Weight loss programs can be useful systems to help people stick to a healthy diet routine.
Having a system you can follow that gives you guidelines for diet, exercise, or both is incredibly helpful when it comes to shedding excess body fat, and the right weight loss program will help improve your fitness and overall health as well.
With weight loss being such a hot topic, there’s an almost unlimited number of weight loss programs to choose from, but only some of them are worth your time.
Our team has researched the field and found the 10 best weight loss programs you can join:
1. Jenny Craig
Among commercial weight loss plans reviewed by independent scientists, Jenny Craig is the top performer. Compared to a standard nutrition counseling program (the “control group” for weight loss studies), people who do Jenny Craig lose 4.9% more weight.
Part of the reason for this advantage is probably the personal consultant you talk to weekly to make sure you’re staying on target to meet your goals.
BodyNutrition’s 2019 weight loss program winner.
2. Mayo Clinic Diet
The Mayo Clinic diet comes backed with the support of one of the top medical centers in the world. The diet program, based on the book of the same name, is centered around eating lots of fruit and vegetables, combined with whole grains.
There’s a two-week intensive start to the plan, which helps you lose up to six to ten pounds, then you’ll lose about a pound or two per week until you’ve reached your target weight.
(Formerly Weight Watchers) You’d think an old standby like Weight Watchers would be behind the times, but the research shows it is actually pretty competitive.
With weight loss rates of 2.6% better than a typical nutrition and activity program, the points-based system the plan uses doesn’t make any foods off-limits.
This makes it easy to follow, but if you have health issues like metabolic syndrome, you might need a different plan that cuts back on sugars and refined carbs.
4. HMR Program
If you want to lose a lot of weight fast, the HMR program is the way to go.
It’s a pretty restrictive diet, which has benefits and drawbacks.
The upside is that you can lose over 4% more weight in a short period of time on this plan, but not everyone is able to stick with it in the long run–it performs worse when studies look at the long-term results.
5. Atkins Diet
The Atkins Diet was one of the original low-carb diets to gain popularity. According to independent scientific research, studies vary on its efficacy: depending on which one you look at, the benefits range from a meager 0.1 to a respectable 2.9% improvement in weight lost compared to standard nutritional counseling.
One drawback, according to a meta-analysis of weight loss programs, is an increased rate of constipation among Atkins Diet adherents (1).
6. South Beach Diet
The South Beach Diet has been around for almost 15 years, but evidence for its efficacy is still missing.
There have been a few studies on the South Beach Diet, but they were all poor-quality, so it’s difficult to assess the strength of the program. The approach of avoiding sugars and refined carbohydrates, and favoring whole grains and fibers, is a solid one, though.
7. Zone Diet
The Zone Diet takes a low-carb approach to weight loss and combines this approach with a frequent-eating strategy to keep the body feeling full and prevent food cravings.
One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that it outperformed the Atkins Diet and Weight Watchers over the course of a year, but other research on its efficacy is lacking (2).
8. Flat Belly Diet
Despite its fad-diet name, the Flat Belly Diet takes a very sound nutritional approach. It’s based off a mediterranean diet pattern, involving healthy fats, lots of fruits and vegetables, and almost no red meat.
What’s less clear is whether it’s effective at keeping people to stick to the program. There isn’t any good data on how effective it actually is.
Nutrisystem focuses on small portions and frequent meals to make its weight loss program work.
Like other non-restrictive weight loss programs, its main weakness is that it may not help you address metabolic issues related to overconsumption of sugars and refined carbohydrates–it’s very possible to be skinny and metabolically unhealthy.
10. Whole30 Diet
The Whole30 diet is paleo on steroids. It recommends eliminating sugar, grains, legumes, dairy, soy, and alcohol completely from your diet for a month.
This will almost certainly be effective, since it will force you to eat pretty much only meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and eggs. The real question is whether you can maintain such an aggressive diet indefinitely. Adherence to this program is low, which is why it ends up at the bottom of the rankings.
Who should join a weight loss program?
Pretty much anyone off the street (overweight or not) can name the ingredients of a successful weight loss program, but the actual statistics on how people do when they try to lose weight are pretty dismal.
According to one study, only about one in five people who begin a dieting program will succeed—with a fairly generous definition of “success” being losing at least 10% of your initial weight and maintaining that weight loss one year out from the start of the program (1).
The long-term success rates (four or five years out) are, as you might imagine, even worse. Successful weight loss is so rare that there is actually a national registry of people who have successfully lost weight and maintained it (2).
You could write an entire book on the reasons why people fail to succeed at weight loss programs on their own. Indeed, many books and scientific articles have been written on exactly this topic! The reasons range from the difficulty of overriding your brain’s set-point for energy balance to social factors to the pervasive presence of unhealthy food.
Good weight loss programs are a formalized way to combat all of these pressures that make weight loss an uphill battle. Could you go it alone? Sure, and many people do. But statistically, you stand a better chance of weight loss if you join up with a program.
Across a wide range of randomized controlled trials, people who are randomly assigned to a commercial weight loss program fare better than those who are randomly assigned to control interventions, which generally consist of broad advice or individual counseling sessions on diet and exercise, without the rigor and formalism of planned weight loss programs.
If you have tried and failed at weight loss before, signing up for a weight loss program is a way to boost your chances at success a second time around.
There are benefits and drawbacks to the various types of weight loss programs on the market, which we’ll discuss below, but the most common finding from the scientific literature is that almost any formal, organized weight loss program stands a better chance of success than going it alone.
How we ranked
To make our list of the best weight loss programs, we only considered formal and fully fleshed-out programs with specific guidelines. Generic dietary prescriptions, like “low carb” or “low fat,” weren’t good enough.
Part of the success of a weight loss program lies in the structure imposed by the program. Moreover, we only considered weight loss programs from legitimate companies that have demonstrated success, either through popular adoption or through rigorous scientific research.
As a result of these criteria, “diet of the month” programs and vague guidelines didn’t quality for our rankings.
Our research team capitalized on the findings of an exhaustive scientific review published in 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine which examined 45 different scientific studies on weight loss programs (39 of which were randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of modern evidence based medicine research) (3).
We based much of our overall program rankings on how specific programs fared in this meta-analysis of scientific research. It’s no accident that top performers in our rankings, like Jenny Craig and WW (formerly Weight Watchers), were the top performers in this meta-analysis.
Informed by the data from the latest scientific research, we also analyzed how practical and flexible a weight loss program is. All else equal, you’re more likely to succeed at a weight loss program that is easy to implement and follow, versus an extremely restrictive program.
Very aggressive dieting programs, like Whole30, have theoretically greater upside, but in practice they’re a lot harder to follow. Based on the research so far, more conventional programs like Jenny Craig and WW outperform the newer and more aggressive weight loss programs, which is why the latter ended up lower in our rankings.
We realize that not every weight loss program is right for everyone. Many people have had success with all of the weight loss programs on our rankings (and certainly with several programs that didn’t make the cut), so feel free to look into each program in detail to see which one sounds like the best fit for you.
The top-rated ones will give you the best statistical chance of success, but the most important part is fully committing to a weight loss program once you join up—that’s the only way you can find out if your chosen weight loss program will be successful for you.
Weight loss programs can help jump-start people to change their diet. Obesity rates are growing at a tremendous rate, and the health problems that are associated with it are increasing as well. The scientific literature makes one thing very clear: most people are unsuccessful when it comes to weight loss.
A group of experts commissioned by the National Health Institutes in 2015 described the dismal state of self-directed weight loss (3). Most often, weight lost during a diet is regained within six to nine months after the program finishes. People tend to revert back to their initial habits, and regain all the weight they lost.
Programs make weight loss easier than going it alone. A better solution than a haphazard self-directed diet and exercise program is a regimented program that provides guidelines on how to enforce a more systematic change in your lifestyle and break the old habits that led you to become overweight in the first place. This is where weight loss programs come in.
A systematic review of commercial weight loss programs published in 2016 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine described the potential benefits of weight loss programs (4).
According to the authors, a wide range of studies support the efficacy of commercial weight loss intervention programs, though the programs vary in their short and long-term success.
Two key variables to look at with a weight loss program are the initial weight lost and the long-term results one to two years after the program starts.
Initial weight loss is primarily a function of the amount of caloric restriction that a program imposes, so an intensive program like HRM Program or Optifast, both of which involve fairly strong caloric intake restriction, can produce substantial weight losses in the short term.
The benefits can be up to 4% greater weight loss when compared to a standard nutritional counseling program. The question with these is whether you can sustain the results long-term.
Unfortunately, many weight loss programs don’t have the necessary long-term follow-up studies yet to definitively prove their efficacy, but research is ongoing.
As an example, commercial programs like weight watchers and Jenny Craig result in losses from 2.6 (Weight Watchers) to 4.9% (Jenny Craig) greater than standard counseling, which functions as the “control group” in the studies that examine the efficacy of weight loss programs.
Long-term weight loss appears to be more of a function of lifestyle choices than specific food choices. One study on people in the National Weight Control Registry, a large group of people who have lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off for at least five years, found that key weight maintenance behaviors include a consistent diet pattern, not skipping breakfast, and exercising at least an hour per day (5).
All of these are additional reasons to follow a weight loss program consistently versus trying to “wing it,” only to revert back to your usual habits later.
Regardless of how it happens, the direct benefits of weight loss are numerous. Even relatively modest amounts of weight loss can result in positive health benefits. According to a review study by D.J. Goldstein at Indiana University School of Medicine, even if you only lose less than 10% of your body weight, you can see a substantial improvement in markers associated with chronic disease (6).
Goldstein’s study examined several weight-loss studies on obese individuals, and found that modest amounts of weight loss were able to improve blood sugar control, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.
These blood markers are all risk factors for cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes, which are each responsible for a huge number of deaths every year.
Among studies that directly measured longevity (i.e. life expectancy), modest weight losses resulted in a significant increase in longevity when comparing people who lost a modest amount of weight to people who did not lose weight. This lends further support for the theory that even a little bit of lost weight can go a long ways towards improving your health.
Weight loss even appears to be more effective than exercise when it comes to improving your health, at least among people who are already overweight. One study published in 1995 compared an aerobic exercise program to a weight loss program in overweight men at risk for cardiovascular disease.
The men who lost weight had a greater improvement in their risk factors for cardiovascular disease (such as their cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels) than the aerobic exercise group (7).
This should underscore the importance of sticking to a weight loss program. If you’ve put on some pounds, you can’t just exercise your way to better health. You need to lose the weight, too.
Weight loss can help improve mental health. Most people think of weight loss as primarily oriented at improving physical health. As we’ve already seen from the research discussed above, there is some truth to these claims—weight loss, even in moderate amounts, can lead to substantial improvements in risk factors for heart disease and metabolic disease.
However, improvements in mental health are a perhaps lesser-known benefit of successful weight loss. A study published in 2011 that analyzed the first phase of an experimental trial for weight loss in nearly 500 obese people was able to demonstrate a significant correlation between weight loss and improvements in symptoms of depression (8).
It doesn’t take massive amounts of weight loss to generate improvements in mental health, either. A 2018 study on a weight loss program in overweight and obese men in Australia analyzed men who had depression at baseline and tracked their progress across the course of the study (9).
Even though the average amount of weight lost was only about ten pounds, the researchers found that 72% of the men who had depression at baseline no longer met the clinical criteria for depression after the end of the study.
These findings suggest that weight loss, even in moderate amounts, can be a powerful way to improve mental health.
One advantage of a commercial weight loss program is that you mitigate your risk of side effects when compared with a diet cobbled together yourself. There’s a lot that can go wrong in a diet; if you restrict your food intake too severely, you’ll be missing out on vital micronutrients or your macronutrient balance can get thrown off. In contrast, if you are too lax, you won’t end up losing much weight.
When you restrict your caloric intake, or cut out specific food groups, you do run the risk of having nutritional deficiencies, especially when it comes to micronutrients. Cutting out fatty foods, for example, could have the inadvertent effect of causing your omega-3 fatty acid intake to plummet, which could increase your long-term risk for cardiovascular disease (10).
More acute nutritional deficiencies can be a problem as well. Considerable wisdom can be gained in this regard from extreme cases–patients who have had gastric bypass surgery and lost large amounts of weight as a result of their substantial decrease in caloric intake.
According to a medical report by Dr. Jacqueline Alvarez-Leite, nutritional deficiencies in iron, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are all commonly encountered in bariatric surgery patients, and the deficiency is often proportional to the amount of weight lost (11).
Because these deficiencies are due in part to lower food intake, it’s logical to infer that a restrictive weight loss program might present similar risks.
Fortunately, reputable weight loss programs have nutritionists on staff to ensure that the diets that they recommend contain the necessary micronutrients you need.
Nevertheless, it’s still something you should keep in mind. A daily multivitamin, or a targeted supplementation plan that includes these nutrients, should be sufficient to combat this problem.
Q: What are the best ways to lose weight fast?
A: To lose weight quickly, whether you want to drop several pounds in a week or much more over the course of a month, very low energy diets are the best way to accomplish this goal.
These “VLEDs,” as they are referred to in the scientific literature, can have caloric intakes as low as 800 Calories per day and have historically been disparaged as “crash diets,” but have substantial scientific backing.
One study found they were twice as effective as a standard behavioral intervention, even after one year of follow-up (12).
Q: What are some weight loss programs for men?
A: Women tend to have more success than men when it comes to losing weight and maintaining it. No one is quite sure why, but 77% of the members of the National Weight Control Registry are women (13).
One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests a possible explanation (14). The study tested the effects of no intervention, an exercise-only intervention, and a diet-only intervention. Interestingly, only the diet was effective: working out had no benefit on weight loss.
Men might be more inclined to think that working out alone will help them lose weight, without changing their dietary patterns.
As such, a weight loss program that takes a more realistic examination of dietary patterns, like the Mayo Clinic Diet or the Atkins Diet, might be good choices for men looking to lose weight.
Q: What is the most successful weight loss program?
A: Based on the latest assessment of the scientific research, Jenny Craig is the most successful weight loss program in terms of the percentage of weight lost compared to a control intervention. It leads to nearly five percent more weight lost (as a percentage of body weight) than control interventions.
The advantage over programs like Weight Watchers (2.6%) is noticeable, though not enormous. Pretty much any good commercial weight loss program is going to have better success than going it alone if you stick to it, though.
Q: What weight loss programs work?
A: We based our rankings on some of the best scientific work on what diet programs work. A review published in 2015 portrays the current state of research on weight loss programs (15).
Across 45 studies, WW (weight watchers) and Jenny Craig are consistently top performers, with the Atkins Diet, Nutrisystem, and Zone Diet also having research supporting their efficacy, though not to quite the same degree as Jenny Craig (our top pick) and WW.
It’s important to note that these results come from scientific studies, in which participants might be more motivated to stick with a program to which they were randomly assigned than if they had voluntarily joined the program on a whim.
Despite this possible limitation, these rankings still represent the best modern science has to say on what weight loss programs actually work.
Q: How do you start a weight loss program?
A: Most weight loss programs make it extremely easy to sign up and begin. Much research has focused on attrition during weight loss programs, but possibly the biggest barrier of them all is entry: no one knows how many people want to start a weight loss program, but don’t actually pull the trigger.
Major weight loss programs know this, though, so after just a minute or two of looking into a program, you’ll find a way to join an email newsletter, download an app, or chat with a weight loss advisor about the program.
Q: What are the features of a healthy weight loss program?
A: Healthy weight loss programs can incorporate a wide range of dietary patterns, but they all tend to be high in the foods you already know are healthy.
A healthy weight loss program will also feature design factors that are known to increase success rates, like a social element to the program (connecting with others, or talking with a diet coach), and some strategy to improve “self efficacy,” or your belief that you can be successful on the program.
Surprisingly, the popular wisdom that aggressive low-calorie diets are less healthy is not supported by the scientific research—very low calorie diets actually tend to fare better in the long run, compared to more moderate diets with slight energy deficits (16).
Q: How do you stick with a weight loss program?
A: Given the very high rate of attrition (i.e. drop-out) in weight loss programs, developing ways to stick with weight loss programs is a major area of nutritional research.
From the research done so far, a few factors stick out. First of all, a psychological principle called “self efficacy” appears to play a major role (17).
Self efficacy is the degree to which you believe you can be successful: a more colloquial interpretation might be your level of optimism about your prospects for weight loss.
In short, believing that you won’t be successful at losing weight becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so much so that specific psychological interventions to increase self-efficacy have actually been conducted successfully (18). Another factor that plays a major role is social support.
This probably explains why socially-based weight loss programs have so many adherents. Getting friends to join you on a weight loss program, or meeting friends who are in a weight loss program already, can have a major influence on your degree of success.
Capitalizing on these external factors for weight loss success can make a big difference in whether you hit your weight loss goals, and how long it takes for you to get there.
- Weight loss pills
- Natural weight loss supplements
- Protein for weight loss
- Meal replacement shakes
- Appetite suppressants
If you want the best possible shot to lose weight and improve your health, you should choose a well-regarded weight loss program and stick to it.
Following a regimented program will help you lose more weight, maintain your weight loss, and avoid any short-term or long-term adverse effects from suboptimal nutritional intake, like increased risks for chronic disease or nutritional deficiencies.
Different programs have different strengths: depending on whether you want rapid and effective weight loss or a more patient approach that has a better chance of maintaining its effects a year or two down the road, you might find a different “best” program for you.
Regardless of what you choose, the most important point is to stick with it to the best of your ability. This is the best way to ensure your weight doesn’t creep back up.