The weight-loss industry is big business in the U.S. Among the millions of people searching for a fast and easy way to drop extra pounds, many are also intent on finding a cheap diet plan. Fast and easy doesn't always mean success, and even the best cheap diet plan doesn't guarantee results. The key is committing to a program that's right for you -- one that helps you lose weight, maintain a target weight, and perhaps improve your overall fitness.
Guide to Cheap Diet Plans
The best cheap diet plans are designed to change the way you think about food and the amount and type of foods you eat. Our top choice is Weight Watchers (starting at $18.95/monthly online membership). This diet program allows meal flexibility and guides you toward a sustainable target weight through online and/or in-person support, information, and self-help tools. Second-place spots on our list of top weight loss plans belong to the South Beach Diet (starting at $7.99/book; $4/weekly online membership) because of its reasonable approach and good results and the SparkPeople (free) program because of its focus on nutritious food, healthy living, and strong peer community. The Atkins Diet (starting at $10.88/book) doesn't make the cut as a good cheap diet plan due to concerns about its impact on followers' health and ongoing weight maintenance. Nutrisystem (starting at $229.99/28 days food delivery) sinks due to cost and complaints about quality of the prepared and delivered food even though some dieters swear by the positive outcomes.
When researching cheap diet plans we assessed results as reported in online reviews, the level of support provided dieters, and whether the plans help keep the weight off. We also looked at how restrictive they are in terms of food choice and, of course, the impact on your budget.
From the get-go you can choose among different types of inexpensive weight-loss plans, including book-based or membership/support plans or a diet-food delivery program. The deciding factors are likely to involve your budget and what you know about yourself. Can you make healthy food choices with guidance from a book or informative articles, nudging from like-minded peers, interactive websites, recommended recipes and menu ideas? Or, do you need to remove choice from your diet and eat only what's deposited at your doorstep?
Once you settle on a broad category, you'll find dozens of diet plans, each with its own structure and attitude about weight loss. Many companies behind these plans also produce a line of branded low-calorie food products sold in supermarkets.
Book-based diet plans, such as Atkins and South Beach, are comparatively cheap. You buy the book once, follow the game plan, and control your own food costs. These weight-loss plans require a certain amount of willpower every time you step into the grocery store and in front of the stove. Some, such as Atkins, are also associated with websites that offer access to community and interactive tools; absent such web support, you're on your own.
Membership/support diet plans, such as Weight Watchers, SparkPeople, and the e-version of the South Beach Diet, are primarily web-based. Some come with ongoing membership fees that open the online gate to information about food choices and fitness, menu suggestions and recipes, and also provide reinforcement through user forums and interactive tools; SparkPeople, by contrast, is totally free. Some membership diet plans also organize meet-ups with fellow dieters for weigh-ins, motivation, and accountability. Like the cheap book-based diet plans, membership/support plans require grocery-store discipline and give you flexibility to pair your dietary requirements with meals for the entire family.
Food-delivery weight-loss programs, such as Nutrisystem and the pricier Jenny Craig, may be better at keeping temptation at bay but you'll pay for that external control in the form of higher overall food costs. You get the equivalent of three meals a day plus snacks and/or dessert that are intended to provide a nutritionally balanced diet. Some diet-food delivery programs let you choose menus based on demographic and health factors and others have you select from dozens of meal options. Barbs hurled at this approach to weight loss concern the price, disappointing food quality, and the missed opportunity to learn about making proper food choices and preparing meals that keep the pounds off.
The best way to get your money's worth from a cheap diet plan is to choose one that helps you learn healthy eating habits and simultaneously encourages the habit of exercise. Weight Watchers, for example, provides an online food and exercise diary and illustrated workouts, and awards extra food points for exercise. The SparkPeople diet takes a holistic approach to weight loss with "challenges" aimed at improving nutrition and fitness and finding the exercise routine you can stick with. The current South Beach Diet includes a three-phase fitness program that eases you into exercise and complements the three-phase diet plan. Nutrisystem recommends exercise and helps you create a personalized plan while the Atkins Diet website offers articles about exercise but no set guidelines.
Regardless which weight loss approach you prefer, it's always best to talk to a doctor before starting out.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Weight Watchers Review
Type of Plan Online/In-person support and guidance
Cost $18.95/month (online membership)
Food Options Eat anything, but in moderation
Mobile App Yes
|18.95||Online/In-person support and guidance||$18.95/month (online membership)||Eat anything, but in moderation||Yes|
South Beach Diet Review
Type of Plan Book/Online support and guidance
Cost $7.99 book; $4/week (online membership)
Food Options Select foods depending on the phase.
Mobile App Yes
|7.99||Book/Online support and guidance||$7.99 book; $4/week (online membership)||Select foods depending on the phase.||Yes|
Type of Plan Online support and guidance/Book
Food Options Emphasis on nutritious choices, portion control
Mobile App Yes
|0||Online support and guidance/Book||Free||Emphasis on nutritious choices, portion control||Yes|
Diet Plan Reviews
Many diet plan reviews posted online indicate that dieters are eager for long-term and sustainable results. Others mention wanting a quick return in advance of a big event, like a wedding or reunion. Whatever the intended goal, reviews of weight loss plans reveal that dieters prize food choices that are palatable and guidelines that are easy to follow. And while dieters commend the best plans on these grounds, some also find fault with customer support around issues such as membership cancellations and food delivery snafus.
Diet Plans Effectiveness.The most obvious way to judge a weight loss program is by its ability to produce results. On this score, Weight Watchers (membership starts at $18.95/month) reigns supreme. A diet plans review on NextAdvisor.com asserts that a key factor in Weight Watchers' success is its well-rounded approach: healthy and balanced food choices along with physical activity and peer and/or online support. Dieters say that adhering to the plan, which involves counting points allotted for food and exercise, has enabled some to lose 30 to 45 pounds in a few months. More importantly, add reviews at Viewpoints, report that Weight Watchers teaches you how to eat properly, reverse sedentary habits, and feel good about yourself. One study that Weight Watchers showcases on its website found that 72 percent of those who completed the full program maintained their weight loss after two years and 50 percent did so after five years. Continuing to follow the point system is critical, though, and some reviewers caution this can become tiresome.
Consumers rarely mention the online supports (e.g., meal planners, online journal, nutrition counseling) in reviews of the South Beach Diet (membership starts at $4/week; book starts at $7.99), but they do comment extensively about their impressive weight loss. At Viewpoints dieters report that significant weight loss is registered in the first few weeks when the type of foods allowed is severely limited (forget about bread, pasta, and fried potatoes); some claim to have lost 10 pounds and more during this period. After that, when once-taboo foods are reintroduced, dieters say weight loss continues to the tune of 40 or 50 pounds over the course of a year. The biggest benefit of the South Beach Diet, state multiple diet plans reviews, is learning to prepare and eat healthy food by following the menus and recipes. U.S. News & World Report rates the South Beach Diet as the seventh best commercial diet plan. (Weight Watchers ranks first.)
More than five million people belong to the SparkPeople (no cost) community and many say their connection to the site, with its tracking tools, videos and articles, and user involvement, has yielded a variety of benefits. Beyond losing significant amounts of weight, diet plans reviews by SparkPeople members say they have learned how to exercise and sustain a healthier diet, and have enjoyed the multiple points of contact with other enthusiasts. One post at Amazon tells of having shed 250 pounds over seven-plus years and attributes that outcome to the gradual -- and therefore sustainable -- lifestyle changes that SparkPeople promotes. A blog called Cutting Fitness sarcastically puts down the weight-loss site only to signal approval of its no-fee policy, blanket coverage of all things diet and fitness, assortment of helpful tools, responsive peer community and representatives, and finally, the positive results; guest comments affirm the blogger's conclusions. One minor gripe: There's so much information on the site and within the forums that new members sometimes feel overwhelmed.
The Atkins Diet (starting at $10.88/book) is heavy on protein and fats and regards most carbohydrates as the enemy. Diet plans reviews urge caution before following the Atkins formula. Consumers who posted comments on Top Diet Review report significant and rapid weight loss but warn that the pounds return quickly if you don't follow the plan religiously. And that means you really have to like animal protein and get past carb cravings. Moreover, consuming these foods while abstaining from or limiting the intake of others alters body chemistry by burning fat instead of carbs for fuel. Diet plans reviews often mention the adjustment your body must make given the radical dietary change required by the Atkins Diet, and some consumers write about initially feeling dizzy and developing bad breath. A recent update to the Atkins approach places more emphasis on eating vegetables (there is now a vegetarian path), a change that some suggest holds wider appeal. Other reviews argue that Atkins is losing touch with its roots.
A diet-food delivery plan like Nutrisystem (starting at $229.99/28 days), which also offers online discussion forums, blogs, and newsletters, is the epitome of convenience, crow diet plans reviews. There's no measuring, weighing, calorie counting, or effort other than popping a package into the microwave. Reviews posted by consumers who signed on for NutriSystem deliveries over the past couple of years tell of having shed up to 65 pounds or several pants sizes in a matter of months without feeling food-deprived. Many are generally satisfied with the taste and overall food quality but note that the need to buy dairy and fresh fruits and vegetables adds to the already sizeable food bill. And yet, a number of diet plans reviews at Consumer Affairs trash the taste and heavy dose of salt and chemical ingredients and gripe about the price. And several posts at 3 Fat Chicks grumble that boring, tasteless food and little attention to weight maintenance without the Nutrisystem-supplied products leaves you with no safety net should you decide to forego meal deliveries. The website, however, does outline a transition and maintenance phase that includes learning to prepare your own healthy meals.
Diet Food Delivery Programs and Apps
Diet Plan Food Choices.Some diet plans, whether meals prepared in a commissary and delivered to your door or cooked in your very own kitchen, impose limitations on which foods are allowed, especially in the beginning. Sometimes the DIY diets actually offer fewer food options than the diet-food delivery plans.Among the weight loss programs we researched, the Atkins and South Beach diets are the most restrictive in terms of food choices. The Atkins Diet is all about minimizing intake of carbohydrates and building a diet around protein and high-fiber foods. The first two-week phase, called Induction, allows only the consumption of protein, cheese, certain vegetables, nuts/seeds, and "healthy" fats while limiting carbohydrate intake to a maximum of 12-15 grams a day. As you move through the three phases and edge closer to your target or maintenance weight (phase 4), the list of permissible foods (e.g., legumes, fruits, starchy vegetables) grows. The multi-stage South Beach Diet starts with meals heavy on lean protein, vegetables, beans, nuts, eggs, unsaturated fats, and low-fat dairy and then introduces fruits, whole grains, and other vegetables in phase 2. Although many consumers report success with the South Beach regimen, some reviews carp about the restrictive food choices, even after the first two phases, and caution that long-term success depends on a complete lifestyle change.
Tracking food intake is the norm for most diet plans. Weight Watchers is no exception, but this plan adds a twist with its "point counting" system that leaves plenty of room for variety. Each food is assigned a value based on the protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber content. In general you can eat anything as long as you stick to the daily point limit, which climbs higher with more exercise. A new Weight Watchers feature called Simple Start is designed to jumpstart weight loss by limiting intake to "power foods" such as fresh fruits and whole grains during the first two weeks.
The SparkPeople diet stresses smart eating habits that involve tracking (and burning) calories and choosing foods that are fresh and high in nutrients and complex carbohydrates. This weight-loss approach comes down on the side of variety, flexibility, and portion control rather than offering up a list of forbidden foods. Nutrisystem doesn't restrict foods either but lays out a diet-friendly selection, with specific plans that account for the needs of men, women, seniors, vegetarians, and diabetics. The site also provides a list of foods to buy at the supermarket that supplement the home deliveries -- recommendations include foods such as cereals and starchy vegetables, low-fat yogurt and tofu, carrots and spinach, and air-popped popcorn.
Mobile Tracking.Over the last few years almost all diet plans, even the relatively inexpensive ones, have released smartphone apps. Reviews of these apps generally extol dieters' new ability to quickly and easily track progress while on the go. The Weight Watchers mobile app, available for iOS and Android devices, can monitor food intake and recommend the best choice when dining at a restaurant. Dieters can even snap a picture of their meal and save it until they have time to determine the exact point value. When shopping, scanning the barcode on grocery items yields the point value, which can then be added to the diet plan. The app also generates recipes using the scanned and purchased items.The Atkins and South Beach diet apps, also available for iOS and Android devices, track weight, provide recipes, plan meals, and recommend diet-appropriate foods. The South Beach app also lets members ask questions of nutritionists and receive one-on-one advice. SparkPeople offers four distinct mobile apps, all for iOS and Android, including one that tracks diet and fitness and another for health and fitness goals, one that provides healthy recipes and videos, and one that focuses on fitness with a structured workout plan. The Nutrisystem app, for iOS and Android devices, tracks weight, exercise, and water consumption and also serves as a personal journal and progress log. Because food options are limited to Nutrisystem offerings, there's no carb or calorie counter but users can browse through menu options and plan future deliveries.
Dieters can also find free and cheap fitness and weight-loss apps to our blog post that are independent of these diet plan companies.