A recent issue of Consumers Reports ranked several commercial weight loss plans including Slim-Fast, Weight Watchers, The Zone fast weight-loss plan, Dean Ornish’s “Eat More Weigh Less” low-fat diet, Atkins, Nutrisystem, and Jenny Craig. The one that came out on top? Jenny Craig.
But, as I’ve pointed out countless times when it comes to research like this, God- or in this case the devil—is in the details.
A two-year study in the Journal of the American Medical Association gave Jenny Craig the “edge” according to Consumers Reports. In that study, 442 overweight and obese women were put on the program and 92% of them stuck with it for two years, a rather impressive level of compliance. Average weight loss over two years: 16 pounds. Not “Biggest Loser” territory by a long shot, but still respectable.
But as my friend, health reporter Tara Parker Pope pointed out in the NY Times, Consumers Reports failed to note the fact that the women in the study didn’t pay a dime to sign up for the Jenny Craig program. This is important. Real Jenny Craig customers would have shelled out about $6600 bucks in membership fees and food during that two year period. You have to figure that price tag would have a pretty big effect on compliance, at least in the real world. Even the director of the Brown Medical School weight control and diabetes research center—Rena R. Wing—commented in an editorial in JAMA that the results of the study were very likely influenced by the fact that the program was free.
In recent years, I’ve noticed some interesting facts emerge from some of these diet studies that many people- including the media reporting on the studies- overlook. And that’s the wide range of individual responses within a diet group.
For example, a hypothetical study pitting Atkins against a conventional low-fat calorie controlled diet might- I repeat, might- show equal weight loss between the two groups. But when you look at the data you find that even though weight loss on average might have been the same with the two groups, within each group there are people who do spectacularly well and people who do really badly.
On average the two groups may perform the same, but clearly some programs are a much better fit with certain people than with others. Those individual differences- which can be substantial- get lost when you just look at the averages.
So what does Jenny Craig- or Weight Watchers, for that matter- offer people?
They provide accountability and group support.
Clearly I’m not a fan of prepackaged prepared meals (be they from Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers or Nutrisystem). Prepackaged prepared meals are usually loaded with sodium and chemicals and rarely bear much resemblance to real foods. Buying prepared meals also doesn’t teach people anything about how to eat in the real world and clearly can’t be sustained forever.
And the nutrition information these programs offer continue to be mired in the antiquated nutrition theories of the 80’s, where fat is avoided, carbs are king and you don’t need all that much protein. Nutrition info, in other words, that’s way past its expiration date.
But I give props to these program for providing support and accountability, which have enormous impact on weight loss success.
Now if only they could get the nutrition component right!