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 amazon.com 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).