There's no shortage of advice on how to lose weight. You could take up triathlons, switch to a raw or paleo diet or begin counting calories and keeping track of every morsel that passes your lips.
Some of these might work for some people, some for others. But which one will work for you? And for how long? That's the 64-pound question. The answer, of course, is whichever program helps you eat fewer calories than you burn. The hard part is finding a program that does that and that you can follow from now until forever.
The best place to start is with your doctor, who may already be nagging you about your weight, your cholesterol reading, your blood pressure and your impending metabolic disease. You need to be sure you don't have a condition that requires a special diet before you embark on a major change in your eating habits.
Unfortunately, when it comes to helping patients lose weight, many physicians don't do much beyond nagging. If you're lucky, yours may outline a regimen, refer you to a dietitian nutritionist or recommend a local program. If not, you'll be on your own.
Experts will tell you that the best way to proceed is to find a dietitian nutritionist who can build a diet specifically suited to you and who will help you stick to that diet. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has an online directory that will help you find someone in your city. What you want is a "registered dietitian nutritionist." This is a certified healthcare specialist, not just someone who decided to hang up a shingle. (The term "nutritionist" is not as rigorously defined).
But if you're like most of us, you'll probably not go that far. Going the do-it-yourself route may work if you're willing and able to do a lot of research, put together a reasonable plaln and stick to it. But just as most of us call a plumber rather than trying to fix the water heater ourselves, most consumers turn to commercial weight-loss plans.
While there's no shortage of commercial plans, it can be confusing trying to wade through all of them. One good place to start is the ConsumerAffairs Weight Loss Buyers Guide, which reviews several major brands. It's also worth checking out the ConsumerAffairs Weight Loss News Section, a compilation of news stories by our sleek and slender news staff.
Here's a quick look at some of the better-known plans.
You might call Nutrisystem the Amazon of the weight-loss business -- it's huge and has lots of cardboard boxes. It uses those cardboard boxes to send you the meals that fit the profile you've worked out with online and telephone consultants. You order the meals you want off a customized menu and they show up at your door on a regular basis. Selections are also available at Walmart, Amazon and other retailers.
The advantage of this is that it takes the guesswork out of sticking to your diet and, not coincidentally, relieves you of that burdensome question, "What's for dinner?"
There are those who will argue that the freshest local food is the healthiest and this may be true but it's also true that people who have jobs, children and other responsibilities don't always have time to go to the farmer's market each day and to then spend an hour peeling the carrots and potatoes. There are also many people who simply don't like to cook and aren't very good at it. Nutrisystem is ideal for them. Open the box, pop the ingredients into the microwave and dinner is served.
Does it work? Many who have tried it say it does. A few years ago, reporter Joe Enoch volunteered to try it, and spent the next 28 days eating Nutrisystem meals.
"I dove head first into this diet, only breaking from it once, and briefly, to celebrate at a birthday party which I helped plan. In total, I lost 13 pounds. In a 28-day period, that's fantastic and it has felt great having people ask me if I've lost weight," Enoch reported at the end of the 28 days.
A large guy with a previously big appetite, Joe said he was hungry during the first few days but quickly adapted to eating the smaller, more frequent portions that Nutrisystem supplied. There was also an unexpected plus:
"Because of all the fruits, vegetables and healthy carbs, I often had more energy than I did when I was consuming nearly double the calories. Occasionally I would feel drained, particularly the day after a really long run, but my counselor said I could add a few more calories to compensate," he said.
While Joe was somewhat cautious in his conclusions, consumers posting reviews on ConsumerAffairs were more enthusiastic.
"Nutrisystem Jumpstart 5 day box at Walmart is fantastic!" said Kathleen of Noble, OK. "This changed my life! It is fantastic and I have lost 45 pounds and have a goal to lose 16 more. I am 52 and past menopause and YES this works for me like nothing else and believe me I have tried every diet out there!"
Even occasional users give Nutrisystem a thumbs-up.
"Every year for the Christian season of Lent I do the Nutrisystem program and every year I lose 20-30 lbs. It’s a great thing to do every year," said Steven of Pleasant Valley, NY.
Weight Watchers has been around for what seems like forever and has a large band of loyal followers. It once relied on support groups and face-to-face counseling to help dieters stay on course. Those options are still available but online and mobile app support has displaced a lot of facetime.
No matter what means you use to access the program, it revolves around the "PointsPlus budget," a calorie-counting plan that is customized for you based on your weight, height, gender and age. You can prepare your own food or eat out, use your own recipes or follow Weight Watchers' suggestions but to get results, you need to follow the daily budget.
Unlike some weight-loss plans, Weight Watchers counts some calories differently from others. For example, both a cookie and an apple might contain 95 calories. But Weight Watchers assigns two points to the cookie, none to the apple. That's based on the principle that all calories are not created equal -- and that fruit and vegetables are healthier than cakes and cookies.
The good thing about Weight Watchers is that it's flexible -- you can eat pretty much whatever you want. But not much of it. Most experts agree that it works, but you have to pay attention and follow the guidelines.
The most common complaint about Weight Watchers isn't related to the weight-loss program but rather to the monthly fees.
"I canceled my account with Weight Watchers over a month ago, and they still took out my payment," said Tiki of Clayon, N.C., in a typical review. I will never again trust them with my bank account information. Luckily, I paid through Paypal and I plan to appeal it. They make their cancellation process so confusing that when you think you have cancelled, you really haven't."
Another grand old name of the weight-loss business, Jenny Craig combines elements of both Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers -- it sells you the food a la Nutrisystem and provides counseling, much like Weight Watchers. Experts and consumers alike agree that it works but some complain about the cost and others find fault with at least some of the food.
Jenny Craig relieves you of the task of planning meals and tracking your food intake. Its counselors work with you to draw up a weekly meal plan, so you know in advance what to eat for lunch Thursday. And every other day.
Actually, you not only meet with the consultant to plan your week's menus, you also pick up the food during the meeting. The menus cover a broad range of tastes, everything from Mexican to continental cuisine.
Like other effective plans, Jenny Craig lets you eat all day long -- up to six times a day if you want. The portions -- no surprise -- are small but eating smaller meals frequently is a recognized way to minimize hunger and avoid taking on huge caloric loads at a single sitting.
Many of the comments we hear center around the food and the cost of the program.
"I lost 70 pounds using Jenny Craig," said Joyce of Forney, Texas, in a ConsumerAffairs review. "The plan worked for me and I loved the vitamins and the food."
But Joyce said that, like many Jenny Craig clients, she also worked for the company as a counselor for awhile and "hated" that experience because of the pressure to sign new clients.
A recent study by researchers in Singapore supported Joyce's views. It found that Jenny Craig produced the greatest weight loss but was also the most expensive of the programs studied.
Herbalife is a multi-level marketing company that, among other things, sells meals and shakes that can help you lose weight. It's popular among athletes, new moms and, in general, a younger and more active crowd than some of the other programs out there.
Herbalife basically offers more of an "off-the-shelf" program, minus the counselors and extensive menu planning, with meal replacement shakes, energy bars and nutritional supplements.
You can order online or from a distributor. Like most multi-level ventures, Herbalife is always eager to sign up new distributors, so it's important to stay focused. If you're looking to lose weight, concentrate on that. Getting into a new line of work can come later.
Just ask Maurice of Washington, D.C.
"I had phenomenal success with the weight-loss program. If taken according to directions, the product really works! I cannot say the same for the business program that Herbalife offers. I was told that if I would sign up for the business program, I would be able to buy the product at a discount. That was true, but before long, I was being pressured to invest large sums of money and to create a down line of distributors," Maurice said in a ConsumerAffairs review.
In short, he lost weight but also lost money trying to sell the products.
Medifast has had its ups and downs. Originally developed to be used under a doctor's supervision, it now offers a variety of meal replacement programs you can use at home. It cites scientific studies to support its claims but it has also run afoul of government agencies a few times.
In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission fined Medifast $3.7 million after finding it had made unsupported claims about its products.
Some consumers have also reported that they have experienced allergic reactions to the large amounts of soy in the Medifast products.
"I used the products successfully for roughly 10 months and lost 43 pounds. However, I developed a serious allergy to soy and began menopause a bit sooner than was expected with some adverse symptoms," said Kim of Long Beach, Calif., in a ConsumerAffairs review.
Consumers prone to allergies may want to talk to their allergist before starting Medifast or, for that matter, any diet with a heavy soy content.
Lose 18 pounds in 12 weeks? That's what Right Size claims on its website: "Even if you have only a few minutes to eat, you’ll have enough time to shake up one of our smoothies. Simply replace your current breakfast and lunch with our easy-to-make smoothies and you can expect to lose up to 18 lbs. in 12 weeks.*"
The asterisk leads to a footnote that says: "*Results not typical. Weight loss was achieved by replacing two meals a day with RightSize Smoothies while following a reduced-calorie diet."
As with many weight-loss programs, many of the comments we've received have to do with cost.
"I subscribed to Right Size Smoothies for Monthly delivery. I really loved the stuff but had one huge complaint," said Deborah of Fountain Inn, S.C., in a ConsumerAffairs review. "I subscribed at their website, the price was $10.00, not bad, but to my surprise it cost $20.00 shipping and handling. Total was $30.00."
In summary: they're high-protein shakes. As part of a balanced, portion-controlled diet, they can probably help you lose weight but watch out for those shipping charges.
And then what?
There's not much doubt that any of these programs can help you lose weight during the time you're following them. But eventually, you'll need to extricate yourself, if for no other reason than that the programs are expensive and even the best of them get boring after awhile.
The big advantage of the more traditional plans, like Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers is that, unlike the two-shakes-a-day plans, they can help you learn good eating habits and adjust your appetite to match the reduced calories demanded by a modern, mostly sedentary lifestyle.
Lean meat, fresh or frozen vegetables, fruits, nuts, bread and pasta will keep you going a long time. A diet program like those we've looked at can get you started. After you've learned how much better you look and feel minus those extra pounds, maybe you'll even be motivated to find that dietitian we talked about earlier.
If you think of weight loss the way we think about fitness, the commercial diet plans are like a personal trainer. You put in some intensive road work, pump some iron and so forth until you reach your personal best, then take it from there with a maintance plan your trainer helps you work out before you go your separate ways.
As with most things in life, there's no one solution to the problem of weight gain. But there are lots of good partial solutions that, when combined, can get you where you want to go.
There's no shortage of advice on how to lose weight. You could take up triathlons, switch to a raw or paleo diet or begin counting calories and keep track...