Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: Nutrisystem

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on April 26th, 2012)

It is Week Four of the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review. This week we are exploring the Nutrisystem Diet. Another one based on the Glycemic Index to level off and control blood sugar. Many of you may be familiar with this diet from its advertisements on TV with many celebrities like Marie Osmond, Dan Marino, and Janet Jackson among others. Let’s take a look at what makes up this program.

There is not a lot of detailed information available unless you pay to be part of their program so this information is all taken from other reviews and the promotional material Nutrisystem provides on their website for both the public and healthcare practitioners.

Nutrisystem is a diet program where you order pre-made food from them for 28 days (or more if needed). These meals are microwave ready and portion controlled. They are low in sodium as well as saturated and trans-fats but high in Omega-3 fats and complex carbohydrates. Followers are encouraged to supplement these meals with “fresh groceries” (apparently elaborated upon in the actual program material to be fruit, vegetables, salad, protein, and milk, and specifically excludes the simple sugars, alcohol, and processed foods1). This is meant to simplify the diet.

It takes the thinking out of healthy meal planning and helps dieters get accustomed to proper portion sizes and smart carbs.
-Delphine Carroll (NutriSystem vice president for public relations)
[taken from WebMD Expert Review]1

There are definitely pros and cons to this but we’ll get into those a little later. Like the other diet programs we have gleefully dissected, Nutrisystem has a multitude of online support materials as well as guides and booklets they send in the initial package to all their subscribers. These include personal tracking tools for weight, food intake, and physical activity, peer support systems like blogs and discussion groups, telephone and chat room counselling, and their “Mindset Makeover Guide” which acts to encourage mental and behavioural healthy habits. The other tool set they have which I love is exercise guides. The program encourages their My Daily 3 which suggests 30 minutes of activity every day that can be broken down into 3, 10 minute periods or kept together as a whole and can be personalized to the person’s exercise and intensity preferences2, 3.

After completion of the 28 day or reaching your goal weight (according to the company most people stay on the meals for 10-11 weeks1) subscribers are supposed to transition into maintained weight control on their own without the pre-made meals. To aid this they provide a “Transition & Maintenance Guide”. This is where I have my biggest problem with the Nutrisystem program. In my mind, this is the equivalent of taking someone who does not know how to swim and throwing them in a pool with only a manual on how to swim and expecting them to reach the other end of the lane. If habits are to be formed and maintained there needs to be a learning curve and I am not alone in this opinion.

“One of the most important aspects of weight control is learning how to shop and cook healthier foods, and this program does not accomplish that critical aspect,”
-American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD
[taken from WebMD Expert Review]1

Now I’ll get into the pros and cons of the pre-made meals like I promised before. It is great that the meals have a low GI value and are high in the great nutrients we need but what nothing I have found has been able to tell me is if the diet followers are told WHY they are eating this. Those of you who have read my blogs before know this is a huge point for me. It is so important to understand what it is we are eating. This is the reason I saved this pros and cons list till this point in the discussion. Without the lessons of why we are buying the groceries and what each food is giving us how are we supposed to do it on our own? One thing Nutrisystem does teach well is portion control. They even have portion sizers for when we start making our own meals again, but without knowing how to pick complex carbs and good protein people are going to find them are still hungry after a meal and end up snacking more. This is why I maintain that quality must come before quantity.

One other thing that the Nutrisystem meals teach us is that it is acceptable to have dessert with every meal. The desserts that come in the pre-made meals range from cake to pudding to ice cream sandwiches. But once we stop ordering the pre-made meals we are now in the habit of having these types of desserts every day and it is very difficult to find these types of confectionary that are low in the Glycemic Index and not going to make us fat.

This point also brings up another worry that I have not been able to confirm or dismiss. If things like apple strudel are being delivered and fit in the Nutrisystem, low GI diet how are they made? The simple sugar usually used to make these items must be replaced by something and it probably isn’t through complex carbohydrates. This makes me think that there are artificial sweeteners being used and this is not a good idea. There is significant evidence suggesting they are harmful in many different ways.

On the other hand Nutrisystem has both a diabetic and vegetarian option. This cannot be said about any other diet we’ve looked at yet.

So my overall impression of the Nutrisystem Diet Program is that it is an excellent short-term diet to help with weight loss but it is extremely difficult to transition from this system to long-term healthy eating. Generally, I would not recommend this diet to my patients but if someone came to me already using it I would definitely encourage them to finish it and supplement the program with lessons on why it works and how to do it on their own.

Thanks for reading. The Helpful or Harmful Diet Review will return next Thursday. Check back and see what diet we sink our teeth into.
Dr. Ben

Resources
1. WebMD Expert Review

2. Nutrisystem, Information for Health Practitioners

3. Wikipedia, Nutrisystem

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