There are fewer things more dreaded than the New Year's resolution.
For millions of Americans each year, that means deciding to drop a few--or tens --of pounds. It also means picking a diet from a number of confusing programs: low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, pre-made, points-counting, and so on. The options can be exhausting and once committed, it is hard to start over if the diet is less than compatible with your habits--and your bank account.
That's why we evaluated the first-week costs of seven popular weight-loss programs. After all, the initial week often requires the greatest personal and financial investment.
We calculated the pre-tax and pre-shipping costs for the seven diets as an average consumer might: by drawing up a grocery list. Using the New York-based online grocer Fresh Direct, we shopped for the ingredients needed to make each meal on a seven-day plan. To calculate for NutriSystem, we simply shopped at the company's Web site for seven days of meals, snacks and desserts. Though certain diets have food products available at the store or online, these were not added into the cost unless specified by the menu.
The cost of each diet includes any required seasonings, condiments, dressings and supplements, with the exception of salt and pepper. Though we expect most consumers to have a bottle of dressing in the refrigerator, we could not pick and choose which to omit from various diets, and thus all were included. Total costs also include the price of a book, membership, or in the case of the detox diet, a juicer. We also assume that the cost of the diet will decrease considerably after the first week's costs are incurred and the dieter's pantry is stocked with specific mainstays. Costs are estimated as food prices vary nationwide.
In Pictures: What Your Diet Is Likely To Cost
We found that consumers on such programs as NutriSystem, the Zone, The Abs Diet, The 5-Factor Diet, South Beach, Weight Watchers and the Martha's Vineyard Diet Detox can expect to spend as little as $100 and as much as $385 during the first week.
Surprisingly, the diet with the fewest menu choices--the Martha's Vineyard Diet Detox--costs as much as Weight Watchers: Both totaled about $385. The 5-Factor Diet, engineered by celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, came in a close third at $380. The price of supplements and a juicer were included for the detox diet, while the cost of membership added to the bottom line of joining Weight Watchers. At $74 for women and $82 for men, NutriSystem was the cheapest option, but included only pre-packaged foods and no fresh fruits or vegetables.
The average American household of four spends $254.10 a week on food, not including alcohol and fast food items, according to the Census' latest Statistical Abstract, which surveyed 5,000 households of varying sizes.
At any given time, millions of Americans are on a diet--and their dollars are in demand. The weight-loss market is fiercely competitive and reportedly exceeds $40 billion a year in revenue. As high-profile brands move away from identifying their plans as diets and instead as a lifestyle, companies will increasingly offer more options for personalization and taste preferences. In our roundup, there's room for everything from quesadillas to Canadian bacon to chocolate shakes.
Dieting has become close to a national obsession in recent years, particularly as the debate over obesity has gained more attention. Some experts are sensing a noticeable shift in the opinions of average Americans where food is concerned. "I think people are slowly transforming in terms of how they think about food," says Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "I think people want to personalize their diets. [They're] not sticking to one diet, but incorporating what works for them into their lifestyle."
Zied's observations have been borne out recently by Kraft, which sells South Beach "convenience food" products, and Weight Watchers. Both companies have abandoned the word "diet" and traded it in for more upbeat words: "living" and "lifestyle."
Part of the trend may have to do with a growing expectation of personalization in various industries, including technology and medicine, and the increasingly popular branding of certain foods as organic and local, which conveys a message about one's worldview or belief system. Consumer research also shows that dieters are in need of permanent solutions instead of quick fixes.
"When we asked consumers about how they diet for weight loss, one of the big things they tell us is that health goes out the window. There is a focus on the short term," says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak,director of health and nutrition for the International Food Information Council, an industry-backed non-profit organization. "There's an interest to promote a healthy lifestyle vs. a diet from a health point of view and a business perspective."
It's no surprise then that most of the diets that we evaluated encourage flavorful and fresh meals, including such dishes as Spicy Jumbo Shrimp with Black Bean Dip and a Banana Split Smoothie. In fact, plentiful use of spices, seasonings and condiments noticeably increased the grocery bills for several of the diets. The 5-Factor Diet, for example, calls for more obscure items like ground cumin, sesame seeds and dried sage.
Protein often came in the form of high-quality seafood like orange roughy and scallops as well as lean steaks and tenderloins. Health-conscious snacks included melon, almonds and blueberries. The variety across meals defies what we think of as traditional dieting and is bound to please the palate, but often added substantially to total cost.
One is rarely bored on these diets, but buying different ingredients for about two dozen distinct meals, snacks and desserts adds up. Following a single week of the Weight Watcher's Flex Plan menu, for example, required purchasing more than 100 ingredients, while the Abs Diet required more than 75.
This strategy might backfire. Dr. George Blackburn, associate director of the Division of Nutrition at the Harvard Medical School, says expecting an average consumer to consistently venture beyond their favorite meals or foods can be cost prohibitive while also inviting failure.
"We have our golden oldies," he says. "You can't re-engineer these things. There are three or four favorites, and that's how you eat most of your meals."
Dr. Blackburn advocates developing a familiarity with cooking and meal preparation so that a dieter isn't reliant on cookbooks, ready-made entrées or what some might call gimmicks.
While a regimen like the Martha's Vineyard Diet Detox, for example, might promise to help you shed 21 pounds in 21 days by cleansing the system with soups, water and juices, Dr. Blackburn says that dieters can lose one to two pounds a week if they cut portion sizes, exercise regularly and nurture good habits like getting a full night's sleep and not skipping breakfast.
"All of these diets work a little way," he says. The magic bullet, according to Blackburn, isn't someone else's hype-driven diet but a practical approach. "Choose a variety of food that tastes good, and commit yourself to a structure."
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