own, they are faced with the real world of cooking, meal preparation, and issues they are not prepared to handle because they were not addressed on the plan,” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD.
Motivated dieters can benefit from the lifestyle tools, educational materials, and online support. But Farrell fears that some people will just eat the food and hope that by some miracle, they will improve their eating habits after finishing the program.
What the Experts Say continued…
“The NutriSystem plan is great for a short-term approach, but eventually you have to do the work by yourself, so pay attention to the portion sizes and food preparation styles so you can learn from them and do it on your own,” says Farrell.
She suggests slowly transitioning to planning and preparing your own meals.
“One of the most important aspects of weight control is learning how to shop and cook healthier foods, and this program does not accomplish that critical aspect,” she says.
Farrell likes the way the plan promotes eating regular meals and snacks, but is concerned that there may not be enough calories.
“There may be too few calories to manage hunger,” she says. “Some meals are 250-350 calories whereas others are only around 150 calories — and that is fine for a snack, but not enough for a meal.”
Experts’ opinions are mixed on the glycemic approach to weight loss. Some think it’s just another gimmick — but say that if it helps people eat in a more healthy way, the gimmick can be successful.
For example, nationally known diabetes expert and author Marion Franz, MS, RD, CDE, says that while the glycemic index is useful for people with diabetes, it has no redeeming value as a weight loss tool. But Harvard endocrinologist and pediatric professor David Ludwig, MD, says he has successfully used a glycemic index-based diet plan to help many children and families lose weight.
Food for Thought
Singles, people on the go, or anyone who does not want to be bothered with cooking may find this low-calorie, nutritionally sound program an easy, short-term way to lose weight. And following the plan and controlling calories with healthy snacks and supplemental items should result in weight loss. The 12-week mindset and weekly newsletters can be helpful in changing behavior, but won’t help you prepare your own meals when you re-enter the real world at the end the program.
Think of the NutriSystem diet as a temporary plan that can help get you started on the road to healthier eating, but keep in mind that you will ultimately have to do it on your own. The challenge is to continue losing weight on a calorie-controlled diet without the advantage of the prepackaged foods.
Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.
Marion Franz, MS, RD, CDE, co-author, American Dietetic Association Food Nutrient Data for Choose Your Foods: Exchange Lists for Diabetes, 2007.
David Ludwig, MD, pediatric endocrinologist; author, Ending the Food Fight.
Delphine Carroll, public relations vice president, NutriSystem. NutriSystem web site.
WebMD does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.