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Reader Question: Are there Rankings for Weight-Loss Diet Quality?

Reader Question: Are there authoritative evaluations of the nutritional soundness of Nutrisystem or other programmed weight loss diets?

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First of all, thanks for sending in your question! Secondly, yes there are evaluations of various diets, although there isn’t one that is the authority.

Every year, it seems as if hundreds of weight loss diets are published and each manage to make the same two promises:

  1. This is the lifelong solution to your weight problems.

  2. This diet is unique (not like all those other diets).

And even though it isn’t logical, all these protocols to melt weight off seem compelling! How do we sift through all the information and pick, or avoid, diet systems?

It turns out diets are compared and rated, in the media and in scientific literature.

U.S. News and World Report, consistent with their penchant for rating literally everything, releases yearly lists of the best diets for overall health, weight loss, diabetes, etc. They also have a ranked list for commercial diets; if that is the route you’re planning to take. The lists are ranked by a panel of experts on the following categories:

1. Short term weight loss

2. Long term weight loss

3. How easy it is to follow

4. How well it conforms to nutrition standards

5. Health risks it may pose

6. Soundness as a diabetes and heart profile

These rankings, while thorough, will bias the “best” diets towards ones developed or endorsed by the government because they need to conform to nutrition standards (presumably those of the dietary guidelines) and they need to pose fewer health risks (probably lower sodium and saturated fat).

While these are certainly important ways to rate diets; popular choices like low-carb diets and “paleo” diets will be penalized for falling outside of the nutrition standards by eliminating foods. Eliminating major food groups, like carbohydrates, will earn the diet a lower score. This is OK, but in analyses of weight loss effectiveness, lower carbohydrate diets are just as effective as others. Also, since practically no diets do well long term, scoring based on sustained weight loss is essentially moot.

In the US News and World Report rankings, diets are given three scores: Overall Score, Weight Loss, and Healthy. We would recommend looking for a diet that has a high score for weight loss and is healthy – this will help ensure that the diet will reduce total calories consumed and meet nutrient needs.

Diets like Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig can be helpful because the food arrives at your door in calorie controlled portions! However, some complain about food quality. People interested in calorie-controlled, delivery food have many options these days, like local businesses that provide similar prepared meals in whatever diet style you prefer: vegan, paleo, DASH, etc.

Diets that eliminate entire food groups are rarely recommended because they can possibly deprive followers of nutrients over time. An example of this is a raw food diet, which is usually a vegan diet that eliminates all cooked and processed foods.

Scientists and researchers also try to rank weight-loss diets through diet trials and subsequent reviews. However, their findings are neither as rosy or as perusable as the U.S. News and World Report Rankings.

In a 2014 meta-analysis of numerous “named” diets, including Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The analysis found that at 12 months, “the Ornish, Rosemary Conley, Jenny Craig, and Atkins diets were associated with the largest weight loss at this time point and all varied between 6.35 kg and 6.55 kg.” The Ornish plan is very low fat, the Rosemary Conley and Jenny Craig diets are more portion controlled, and the Atkins diet is low carb. All of these diet styles had essentially the same results, suggesting that no one diet type is truly better than another for weight loss.

Differences between diets at the 12 month mark were small and researchers concluded: “Because different diets are variably tolerated by individuals, the ideal diet is the one that is best adhered to by individuals so that they can stay on the diet as long as possible.”

In the long run, no diets have great track records for permanent weight loss, but the key to adopting a diet that will help you is to pick one you think you can stick with.

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