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. Here are the ten 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.
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.
3. 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. HRM Program
If you want to lose a lot of weight fast, the HRM 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.
Weight loss program benefits and side effects
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.
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.
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 (8).
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 (9).
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 recomend 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.
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.