Packaged Meals and Clinics - Nutrisystem, Medifast, Jenny Craig, Etc - Why Alternatives aren't inferior to big name plans (Medifast, IP, Nutrisystem...)

07-30-2012, 03:24 AM
Just want to say in advance that I think the topic is worth discussing (even if I'm not starting the discussion off very well), and I think all perspectives will be helpful. I'm not meaning this as an attack on anyone or any product. I have the utmost respect most of the companies I mention (even if I do think there are equivalent if not better alternatives that are cheaper).

In the past, I lost weight well on meal replacement and meal delivery plans (plans such as Nutrisystem, The Cambridge Diet, Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating...)

The biggest drawback, has always been financial. Even before I had to go on disability, when I was making (what I thought was) good money, I had to do some very creative budgeting to afford them even for a limited time (sadly at times, even maxing out credit cards to do so).

Now on disability, and on an even tighter budget, I've been wondering whether I could duplicate the nutrition and effectiveness of these plans without jeopardizing nutrition balance or safety.

All-things-being-equal, I would prefer a whole-foods, paleo-based, home-peparedd diet. However, right now all things aren't equal. My weight loss has been stalling, and with some personal issues increasing my stress level (and reducing the amount of time and energy I have for food planning and preparation), I've been thinking that a meal-replacement or prepackaged meal program sounds pretty good to me right now.

At this point, I'm considering this a short-term solution to a short-term problem. I fully intend to return to whole-food, paleo-principled eating soon, but the weight loss stalling has inspired me to consider some other options.

As I've been comparing the nutrient profiles and ingredient labels of the name brand and alternative foods, and comparing between plans, I'm finding that there are far fewer differences between the alternatives and the big name brands, except for price and (with some) the medical supervision, accountability of supervised weigh-ins and the support offered by some programs. However in most cases (even without medical coverage) the medical supervision, accountability and support are STILL less expensive when purchases seperately.

Now whenever this issue is raised with these companies (especially on their own websites) or with folks on the programs, the first and best argument I've ever heard againt using substitutions is that the name brand plans (Medifast, Nutrisystem, Ideal Protein, Jenny Craig...) are "scientifically, and specifically formulated to meet or exceed nutritional needs, and that using substitutes is risky and the nutritional balance will not be as good, even if you substitute foods with similar nutrients and macro nutrients (calorie, carb, fiber, protein, sodium.... content and proportions) and even if you also match for ingredients.

Sounds logical right? But here's why I think it doesn't make nearly as much sense as it seems to. With just a little bit of knowledge in nutrition, it becomes very obvious that there's not a tremendous amount of science behind these foods (at least if you choose alternatives that are similar in calorie, carb, fat, protein, fiber, and sodium levels).

First of all, many of the foods of alternate products are IDENTICAL to the name-brands. So much so that it's obvious that they're identical products. If the food labels are virtually identical (same ingredients, listed in the same order, with the same carb, protein, fiber, fat, sodium, calcium.... counts) it's a safe bet that the food is not only made from the same recipe, but it's also made in the same factory, and the only difference is the label (sometimes the packaging is even virtually identical - at least the packets INSIDE the box).

Also, most of the big-name plans allow you to mix-and-match meals without forcing you to buy certain combinations or even a certain number of combinations or sometimes any combinations at all. Instead (with most of the plans) you can choose the same food/packet choices for every or almost every day if you want to (so where's the balance in that? If the nutrition labels and ingredients were more similar, this might make sense, but when you check out the nutrition label, they nutrient profiles are similar, but there's enough variation that eating the same breakfast every day should be a problem if there's some carefully-designed balance in mind.

The only plan like this I've ever been on that could justifiably (knowing what I know about nutrition) claim that there plan is specifically and scientifically designed, based on not easily duplicated "science" is Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating, and any other plan in which no substitutions are allowed. Or at the very least plans that require you to choose many different choices (if you can pick the same 4 or even 15 choices each and every time... then the variety available in alternative foods, is also going to be sufficient).

At the very least, a wide range of alternatives would be more balanced than a small choice of name brand foods. So if you're worried about balance, eating as much variety (both in your packet/food choices and in any home-prepared meals that are part of your plan) is the best plan (though this is just as true for the big-name plans). Taking a multiple vitamin on any of these plans is a good choice, as is medical supervision to catch any of the potential risks of very regimented plans (All diet programs recommend speaking to you doctor before starting any plan, and this really isn't an optional step if you want to avoid complications and risks that are associated with dieting of this kind, regardless of brand).

So does that mean I think name-brand plans are worthless?

Well, not exactly. It's a whole lot less work to have someone do even the overall calculations for you. If you don't know a lot about nutrition, you could have problems finding comparable alternatives (though there's a lot of cool resources on 3FC to help you match the name-brand guidelines). So there's something to be said for all the work being done for you. If you have the money and feel the trade-offs are worth the added expense. If you're willing to do some of the work yourself (and educating yourself to do it properly) there's no need for the added expense.

Another "advantage" (which is also the biggest disadvantage) is the price of name brand plans. Some are so expensive, that the average person isn't going to be able to AFFORD off-plan foods.

Similarly, price and value are associated in many people's minds. They assume that if a plan is cheap, it can't be as effective as one that is very expensive. Or because they've invested so much money into the program, they feel they can't afford to let the money go to waste. In this case, you're paying for the "mindgame." If you're that easily manipulated (into thinking that the more you spend, the better your results will be), you're going to have to spend an awful lot of money to succeed and maintain the success. Learning to find other, equally strong motivations will be more effective in the long-run (and much more economical).

And the biggest argument against the money "mindgame" is that it convinces some folks that they can't be successful if they don't have the money to start (or continue) a big-name plan. If you don't HAVE the money for a big-name plan, you migh think that all the other advantages to these plans are unavailable to you. They're not, with just a little bit of extra work on your part (as little as browsing the alternative threads for IP, Medifast, Nutrisystem....)

The coaches and weigh-ins that are often included in big-name plans is HUGE advantage (for me, it's the biggest. I need the accountability of a weekly weigh-in - witnessed by someone other than myself and/or a close family number). (Un)fortunately, I need the help of strangers (many of whom have become friends) to keep me accoutable. So for that I choose TOPS (take off pounds sensibly, a not-for-profit international weight loss organization with local chapters all over the US, Canada, and elsewhere). With TOPS, even if I lost nothing would cost me less than $90 per year, but with weight loss I can get "paid" to lose weight, because my chapter gives free monthly dues (worth $5 per month) to any member who lost weight the previous month. And if I'm the best loser at a meeting, I win about $2. If I'm the best loser for the month, I win $5, and if I'm the best winner for the quarter, I get $10. And there are other prizes for other contests and challenges. I'm actually coming out money ahead, this year (last year I just about broke even).

I am NOT saying at all that name-brands are never the better choice, but the reasons usually used to argue against the alternatives, just don't make sense. They rely on people not understanding nutrition enough to trust their own judgement in determining whether alternative products are comparable.

I will say, that I do feel it's even MORE important to have close medical supervision on alternatives, but I also strongly believe that NEITHER at-home-your-own-designed plans NOR big-name plans should be done without close medical supervision.

There are some quite significant risks to any kind of weight loss dieting, but especially vlcd (very low calorie) and low-variety diets (and most meal-replacement diets are low-variety diets, heck so are many at-home plans).

Medical supervision (supervised by doctor, dietitian, diabetes educator, nurse practitioner...) doesn't prevent the risks, it just increases the likelihood of catching problems before they become life-threatening such as organ damage (such as to heart, liver, kidneys, and gall bladder) and hyponatremia (low-blood sodium levels, which can cause sudden death from cardiac arrest).

Hyponatremia (which is often caused by drinking too much water, or eating too little salt, or losing too much sodium in strenuous exercise) can kill suddenly and with very little warning, which is why some of the big-name plans either add significant amounts of sodium to the food, and/or require a mineral or electrolyte supplement (such as sea salt).

I know many people will disagree with me on this, and I'm not saying any of this to stir controversy. I'm confident that opposing viewpoints will make a valuable addition to this thread. The discussion is important, even if EVERYONE disagrees with me on this (but some of you agree, right).

I would especially love to hear from registered dietitians and diabetes educators on the soundness of my arguments, or anyone else with a good argument.

My own qualifications are not incredibly impressive, but not competely worthless either. While, I did have a fair amount of developmental nutrition woven into my coursework while earning my master's degree in developmental psychology, most of my knowlege has been way of and the public library (buying and borrowing not just popular resources, but also textbooks and professional resources).

So if you disagree (or agree) especially if you have information to add (on either side of the argument, I think this thread could be a very valuable research (although really only if other people contribute to it, otherwise it's just me on my soapbox venting... in which case... nevermind).

08-06-2012, 05:10 PM
Kaplods I don't think it's a nevermind. I enjoyed reading your post and think along the same lines.

08-20-2012, 03:55 PM
It's not a never mind, good post. I pretty much agree with what you say and have no other information to add.

I think the name products you mention differ in category and the cheaper alternatives that have the same ingredients also differ in category, e.g., IP and its alternatives are different from Medifast and its alternatives. Some of the alternatives differ in taste than the others in that category. I've tried them all lol. I always prefer the most expensive kind but I don't know what that proves.

08-20-2012, 06:22 PM
I've been doing a lot of reading and have found more similarities than differences between Medifast and Ideal Protein. The biggest difference between the two seems to be that the Medifast meals tend to be smaller (but allow more packets, so the difference balances out). Also there is a great deal of overlap, so that even though Medifast packets tend to be smaller/lower in calorie, the highest calorie medifast packets are nearly identical to the lower calorie IP packets.

Some of the IP packets are sold under a different (cheaper) brand (identical recipe and ingredients, only a different lable. I don't remember which brand, but someone here pointed out that the company owned both IP and this other brand and the nutritional information and ingredient labels were identical. I remember looking into it at that time, and finding this was indeed true.

When a company owns two brands, with identical ingredient labels, this generally means the only difference IS the label. The food is made in the same batch, only the label changes.

And even THEN people will tend to perceive the more expensive brand as better tasting (unless it's a blind taste test).

When people were told which brand was the more expensive, they usually picked that brand as the better tasting (even if the products were actually switched and the cheap brand was the one they thought was more expensive).

My father delivered bread for Interstate Brands, now Interstate Bakeries (I think Hostess bought them out), the makers of Butternut bread, Roman Meal, Zingers and other Dolly Madison products.

As he was stocking the shelves a customer complained that the store no longer carried the Red Fox bread brand. My father explained that the Red Fox bread was the same bread as Butternut. She argued with him saying that the Red Fox bread tasted "so much better" than Butternut.

My father explained that they were the exact same bread, made on the exact same assembly-line and that the only difference had been the bag that the bread was put into. As the Butternut brand became more popular, the company discontinued the Red Fox label (but the breads had always been the same bread).

The woman got even angrier, swearing that she KNEW my father to be lying because she loved the Red Fox bread and didn't like the Butternut bread at all, and she could taste the difference.

A blind taste-test of the various meal packets would be extremely interesting.

Right now, I've switched from my semi-paleo exchange plan to "The Simple Diet."

I strongly suspect that The Simple Diet is modeled after HMR (Health Management Resources), because a great deal of the research cited in the book is of hospital and clinic based programs, and HMR is one of the most commonly used brands in such settings (if not THE most common brand).

Also, if you check out the HMR website, the plan is identical , such as the recommendation of 5 or more servings plus of vegetables, and some of the research quoted on the HMR website is almost word-for-word the same as some of the information in the book (for example, the research finding that those who ate the most fruits and veggies lost the most weight).

Meal Replacement plans have always worked well for me, but I found them unsustainable - not mainly because of the lack of variety - or because I got sick of them - but because of the expense. I would use the best plan I could scrape up the money to afford (and I usually did have to scrimp and save to afford them). Eventually the money would run out, or I'd decide that it was time to transition to "real food," and that's where the problems would occur.

Meal Replacement plans, even the cheapest OTC plans (like SlimFast) are often too expensive for folks on super tight budgets. And the cheapest also tend to have the fewest choices (so monotony does become a problem).

And even the cheapest are pretty expensive when you calculate the costs of the actual ingredients.

I do love that "The Simple Diet" applies the meal replacement model in a way that can be fulfilled with foods available in the grocery store in a wide range of price points.

I was shocked to find that some Banquet meals (which frequently go on sale locally for 88 cents) fit The Simple Diet guidelines (for the meals, less than 5g of fat and more than 10g of protein and under 300 calories).

Also by giving the fat and protein guidelines (I was carb guidelines had been given as well) it makes it possible to make meals and meal replacements from scratch.

In terms of the ready-to-eat meals and meal replacement,s the cheaper meals do contain WAY more sodium than the more expensive meals, but unless a person has health issues that require a low-sodium diet, that doesn't have to be an insurmountable problem.

As a rule, meal replacement programs have been outside the reach of people on the tighest budgets, because even the cheapest products were still pretty expensive.

Hubby and I went through a really rough couple years where our food budget was incredibly low (about $50 on average, and some months as little as $25).

We could actually eat fairly well (flavor and satisfaction wise), but had to relly on the cheapest of foods in every food category (rice, beans, canned mackerel, pork roast, super cheap ground beef, chicken leg quarters, tvp, cabbage, carrots, onion, celery, potatoes, bananas and occasionally apples).

We made a LOT of soup, and we bought mainly marked-down Walmart meats (we knew the mark-down days and would go early on those days to get the mark-downs). We bought marked-down bananas, and we bought bread from the discount/overstock bakery. We bought shelf-stable foods from salvage groceries....

It's extremely hard though to find dirt-cheap protein (even the decent choices like beans come with a lot of carbohydrate attached).

And since a high-carbohydrate diet (even of good carbs) drives hunger and appetite through the rough, it was extremely difficult to lose weight on a super-cheap diet (even making most foods from scratch).

Sadly at the time, I was also VERY ill with health problems, and not only did hubby have to work to support us, he also had to do most of the food prep, all of the chores, AND take care of me, since I was almost bed-bound. I couldn't even take a shower unassisted.

That meant we made HUGE batches of food (often high-carb rice, pasta, and bean-based dishes).

Over the past seven years, it's become something of a personal mission to focus on, learn about, and pass along what I've learned to others on the topic of dieting cheaply, because it is very difficult to do, especially on the tightest budgets.

Until recently, I have assumed that meal-replacement plans just weren't practical or even possible on the super-tight budget. That's becoming less and less true, though.

When a person has a lot of leeway (or even just a little wiggle-room) in their food budget, they have more options and price per meal is less of an issue than when the budget is so tight that spending even a few more dollars on food can mean not being able to pay the phone bill.

08-28-2012, 10:58 AM
Oh gosh yes about the budget! Years ago for us Slim Fast would be too cost prohibitive, now things (knock on wood) are better in that department. But I'm also using powder versus RTD because the ones I can drink in RTD are too expensive for me (lactose issues) and I don't do soy (except for actual edamane and sometimes tofu).

Kaplods your posts always give me a lot of food for thought. Thank you!

08-28-2012, 05:56 PM
Oh gosh yes about the budget! Years ago for us Slim Fast would be too cost prohibitive, now things (knock on wood) are better in that department. But I'm also using powder versus RTD because the ones I can drink in RTD are too expensive for me (lactose issues) and I don't do soy (except for actual edamane and sometimes tofu).

Kaplods your posts always give me a lot of food for thought. Thank you!

RTD drinks often have too much extra in them (preservatives, etc.) unless you buy the better brands whom know they are healthier in which they charge a lot more for them than regular. I prefer the RTD drinks when possible, but I will only buy them if I can catch them on a deal to buy them in bulk from the internet or however. Sometimes they are on clearance in the stores also, but i've noticed when they are like that they are either overstock and not selling too well due to pricing or whatever other reasons, OR they have too many too close to expiration and must get rid of as much of it as possible to maintain a profit.

08-29-2012, 11:46 AM
FattyFatFat fortunately I am a SAHM so I can get by without them and tend to get the egg powder from GNC or Muscle Milk. Except for Atkins I loved the taste of all the RTD I've tried (about 6 different brands), but again my stomach didn't like them and cost wise I can't afford the lactose-free (and I don't do soy) ones powder works thankfully :D

09-16-2012, 07:29 PM
Not to be too very cynical, but the big name brand companies want total loyalty to their products. They are going to say whatever they can legally to convince the consumer their product is better. That way they can continue to charge the big prices. If a competitor comes along, that cuts into the profits. As consumers we can judge what is best for us, in my not so humble opinion.

09-18-2012, 02:56 PM
There is a thread on the Medifast board about alternatives that fit the MF nutrition profile.

Basically for me...I spent $4k and went to a diet doctor for a vlcd (New Directions, made by Robard, which also makes New Lifestyle, and others that sell that line). I lost 55 pounds, and couldn't afford it anymore. Couldn't afford the maintenance program. Guess what? It came back.

I'm starting over, but now on my own diet. For shakes, I either use plain old soy protein (from the bulk bins at the health food store, very cheap compared to the big names), or Jillian's Natural (no fake sweetener, she uses stevia, I buy it at Sams Club). But mainly whole foods. I'm vegetarian, and after the doctor diet, my body went into shock and I found I had a wheat allergy when I went back to "regular" food, so now I'm gluten free.

So I calculated what veg proteins in what serving sizes I can have; and by looking at Medifast, New Lifestyle, Ideal Protein, Dr. Anderson's Simple Diet, etc., I've come up with my own plan, that includes healthy, low carb veggies and limited fruit. I don't need a center anymore; I log my food and exercise into sparkpeople.

As soon as we get a new freezer, I'll be making homemade freezer meals that are portion controlled and fit the diet, without all the sodium and preservatives that are in the commercial frozen meals, and that are low-carb.

One thing the dietician at the doctor told be in fat-burning mode (ketosis) don't exceed 75 carbs/day. Being gluten free now, all my carbs are healthy vegetables and fruits now (can't do rice/grains much either as I'm diabetic!).

Thank you for posting. It reminds me that there is no "miracle" that the diet centers are peddling. They are selling convenience (shakes/meals) and shame (you are afraid to go weigh in if you gain). They are sales centers.