Diet Bake-Off: Jenny Craig Wins, Says Consumer Reports

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If you’re looking to drop some weight, Jenny Craig may be your go-to diet plan, according to Consumer Reports, which just released its third round of diet-plan ratings. Jenny Craig came in first place, beating out stalwarts like Weight Watchers, Atkins and Ornish.

The magazine’s ratings of six popular diet plans were based on the programs’ adherence to the 2010 U.S. dietary guidelines and the results of previously published clinical trials on the diets’ weight-loss effectiveness.

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Jenny Craig — which combines personalized counseling (over the phone and in person) with portion-controlled, prepackaged meals — netted an overall score of 85 points. Slim-Fast 3-2-1 came in second with 63 points, and Weight Watchers finished third with 57 points. The Zone (54 points), Ornish (48 points) and Atkins (48 points) rounded out the bottom three.

What ultimately gave Jenny Craig the edge, the magazine reported, was a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in Oct. 2010, which found that 92% of the 442 women in the study stuck with Jenny Craig for two years — a remarkable level of compliance — and lost 8% of their original body weight on average.

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Nancy Metcalf, a senior program editor at Consumer Reports Health, wrote about the methods the magazine used to tally the ratings:

[J]ust to be clear, we didn’t conduct these clinical trials ourselves, as we’re not a biomedical research institute. Instead we scoured the scientific literature, and our in-house data scientists crunched the numbers to come up with Ratings for each diet’s long- and short-term weight-loss results and dropout rates. Meanwhile, our food experts analyzed menus from each diet for the other critical piece of the Ratings — nutritional quality.

Indeed the JAMA study that showed good results for Jenny Craig was funded by Jenny Craig. When asked about the potential conflict of interest, Metcalf told NPR’s Shots blog that there isn’t a lot of other independently funded data:

It would be great if more such studies of popular diets were published, given the amount of money consumers spend on them, but in the absence the next best thing is randomized clinical trials funded by the diet programs but of sufficient quality to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. … I’d like to make the point that by funding clinical research good enough to pass peer review, all six of the diets we’ve rated are more credible than the countless diets out there that assert their efficacy based on little more than a few cherry-picked personal testimonials.

But while Jenny Craig edged out its competition, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best program for everyone. It all depends on your personal preferences: if you’re not a fan of prepackaged meals, Jenny Craig may not be a good fit. If you want to be able to eat out and cook your own food, lots of people vouch for the Weight Watchers point-based program.

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The other big consideration is, of course, price. Plans like Atkins and Ornish cost nothing extra (unless you want to buy their books). By contrast, Weight Watchers’ in-person group meetings and website access cost $39.95 per month. As for Jenny Craig, annual membership starts at $399 per year plus food, though the program runs frequent sales; Consumer Reports said it paid $264, plus $65 shipping, for two weeks’ worth of food.

Bottom line: the point is to figure out what works best for you, because in the end, that’s the diet you’ll be most likely to stay on. “If you’re forcing yourself on a diet you hate, it’s going to be really hard to stick with long-term,” Kathleen Melanson, associate professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island, told Consumer Reports.

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The full ratings can be viewed on Consumer Reports‘ website, with a subscription.