What It Is

Jenny Craig isn't a Janie-come-lately to the diet field. The program began in 1983 in Australia and started U.S. operations in 1985.

The Jenny Craig method is a three-level food-mind-body plan to help people lose weight and keep it off.

At the first level, the program teaches clients how to eat the foods they want -- in small, frequent portions.

At the second level, the program teaches clients how to increase their energy levels via simple activity.

At the third level, the program teaches clients how to build more balance into their lives in order to maintain weight loss and healthy diet.

The program offers several levels of support. Perhaps the most impressive of these is its 24/7 telephone line, allowing clients to get information and support when they need it. The program also offers online support, including peer-support discussion groups. A wide variety of written materials are also for sale.

There are two Jenny Craig programs. One is built around physical Jenny Craig centers. The company counts over 650 centers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Puerto Rico. For those who find it hard to get to a center, the at-home Jenny Direct program offers information by telephone and mail.

Advising Jenny Craig is a medical advisory board with certified professionals in medicine, psychology, and nutrition.

What You Can Eat on the Jenny Craig Diet

The keystone to the Jenny Craig diet is its prepackaged meals. For the most part, these are frozen breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and even desserts. Nutritionally, they contain 50% to 60% carbohydrate, 20% to 25% protein, and 20% to 25% fat.

Clients supplement these meals with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and reduced-fat dairy products. In general, non-starchy vegetables are unlimited.

While these meals are what come to mind when most people think of Jenny Craig, they are not the be-all and end-all of the program. In fact, says Lisa Waltman, call center manager for Jenny Direct, the goal is eventually to wean clients from the prepared meals.

"For a certain period of time we support people with this prepackaged menu that serves as a model of healthy eating," Waltman tells WebMD. "As clients become more familiar with recognizing correct portion sizes, the counselors teach them how to cook at home and to eat out."

No food is taboo. The focus is on moderation, a balanced diet, and getting enough exercise. But built into the program are occasional splurges that allow dieters to indulge themselves a little.

"There is nothing you cannot have," Waltman says. "We educate what foods are high in fat and calories and should be used in moderation vs. foods that can be eaten more freely like non-starchy vegetables such as salad. And we teach about other foods, that of course you need to take in moderation when trying to lose weight and beyond. If you want cake, we want you to understand what you are doing if you have a piece -- not to deny you what you want."

That being said, the Jenny Craig method is calorie based. The menus a client develops with his or her counselor are based on an individual's weight, height, and goals.

How the Jenny Craig Program Works

A person wishing to begin the Jenny Craig program can visit a Jenny Craig center or call Jenny Craig Direct. Checking the company's web site is a good place to start, as one often can find special offers. There are several levels of membership with different price tags.

The idea is not to keep individuals in the program forever, but to move them successfully through the program so that they develop long-term strategies for a healthy lifestyle.

The program has three elements. First is food. The idea here is to teach clients how to eat sensible portions, how to plan and prepare healthy menus, and how to avoid pitfalls when eating at restaurants or when having the occasional splurge.

The second element is body.

"To lose weight and have lasting impact, the key indicator is being physically active," Waltman says. "We help clients determine where they are now. Are they totally inactive? Do they just walk from car to office? Or are they someone who is really on their way, exercising a few times a week? We help them get up to a place that will provide not only weight loss but also long-term maintenance. We look at barriers like being really busy, or not wanting to take away from family time. We work on strategies to develop physically active lifestyles."

The third element is mind.

"Being positive and surrounding yourself with support and affirmations really helps," Waltman says. "The difference between the client who makes it and the client who doesn't is motivation mind set. We help people keep in touch with their goals and provide support every inch of the way. And we allow them to get support from other clients. We talk about nurturing yourself -- not necessarily with food."

What the Experts Say About Jenny Craig

WebMD asked Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, to comment on the Jenny Craig program. Bonci (BAWN-see) is director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She provides nutrition consultation to athletes at the professional, college, and high school level, including the Pittsburgh Panthers and Steelers and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre company. Bonci has no financial connection to Jenny Craig.

Bonci praises Jenny Craig for teaching portion control. But she questions the value of learning portion control from pre-packaged foods.

"The negative is once you go off of the packaged meals, it is difficult to translate those portions of food to real eating," Bonci says. "Normal foods are not sold in those tiny portions. And most people say whatever one of those packaged meals you buy tastes all the same. It is like going camping. Everything you eat is out of the box, and you don't have that stimulatory enjoyment. And that can be a problem. It's important to have people enjoy eating over the long term. The crucial question is how to help someone back to a semblance of normal eating. That is where the program doesn't hold up as well."

WebMD staff taste-tested a week's worth of Jenny Craig food items provided free of charge by the company. Most of the items, the staff found, were comparable in taste to similar frozen-food entrees. One or two were much tastier than average, and one or two weren't appetizing to those who tried them. Most of the staff -- who were not on diets -- said they were hungry again soon after eating. Supplementing the meals with a piece of fresh fruit, as Jenny Craig recommends, provided a more satisfying experience.

Bonci also praises Jenny Craig for the high level of support it offers its clients.

"I think support is always critical to the success of any weight loss program," Bonci says. "But you are dealing with a limited range of items you are provided to eat. This does not give you as much ability to customize to individual preferences. And the support staff are not trained nutritionists."


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Food for Thought

If you want to lose some weight fairly quickly, Jenny Craig can get you on the right path in a short period of time. To take full advantage of the Jenny Craig method, you must make full use of the counseling support the company offers as you make the transition from packaged food to your own healthy menu planning and meal preparation. Those who are ready to commit to the kind of lifestyle change Jenny Craig offers are most likely to get full value for their diet dollar.

WebMD Medical Reference

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Lisa Waltman, call center manager for Jenny Direct.

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Jenny Craig.

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD, on July 18, 2011