The Best Weight Loss Program
The Best Weight Loss Program
Weight loss once again came in first place for New Year’s Resolutions, sharing its spot with “becoming a better person.” For a lot of us, becoming a better person starts with feeling better about ourselves. The start of a new year may be primetime to renew dedication to health and happiness, but periodic sprints of weight loss do not equate to wellness. That’s why the best diet is the one you can sustain for the rest of your life.
Weight Watchers, which not only champions a sustainable diet but has sustained itself for over fifty years, is a favorite amongst nutritionists. Its practical, flexible philosophy of saving and splurging SmartPoints boils down to balancing out food choices. You can get tips, tools, and motivation by attending the traditional weekly meetings, or get the same resources through its user-friendly app. Either way, research proves that Weight Watchers’ social element supports weight loss. At about $4 a week, OnlinePlus costs about half as much as Meetings+OnlinePlus, which runs around $8 (your fees vary depending on the length of your commitment).
We think Weight Watchers is great by any channel, but if you want to stick to an app — and can afford to pay as much as you would for WW’s in-person meetings — we’d point you to Noom.
A new player in the weight loss program space, Noom packs a lot of behavioral psychology into one sophisticated app. It aims to help you identify and break bad habits, and have some fun doing it. The powerful app echoes Weight Watchers’ successful community approach, but outleagues that program in terms of learning resources. While it’s the more expensive of our two favorite programs, it’s the richer when it comes to virtual experience — with personalized lessons, tasks, and support that made us look forward to opening up the app.
Both Weight Watchers and Noom provide lots of guidance. If you’re more of a self-starter — someone who just needs to be pointed in the right direction — The Mayo Clinic Diet provides pure resources. Picking up the entertaining, densely informative book is the only associated cost. You can also get the app for about half the cost of WW Mobile, but we didn’t find it as useful.
If you like the idea of an actually useful app, but aren’t interested in tons of interaction or paying a large membership fee, we suggest MyFitnessPal. There are lots of nearly identical apps on the market, but this one provides the easiest, quickest food tracking we experienced, plus advanced options like goal setting and nutrition analysis. For education and support, you’ll have to turn to outside sources.
How We Found the Best Weight Loss Program
First, we asked the experts: How do you determine a quality diet? Andrea N. Giancoli, Registered Dietitian and former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, gave it to us straight:
“If you really want to lose weight and be healthy and good to your body, you have to pick something that you’re going to be able to do over the long term."
The pitfall of most fad diets: carbohydrate cravings or just too few calories. You get hungry and feel like you’ve blown the diet, but the diet failed you.
Turning a diet into a lifestyle demands your dedication, for sure. But it also demands the diet be sustainable. The best plan flexes to allow for life, encourages holistic wellness (adding movement, not just curbing intake), and provides complete nutrition.
The most successful diet is the one you won’t quit.
We started with US News & World Report’s 2018 diet rankings. This annual survey involves a months-long study with a panel of respected doctors and nutritionists (several of whom we interviewed to dig deeper into their analysis.) They grade eating regimes of all ilk on a stringent set of criteria:
- Be proven effective for weight loss
- Be easy to follow
- Be nutritionally complete
- Help prevent common health concerns, like heart disease and diabetes
- Be safe and pose no long-term health risks
We pulled the top 14 of the best commercial diets (marketed to the public for profit) and the top 12 of the best diets overall. We also threw five of the most popular diet apps into the mix. Since these are largely tracking devices that don’t espouse unique eating habits, they don’t appear to meet US News’ definition of diet, but are still potentially effective weight loss tools.
So, we cut diets that expect you to skip eating out.
Giancoli also recommends finding a diet that fits in with how you really live. She notes that if you enjoy going out to eat but try to commit to a diet that forbids you from ever going to a restaurant, you’re just going to cheat. “It’s not sustainable… You’re most likely going to have a healthier meal if you’re going to cook yourself, but you’re depriving yourself of that social interaction if you never go out.” To put it another way: Your eating practices shouldn’t isolate you or keep you from having fun.
Don’t underestimate the social and environmental aspects of eating. After all, nutrition experts agree those are the factors that things like getting your family involved, keeping your house stocked with healthy food, and feeling confident that you can eat well in any situation, help you eat well for life.
We dumped diets that prohibit eating out, then made sure our hand-picked apps offer nutritional information for restaurants.
We also cut diets that don’t incorporate exercise.
Losing weight is all about monitoring and managing intake and expenditure of calories. Different diets talk about exercise in different ways, but our experts agree that physical activity is a critical component of wellness. If a weight loss program leaves it out, that’s a red flag.
“Diet and exercise are a marriage that should never divorce,” said Giancoli, noting that the benefits of exercise aren’t restricted to the sheer number of calories you burn during thirty minutes on a treadmill. (Need one of those, by the way? We have some favorites.) Instead, research shows that muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, proving that “muscle mass is a key factor in weight loss.”
“We know a healthy lifestyle requires exercise. Consider food and exercise medicine, because they are.”
To hold our diet apps to equal standards, we cut Fooducate, which doesn’t offer exercise tracking alongside food tracking.
Atkins Diet, Fooducate, Jenny Craig Diet, Nutritarian Diet, Medifast Diet, MIND Diet, Slim-Fast Diet, Whole30 Diet, Zone Diet
Finally, we cut diets that eliminate certain food groups.
The last key to diet sustainability, according to Giancoli, is understanding that all food groups have a place. Plenty of diets demonize certain items, but putting a kibosh on carbs, fats, fruits, or sugars alone actually thwarts long-term sustainability:
“Any food can fit in a healthy diet if you’re eating in a healthy way, based on whole foods, plants, and lean proteins.”
Additionally, a balanced diet provides a balanced supply of nutrients. Cutting carbs completely means you’re also cutting the fiber and B vitamins you’d get from sensible servings of whole-grain bread, oatmeal, and brown rice.
If your favorite foods fall into the list of forbidden fruit, you’re even more likely to fall off the wagon. Giancoli gives the example of diets that cut out coffee: “It’s ridiculous. There’s a lot of research that coffee is fine. Coffee’s been redeemed.” The Mayo Clinic goes even further, saying: “Caffeine may slightly boost weight loss or prevent weight gain.”
Eight programs and four apps remained. From here, we cut The Mediterranean, The Flexitarian, and The Volumetrics Diets because they are more general eating theories than centralized sources of diet information. Without an authority, it’s difficult to pin down their teachings or evaluate their efficacy.
The Biggest Loser program has come under attack with recent revelations that its amazing, as-seen-on-TV results are both pharmaceutically assisted and likely to reverse. Living proof that the medical community’s understanding of weight loss is still evolving: The diet still stands in third place on US News’ & World Report’s list for Best Fast Weight Loss.
But the whole idea of fast weight loss may be the root of the problem. According to a Time expose on the subject: “When people are asked to envision their perfect size, many cite a dream weight loss up to three times as great as what a doctor might recommend.” An improbable and disheartening goal, and one that obscures the truth that losing small amounts of weight — even ten pounds — still has great health benefits.
We were left with 7 promising programs:
- Weight Watchers
- The Mayo Clinic Diet
- Lose it!
- Spark System
With plans in hand, we registered, downloaded, ordered books and pre-packaged foods, and prepared to put these diets into practice.
We learned the diets, then lived each for a day.
To interact with these programs in a consistent and representative way, we created a profile of a 40-year-old woman with America’s average measurements. At 5’4” and 168 pounds, she’s in the overweight, but not obese, zone, and wants to drop down to 140 to hit a healthy BMI.
While we enlisted a dieting avatar, we had a real-life tester log her actual food intake and exercise, try out branded foods, and monitor fluctuations in motivation, weight, and perceived wellness.
Our first discovery was the similarities between programs. Virtually all diets recommend that you:
- Eat nutritious, low-calorie foods
- Prepare healthy meals at home
Weight Watchers, The Mayo Clinic Diet, and especially Noom provide a lot of behavior-based support to integrate these good habits. These include learning portions, logging food, and both giving and receiving external support. Nutrisystem doesn’t ask for any behavior changes save for subsisting almost entirely off their pre-packaged, pre-portioned meals.
The remaining three — all basic food-tracking apps, are even more hands-off. MyFitnessPal, SparkPeople, and Lose it! don’t offer specific advice.
Still, whether food choices are prescribed or implied, the thrust of any diet is to eat smaller portions of less dense foods. Broth soups over cream soups. Grapes over raisins. Chicken breast over steak. The lingo varies; this essential teaching remains.
Motivation + education make or break a diet.
The best diet programs help you engage with the reasons you want to lose weight, and these are typically deeper than wanting to wear a certain size or go for a hike without turning cadmium red.
That a great diet is a lifestyle, not a short sprint toward a short-term goal, recalls the etymology of the word: Diet, from the Greek diaita, means "way of life." Diets are successful when they help you break unhealthy patterns and become your new way of life.
While a diet’s recommendations are important, the lingo, the environment, and the packaging of a program can be even more impactful than the lesson.
We all know how to lose weight; it’s a matter of being consistently inspired to do it.
All seven of the systems we tested put their essential tools at your fingertips with dedicated apps, but the depth and quality range widely. With inspiration and long-term success in mind, we found the most important elements of useful apps are food logging, goal-setting, education, and community support.
Food logging may seem the most pedestrian, but keeping abreast of your daily calories (and taking the time to record every morsel you consume) brings a level of self-awareness to what can be a mindless or habit-driven act.
We loved to see clearly separate logs for every meal, autocomplete search bars, and barcode scanners. Overall speedy functionality went a long way to making a weight loss app something that we willingly used, rather than avoided (SparkPeople and Lose it! frequently stall.)
If your wellness routine remains the same day after day, chances are you’ll get bored and stop seeing results.
Research shows that the biggest detractor to weight loss is attrition. We appreciated apps that automatically set daily goals (Weight Watchers and Noom) or encouraged us to set them (MyFitnessPal). Racing to reach your target daily steps or earn points keeps you striving.
With multi-faceted support and exceptional usability, we were blown away by Noom and Weight Watchers. Their apps crack the code of food tracking, education, and community support. Our tester opened up both to connect, read tips, and find foods’ nutritional value even on “off” days.
While SparkPeople, Lose it!, and MyFitnessPal share some striking commonalities (to the extent that we were wondering if they were all operating off the same generic platform), MyFitnessPal provides better, more intuitive tools.
Our Top Picks for the Best Weight Loss Program
At the heart of its flexible system: SmartPoints. SmartPoints derive primarily from number of calories; sugar and saturated fat drive the number up, protein brings it down. Getting a feel for the number of points that different foods typically “cost” in order to stay on your daily “budget” is a great way to cultivate healthy decision-making: A fried chicken wing is 7 points, while 3 oz. of chicken breast without the skin is 2 points. A sugar-laden Coca-Cola is 9 points, but so is a dinner-sized serving of Moroccan chicken rice and potatoes. Some foods are zero points: fruits and vegetables, skinless chicken and turkey breast, seafood, eggs, nonfat yogurt. Being encouraged to eat certain items in this way helps to restructure your mindset around food.
You start to link up the cost of points with the cost of certain foods on your body, without any item every becoming taboo or strictly off-limits. Our tester found the point system both easy-to-use and eye-opening. “I can’t believe how many ‘healthy’ or at least innocuous foods are actually bad for you,” she remarked, noting how diet staples like granola bars took a big bite out of her daily allotment of points.
“Food that is not nutritious has more points than food that is. Weight Watchers has a system in place that really encourages you to eat more nutritious choices.”
The app supports this process with a clear dashboard and user-friendly food and fitness tracking. There’s a points system for exercise, too: Log everything from walking the dog to 90 minutes of cycling to earn points and hit your daily goal.
OnlinePlus provides tracking as well as community through WW Mobile’s clean and sophisticated Connect news feed, and it costs you just under $36 a month. If you like the idea of getting together IRL, Meetings+OnlinePlus costs about $77 a month. Our tester found the meetings genuinely nice, if a little cheesy. And if you need extra help, there’s a Personal Coaching option for about $107 a month. At every level of membership, you have access to a live coach via Expert Chat.
Noom revamps weight loss with an app that’s hands-down more interactive, motivating, and fun than any other we tried. It makes a game of learning about nutrition and staying on-target, and is designed to keep up your enthusiasm about the journey, knowing full well that enthusiasm fluctuates.
Identifying and resolving typical weight loss hurdles — like flagging enthusiasm — is something Noom excels at. The initial questions that set up your profile, match you with a coach, and place you with a group, all intend to diagnose your learning style and what flavor of support you need. What kicks you into high gear, tough love or words of affirmation? How do you like to show support? How do you feel about goal setting?
Staying motivated, according to Noom, boils down to keeping your eyes on the prize. That’s why, in addition to setting up emergency plans in case you don’t open the app in a couple days (they’ll send you a text or even contact your SO), they also ask you to verbalize Your Big Picture (YBP).
Goal + Vision + Why = Your Big Picture
YBP breaks into three parts: The first is your Goal, or what you consider to be finish line of your weight loss journey. That could be hitting a certain weight, dropping a dress size, or completing a 5k without walk breaks. Your Vision is self-explanatory — it’s what weight loss success looks like to you, and all the good things that come along with it. The Why is where you derive motivation. And it isn’t just the first reason you think of.
You may say you want to lose weight to feel good about yourself. “Why?” Noom asks again. “It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion,” Noom explains, “And yes, tears might be involved too!” By the time our tester answered the third “Why?” she had indeed gone deep — even in the guise of a 40-year-old mom. The ultimate Why she came up with: “To enjoy life and bring joy to others.”
Noom helps you find and hold onto your Why while learning about other, smaller concepts that contribute to success. Self-awareness is big with Noom. The app offers short daily lessons that help you see and confront your own typical actions through introducing things like behavioral chains and triggers. If you can get past all the incessantly cheeky language (#noomerslovehashtags), it’s truly impressive how Noom deploys behavioral psychology to influence how you approach wellness.
The customized support and abundant resources come at a price. This varies based on the intensity of your weight loss goals; we paid $60 per month. (We made an account before purchasing and received a 50% off offer by email to incentivize our membership. Tease them in the same way and see if you get the same deal.) If you want to get a look at all these perks before you purchase, you can try Noom free for 14 days.
Where commercial weight loss programs go hands-on, the Mayo Clinic Diet goes streamlined. The vibrant, best-selling hardback (that looks a lot like a fun middle school health textbook) is the first resource for diet information, you can also employ the sleekly designed but minimalist app, plus a full website of tips, recipes, and workouts. Those patient enough to cycle through all of Mayo’s resources will find lots of solid health information.
The plan is simple: Commit to two weeks of restricted dieting, then transfer to a sustainable regime. Phase one: Cut out restaurant food, added sugar, eating while watching TV, snacking on anything other than fruits and veggies, and limit meat and dairy. You’re also asked to add four healthy habits, simple tweaks like having a good breakfast every morning.
This intro phase — Lose It! — is designed to shock your body into weight loss. Mayo Clinic claims you’ll lose 6 to 10 pounds.
“There is a certain motivating power in initial success. We get a little bit of momentum built up. The critical issue becomes: How do you transition from that to something that’s sustainable?”
While the American College of Sports Medicine warns that women who eat less than 1,300 calories a day and men who eat less than 1,800 risk slowing down their metabolism over time. But a rev-up stage that only lasts two weeks is approved by doctors and isn’t as difficult as it seems. Our tester found the Mayo Clinic day pretty satisfying, and still had enough energy to hit the gym.
But after two weeks, you’ll need to transfer into a more moderate phase of calorie reduction. The Mayo Clinic Diet calls this the Live It! Stage. These are the healthy eating habits that have no timeline and should last the rest of your life.
If you can keep up motivation and accountability without the assistance of an app or a like-minded community, the book should give you all necessary tools. While we weren’t floored by Mayo’s online offerings, the app does have one cool feature (if you can get it to work): Enable your camera to eyeball the correct size of any food item in comparison to a virtual baseball, hockey puck, set of dice.
Premium access to the app costs roughly $2 a week when you buy an entire year or $4 if you pay weekly. We didn’t feel the upgrade was worth even a couple bucks, but it does include a weight tracker, tons of recipes, and a meal planner.
If you want a cheap or free weight loss approach, it’s going to be largely self-guided. There are many apps out there that can provide the brass tacks, with similar tools and nearly identical user interfaces, but most are pale shadows of the more expensive, more holistic programs. The best we found: MyFitnessPal.
MyFitnessPal is free for basic use, which includes food and fitness tracking, browsing for new ideas in both, and getting insight into how your meal choices ladder up to whole-body health. Upgrade to Premium for $10 per month to lose the ads, access detailed breakdowns of daily nutrients, set daily goals, etc.
The upgrade is a touch steeper than it is for other tracking app upgrades — most run $4–5 per month. But we found that those inexpensive alternatives were chaotically organized and slow to respond, elements that had us avoiding opening them at all. SparkPeople and Lose It! both came with lots of lag time and finicky search bars that made us hesitant to launch the apps, let alone log in three or more times a day.
Since consistent food logging is the heart and soul of most weight loss apps, and these simple ones in particular, you have to be willing to log on time after time. With MyFitnessPal’s strong performance, we were. With the two other options, not so much.
What about Nutrisystem?
If you dislike cooking, abhor making food choices, or simply want low-calorie options shipped to your door, Nutrisystem might slot into your life. But it can get expensive, and food selection and flavor are hit-or-miss. Mostly miss. “It’s enough substance to call it a meal, but the texture of every ingredient was lacking,” our tester reported without enthusiasm.
Losing weight on autopilot is appealing. But in the age of meal-delivery services (Blue Apron happens to be Whole 30-approved) — is there really a market need for gimmicky Nutrisystem? Our taste buds tell us no. You could easily recreate its no-prep diet by stocking up on breakfast bars, Lean Cuisine lunches, and signing up with the likes of HelloFresh for fast, healthy dinners. (Rough calculations tell us this approach would be equal or less than the monthly price of Nutrisystem.)
The efficacy of Nutrisystem boils down to portion control. A tiny tray of frozen tuna casserole doesn’t provide a lot of nutrients or satisfaction, but if that’s all you have for dinner, you’re keeping calorie count low. We entered in a couple Nutrisystem meals and found their point count to be mid-high, between 7 and 9. Ultimately, tiny amounts of not-wholesome foods doesn’t teach you to eat well.
Our Top 5 Diet Programs at a Glance
- Weight Watchers: Rather than drawing hard lines for good and bad food, Weight Watchers encourages making sensible choices. Every food has a SmartPoints value, and you are allotted a certain number of SmartPoints per day. Get the most out of your budget by consuming healthy, low-point foods rather than indulgent, high-point foods.
- Noom: To help you figure out how to prioritize or limit food items, Noom offers color coding. Green means go for it — “green” foods include veggies and grains, and these should make up a solid 30% of your diet. “Yellow” foods include lean meats and starches, and these can account for a touch more — 45%. “Red” foods (red meats and sweets) should appear less than both green and yellow, around 25%. When you log meals, the app lets you know how well you’re aligning with these proportions.
- The Mayo Clinic Diet: Adopt five good habits, cut five bad habits, set your sights on an achieving an additional 5. In addition to these lifestyle recommendations (Eat breakfast. Don’t eat in front of the TV), Mayo Clinic suggests eating primarily vegetables and fruit, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and restricting fats and sweets.
- MyFitnessPal: An app widely recommended by trainers and fitness enthusiasts, MyFitnessPal is great for tracking macros. Goal macros: 50% carbs, 30% fat, 20% protein. It further breaks these general guidelines into specific gram amounts that make it easy to see how some macros add up quick (carbs) and others don’t (protein — hitting 64 grams takes conscious effort!).
- Nutrisystem: You’ve heard the ads: “I get to eat pasta, hamburgers, pizza, muffins!” The reason you can have all those favorite, beige-colored foods and still lose weight is not because they’ve cracked the code for healthy carbs. Instead, shelf-stable Nutrisystem meals come in very small portions.
A Day on Each Diet