Consumer Reports Rates Diet Plans

Weight Watchers Wins, Atkins Trails -- but No Single Diet Best for All

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD
on Monday, May 09, 2005

May 9, 2005 - Weight Watchers is the best overall diet plan, according to new Consumer Reports ratings.

The ratings are based on combined scores for nutritional value and weight loss effectiveness. The nonprofit consumer group has never before rated commercially available diet plans.

Consumer Reports Senior Editor Nancy Metcalf wrote the report for the June issue of Consumer Reports.

"For the first time we have some good information on how these diets work for real people, as opposed to just having the claims of people who created the diets," Metcalf tells WebMD. "And now we have new dietary guidelines, so that gives us a nutritional standard to measure these diets against."

Nutritional ratings came from a commercial software program that gives detailed information about virtually any food. Metcalf and colleagues took a sample week-long menu from each of the diet plans and fed a description into the program. They then compared the nutritional content of each diet to the new U.S. dietary recommendations.

To rate the diets on effectiveness, Metcalf's team looked at clinical trial data published in medical journals. There wasn't enough effectiveness data for four of the nine diet plans, so only five of the plans got ratings.

Envelope, Please

The ratings, translated from Consumer Reports' "red blob/black blob" system where a full red blob is best and a full black blob is worst:

  • Weight Watchers got the highest rating. On the 1 to 5 rating scale -- where 1 is best and 5 is worst -- Weight Watchers scored a 2.
  • Slim-Fast came in second. It also scored a 2 on the rating scale.
  • The Zone diet came in third, with a rating of 2.
  • The Dean Ornish diet came in fourth, with a rating of 3.
  • The Atkins Ongoing Weight Loss plan and the Atkins Induction plan came in last, both with a rating of 4.

Excerpted from Consumer Reports, June 2005

  Diet Price* Overall score** Average daily calories Nutritional content
Rank         Percent of calories Fiber grams / 1,000 calories Fruits / veggies - daily servings
Fat Saturated fat Carbohydrate Protein
1 Weight Watchers $10 to $13 per week 2 1,450 24 7 56 20 20 11
2 Slim-Fast $2 to $3 per day for bars or drinks 2 1,540 22 6 57 21 21 12
3 Zone (men's menu)*** $25.00 2 1,660 27 7 42 30 21 17
4 Ornish $15.00 3 1,529 6 1 77 16 31 17
5 Atkins (Ongoing Weight Loss) $13.95 4 1,520 60 20 11 29 12 6
6 Atkins (Induction) $13.95 4 1,640 61 19 8 31 8 6
NOT RATED: INSUFFICIENT STUDY DATA (listed in alphabetical order)
  eDiets $12 to $32 per month   1,450 23 5 53 24 19 12
  Jenny Craig $6 to $7.65 per week, $11 to $15 (food)   1,520 18 7 62 20 16 6
  South Beach (Phase One) $24.95   1,530 51 14 15 34 9 12
  South Beach (Phase Two) $24.95   1,340 39 9 38 22 19 13
  Volumetrics $25.95   1,500 23 7 55 22 20 14


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*Except where noted, price is for the book.
**On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best.
***Women's menu similar but about 1,300 calories

More Than Blobs

Separate ratings show how well the various diets did in terms of nutrition, dropout rate at six months and one year, and weight loss at six months and one year.

Unrated because of too little scientific evidence were eDiets, Jenny Craig, the South Beach Phase One, the South Beach Phase Two, and Volumetrics diet plans.

Like its ratings for lawn mowers and cameras, the Consumer Reports diet ratings offer more than blobs. They also provide detailed information on the nutritional content of each of the diets.

"I am hoping we have set this up in a way that is helpful," Metcalf says. "For example, although Weight Watchers came out on top, it is not the best for short-term weight loss. Slim-Fast and Atkins do better. And Slim-Fast does better at weight loss at one year than Ornish."

The ratings are not permanent. Metcalf says that as new clinical trial data become available, the ratings will be updated. This means that plans not yet rated may be added to the ratings list.

Atkins: Consumer Reports Ratings Based on 'Misconceptions'

It's not just the last-place rating that upsets Atkins spokeswoman Colette Heimowitz, MSc, director of education and research for Atkins Health and Medical Information Services. Heimowitz says the magazine report ignores 30 years of people's experience with the Atkins Diet.

"I am really disappointed in Consumer Reports. If this is a reflection of their rating system, I will have to find someplace else to pick a new car," she tells WebMD. "They fall into the old same trap about misconceptions about Atkins. They base their opinion on the early phases of Atkins and not the lifestyle. The Atkins lifestyle is consistent with the new food pyramid guidelines."

Heimowitz has some specific issues with the Consumer Reports article:

  • It is not correct, she says, that the Atkins program has nutritional deficiencies. "The program calls for lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and plenty of fiber," Heimowitz says.
  • There is less saturated fat in the Atkins program than the CR report indicates, Heimowitz says. "The long-term effects [on fat consumption] are less profound because as people increase their carbs at the end of the program -- nutritious, high-fiber carbs -- they cut back on fat," she says.
Is There a 'Best' Diet?

Heimowitz says that by rating diet plans as it does, Consumer Reports promotes the idea that there is a "best" diet for everyone.

"The rating system isn't taking into account the needs of individual people," she says. "Every diet program they refer to in this rating is a program that has been proven to work and to be effective for certain types of individuals. Atkins isn't for everyone. Weight Watchers is not for everyone. Ornish is not for everyone. But some people do better with each plan."

With this latter point, Metcalf agrees. The Consumer Reports article, she says, strongly encourages people to try different diets -- whether they are official diet plans or not -- until they find the one that suits them.

The Consumer Reports article cites a 2005 study led by Michael L. Dansinger, MD, director of obesity research at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston. That study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, evaluated nine different diet plans. It concluded that the best diet plan is the one a person can stick with.

"Date the diets until you can find a life partner," Dansinger told WebMD last January. "The best way is to try a number of them and give each a fair chance. There is a whole spectrum of options out there. The main finding of our study is that we need to find a way to improve adherence rates to the various diets that are available. The best way might be to be open minded about all of the options rather than focusing on finding the same 'best one' for everybody."

Based on the Dansinger findings, the Consumer Reports team urges people to stick with a diet long enough to know whether it really works for them.

"If you go on one of these diets, stay on for at least three weeks and really follow it," Metcalf says. "Every one of these diets is low enough in calories for you to lose weight. Do your absolute level best to stay on the diet you pick. And after three weeks, if you are miserable and can't bear the thought of eating that way another day, it might be a clue you are on the wrong diet."

Even a "diet" may not be right for everyone who wants to lose weight, Metcalf says. The CR article notes that some people lose weight when they stop eating certain high-calorie foods, such as sugary soft drinks or large bagels.

The Preventive Medicine Research Institute, led by Dean Ornish, MD, did not respond to WebMD's invitation to comment on the Consumer Reports article before publication time.

SOURCES: Consumer Reports, June 2005; vol 70: pp 18-22. Dansinger, M.L. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 5, 2005; vol 293: pp 43-53. Nancy Metcalf, senior editor, Consumer Reports. Colette Heimowitz, MSc, director of education and research, Atkins Health and Medical Information Services. Michael L. Dansinger, MD, director of obesity research, atherosclerosis research laboratory, Tufts-New England Medical Center, Boston. WebMD Medical News: "4 Diets Face Off: Which Is the Winner?"

© 2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


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