Best Cheap Diet Plans

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.

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Weight Watchers Review

Our Picks
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Weight Watchers Review

Hundreds of Weight Watchers reviews laud this program, reporting serious and sustained weight reduction accompanied by improvements in overall well-being. At the program's core is the well-established PointsPlus system, which assigns point values to various foods and gives users a daily target based on factors such as weight, activity level, age, and gender. (Nursing mothers are allotted more points, for example.) Dieters who have posted reviews on the Diets in Review site give Weight Watchers a 75 percent approval rating for reasons ranging from never feeling food-deprived to learning to eat in moderation, making smarter food choices, relishing the "free" fruits, and being confident that the pounds won't come back. The opportunity to eat what you want, optional group meetings with other adherents that hold you accountable for diet-related decisions, and guidelines that lead to lifestyle and behavior changes are cited as some of the plan's strong suits in comments posted at Viewpoints. Weight Watchers reviews also point out that the plan is easy to follow when eating away from home but note that constantly counting points becomes wearisome if you want to stick with it long term.

The support component of Weight Watchers is critical. Participants can join Weight Watchers online (starting at $18.95/monthly membership) or choose weekly in-person meetings. Many Weight Watchers followers credit a good meeting location and supportive peers for their success and suggest trying out different meetings to find one that feels simpatico. Weight Watchers Online offers access to forums, activity trackers, workout demonstrations, more than 4,000 recipes, and other tools. The accompanying iOS and Android mobile app also allows users to quickly find recipes with the food they have in the house, decode the value of restaurant menu items, pull up “cheat sheets,” and scan items at the grocery store to find their point value.

With Weight Watchers you can eat, in moderation, from all the food groups. Its four-pronged approach involves food, exercise, behavior, and support. An article published by The Guardian reports on medical research showing that Weight Watchers has the intended effect largely because of all the support: weekly meetings with other dieters and reinforcement in the form of self-monitoring and educational materials on nutrition, meal planning, and fitness. Indeed, Weight Watchers asserts the program works because it's not a diet but a way to learn how to eat right and live healthfully.

The strong support element of Weight Watchers and the proven results, even in the maintenance stage, are points in its favor. Another plus is that no food group is completely off-limits, which saves you from passing on tempting desserts or snacks. Weight Watchers is a sound diet for a cheap price that’s founded on portion control and behavior changes, which is why it sits atop our list.

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South Beach Diet Review

The South Beach Diet (starting at $7.99/book; $4/weekly online membership) helps followers stay fit and trim, trumpet the reviews. Most adherents affirm the value of the right-carbs/right-fat/high-protein approach, and many dieters who posted South Beach Diet reviews at Amazon indicate they started the plan based on a doctor's recommendation. These and other comments at Epinions, for example, tell of dieters having lost 40 pounds and more -- and then keeping it off, although sticking with the prescribed food regimen is a must. South Beach Diet reviews concede that the first couple of weeks are tough, but go on to crow that seeing it through has its rewards.

Weight loss is quite rapid during the first phase of the diet, when food intake is limited to protein such as lean meats and low-fat cheese. An endocrinologist recommended the diet to one reviewer who says a regime of mostly eggs and vegetables during the first phase caused the pounds to fall away. But some South Beach Diet reviews, including one posted by a nutritionist at Weight Loss Resources, caution about the challenges of phase 1 when the lack of popular carbs leaves some people feeling weak and hungry. Still, a number of South Beach Diet commenters extol its value as a route to rapid weight loss shortly before a big event, while others call it a life-saver for the long haul because it teaches healthy habits. This diet allows three regular meals a day plus snacks, with no limit on portion size.

The South Beach Diet replaces "bad carbs" and "bad fats" with "good carbs" and "good fats." That is, you trade out white pasta and bread for whole grain versions in addition to vegetables and fruit. Instead of foods laden with saturated fats, including certain cuts of red meat, dieters are told to opt for lean meat alternatives and fish and healthy fats like avocados and nuts. There are three phases to the plan that can be followed in book form or with a weekly online membership. Dieters who rely on the South Beach Diet book praise its simple-to-understand explanations and the plan’s underlying rationale.

The recent addition of a mobile app (for members) and the growing online community (which already counts more than 25,000 members) may help folks who start the diet to stick with it. The app lets users plan meals, quickly find recipes so they know what to buy at the grocery store, and track their weight. Another big benefit is the ability to ask nutritionists for advice in the members-only forum.

This weight-loss plan temporarily restricts certain foods and requires some focus to maintain a target weight. But if you can get past the early stages and make this diet part of your everyday routine, the chances of getting on track to a healthier lifestyle are good.

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SparkPeople Review

SparkPeople reviews extol the breadth and depth of the online supports designed to help members lose weight and adopt healthier lifestyles, and they hold out special praise for the large and active member community. The site is associated with a book, The Spark Solution, which earns a solid four stars at Amazon, where SparkPeople reviewers report they have lost 50 pounds and more and learned to make regular exercise an ongoing habit. Moreover, adherents add, SparkPeople recipes are varied, easy, and tasty, and the online tracking tools for things like nutrition, weight, and fitness keep them informed and motivated. Reviewers also value the surprisingly simple and understandable approach that downplays the notion of dieting and boosts the concept of long-term fitness and health, all underlined with reams of information and customizable tools. Four mobile apps for iOS and Android devices let users keep tabs on their goals and find workout routines and recipes at any time or place.

Members of the online community (sign up for free) can join one of the many SparkTeams organized by criteria such as age, location, hobby, or favorite exercise regimen. Although the early stages take commitment and the transition can be tough, participants report at Diets in Review that the cheerleading, reinforcement, and advice provided by like-minded people helps them stay with it. SparkPeople members earn SparkPoints for remaining involved and completing tasks on the site, and can use the points to enter into friendly competition with others and to send electronic gifts. Although SparkPeople is really an online program, some members join offline exercise-focused meet-ups that have been facilitated by the community forums.

Basically, the SparkPeople diet plan focuses on changing daily habits in the service of a healthy lifestyle. The SparkDiet is divided into four stages: Fast Break, Healthy Diet Habits, Lifestyle Change, and Spread the Spark. The first lays the foundation -- finding achievable nutrition, fitness, and motivation goals that suit a personal profile and can be reached in two weeks. With a few good habits in place, step two involves the diet part of the plan whose core is fewer calories in than out (that is, burn off those calories); this phase comes with a recommended daily calorie limit based on the member’s personal data. There are no particular off-limit foods but the site lets users track the nutritional content of whatever they eat and stresses portion control and drinking lots of water. The third step involves incorporating the new learnings as a constant in their lives, identifying potential setbacks and how to overcome them, and finding healthy ways to reward progress. Step four asks followers to give back by providing other members with advice and encouragement.

The SparkPeople program also appears in book form. The Spark draws on members’ experiences and contains motivational techniques and food and exercise recommendations. The Spark Solution is geared toward beginners who don’t yet know how to count calories or understand how different foods affect their body. Although the books can be used on their own, they’re most effective when augmented by the SparkPeople website.

This is an online program, and the lack of face-to-face accountability may be hard for some dieters. The lack of rigid rules and the massive amount of information may also pose a challenge. Still, SparkPeople meets the needs of beginners, those who have been living a healthy lifestyle for years, and everyone in between. Its members are fervent believers. There’s no cost to join -- or to drop out if it all seems a bit much. In other words, it can’t hurt to give it a try.

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Nutrisystem Review

A portion of Nutrisystem reviews report success with this food delivery plan, but many others are quick to voice complaints. Nutrisystem reviews at Consumer Affairs and elsewhere are divided. Alongside paeans to the convenience and assertions that this diet-food delivery plan has helped users lose weight -- 14 pounds, 37 pounds, 65 pounds, and counting -- without experiencing hunger pangs while learning to like vegetables come groans about the meals’ taste and ingredients. Some reviewers describe the prepared food as unpalatable and critique the high level of preservatives and sodium. Others gripe about customer service, claiming that attempts to withdraw from the plan after trying some of the meals or experiencing delivery problems results in a hefty cancellation fee and resistance from sales agents. Another downside to diet-food delivery plans in general is that dieters don't learn portion control or how to make proper food choices because meals arrive pre-cooked and in carefully calibrated serving sizes.

Nutrisystem (starting at $229.99/28 days food delivery) is a veteran among diet-food delivery plans. Plans are tailored to your gender and can be suited to vegetarians and people with a diabetic condition. You can create a 28-day menu of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and desserts -- or have foods pre-selected for you -- from dozens of options. Meal components range from breakfast bars and cereals to salad and soup lunches to chicken, steak, and pasta dinners. Clients are expected to supplement with fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy bought locally.

Support options with Nutrisystem include an online community, weight-loss tracker, daily fitness plan, and daily food log. A weekly online guide supplies clients with expert advice, tutorials, quizzes, video testimonials, polls, tips, and weight management information. The mobile app lets members track their weight, exercise, water consumption, body measurements, and keep a journal while on the go.

Although many dieters commend this plan, the large number of negative Nutrisystem reviews panning the cost, food quality, and customer service suggest there are better routes to losing weight.

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The Atkins Diet (starting at $10.88/book, Amazon) is a controversial approach to losing weight. Some research, as reported in Atkins Diet reviews on sites such as Healthy Weight Forum, say the protein-rich, high-fat diet may be linked to health risks such as heart and renal disease, colon cancer, and osteoporosis. Experts also express concern about the diet's lack of sufficient nutrients and vitamins found in fruits and vegetables, which constitute a small portion of the plan, and about inadequate amounts of fiber and calcium. The rigid dietary requirements, including the near total elimination of carbohydrates, mean the body burns fat for fuel, a process that an Atkins Diet review on Weight Loss Resources says can cause dizziness, insomnia, bad breath, constipation, tiredness, and weakness. Moreover, dieters’ reviews of the Atkins approach say the absence of variety in food choices makes for a boring, one-note food regimen that can leave you craving the so-called bad stuff.

On the other hand, many consumers who posted Atkins Diet reviews report significant weight loss. At Top Diets, for example, followers write about losing weight quickly, especially in the first phase when you go cold-turkey on carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, cereal, rice, and even fruit. Some dieters tell of initial success but trouble staying with it; many caution that the weight returns once you depart from the prescribed food plan.

The Atkins Diet has been around since the 1970s and an updated version was released in 2010 that does a better job explaining how to incorporate the diet into your everyday life. The diet involves four phases: induction, ongoing weight loss, pre-maintenance, and lifetime maintenance. In each phase dieters can add tiny amounts of carbohydrates back into their meals, although the total allocation in the last phase is still less than half the average American adult's daily intake of carbs. The diet is heavy on meat, poultry, fish, eggs, some cheeses, butter, salad vegetables, and oils, which makes it appealing to men but largely useless for vegetarians. Caffeine is allowed but alcohol is banned. According to Atkins Diet reviews, you can lose up to 10 pounds in phase 1 and about three pounds a week in phase 2; after that, weight loss slows until you hit your goal. The Atkins Diet offers a free online support system.

The mixed expert and consumer reviews and the extremely limited food options are reasons to pause. This is one diet you might want to think about twice before embarking on -- and definitely consult with your doctor first.

Buying Guide

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.

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 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.

Diet Plans Customer Relations Reviews

One complaint about the fee-based membership and food-delivery diet plans that pops up frequently in consumer reviews concerns customer service. When it comes to billing, reviewers report difficulty canceling memberships (charges keep appearing on their bank cards) and others gripe about not receiving credit for food deliveries gone awry.