Many consumers relying on NutriSystem as an easy way to lose weight have been left with a bad taste in their mouths.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received 33 complaints, nine in the past month, about the NutriSystem weight loss program. The complaints are not usually about a lack of results, but rather, the distasteful food and lack of variety the diet offers.

NutriSystem works by giving a person all the food they need. The point is that it's easy to follow the diet because all the food a customer would need is provided in a simple menu.

The food is pre-packaged, mailed and can be stored in the open air. The customer just has to open the sealed foods and prepare them accordingly. However, many customers are saying that the food is salty and revolting to eat and to look at.

"The dehydrated hamburger becomes meat mush when prepared. Tuna and chicken salad are puree. The chocolates are like eating sawdust," Donna of Rockport, Texas wrote.

"I finally cancelled despite my resolve to stick to it when I opened a dinner entree (tuna casserole) and actually found the smell so revolting I threw it away. I cringe every time I see one of the NutriSystem commercials and hear the testimonial of delicious food. I cannot believe that anyone could even call this food acceptable much less delicious," she said

Goulda Downer, Ph.D., a registered dietician who heads Metroplex Health and Nutrition Services in Washington, D.C. wrote in an e-mail, "Some of my patients have complained that the meals are bland, unpalatable, and 'taste like cardboard.'"

Nutrisystem offers two choices when it comes to choosing a meal plan. The customer can either save $40 per month and let Nutrisystem choose their meals or they can pick their own.

Because of the unappatizing nature of many of the dishes, many consumers opt for the more pricy and selective plan. However, ConsumerAffairs.com has received many complaints from consumers saying that about 25 percent of their meals were not what they ordered.

"I am in my third month of ordering from NutriSystem," wrote Cate of St. Louis, Mo. "I order online and pay extra for the privilege of ordering the meals I want rather than doing the automatic ship where they choose the meals. For two of the three months I have ordered, they have shipped me substituted items, and I quote here from the letter that arrives with my order:

"Due to unusually high demand for our weight loss program, we are experiencing temporary shortages of some of our food products. Because of this, we may have had to substitute some items which you ordered that were out of stock with others of comparable value. We apologize for this temporary inconvenience, and thank you for your understanding in this matter."

"Of the 112 items in my last order (28 days worth), 32 items, (29%) were substitutes," Cate continued. "It is unconscionable to me that they would arbitrarily opt to substitute almost a third of my entire order."

That recent letter states that this is a temporary problem. However, ConsumerAffairs.com has received complaints about missing or substituted items dating back to Nov. 18, 2005.

What To Do?

Consumers who are tired of having their meals substituted should stretch their ConsumerAffairs.com muscle just as Danette of Apopka, Fla. did:

"The first month, I decided to customize my order to select things I felt were edible," Danette wrote. "My order arrived and most of the items I spent the time custom-selecting were not there ... NutriSystem substituted them. I placed a call to NutriSystem and was advised that their policy is to substitute and they are not required to advise the customer. When I advised them that I was going to file a complaint with ConsumerAffairs.com and my credit card company, they did agree to have Fed Ex pick up the shipment and they would cover the costs."

Too Much Salt

Many consumers have also complained that the meals are extraordinarily salty.

"Their food is like eating straight salt," wrote S. of Woodbury, Minn. "I emailed customer service asking if they offer or were planning to offer lower salt foods but of course, received no response. How can you lose weight when you are retaining water from eating so much salt?"

The NutriSystem website claims that per USDA recommendations, the meals contain, "less than the recommended limit of sodium intake."

"NutriSystem have stated that their meals contain less than the recommended limit of sodium intake," Downer wrote. "This is questionable since their program is based on providing prepackaged process meals (these are typically high in sodium). Most of the sodium in our diet is found mainly in processed and prepared foods. The balance comes from the salt added at the table and in cooking. To preserve shelf life, taste and texture of many foods, manufacturers use salt or other sodium containing compounds.

"While sodium is an essential nutrient, and we do need some in our diet, it should be in moderate amounts," Downer continued. "A daily value of 2,400 mg per day, just about a level teaspoon of salt, is the recommended intake for most Americans."

NutriSystem is not particularly cheap either. Most plans cost $290 to $340 per month.

A Better Way

Overall, Downer does not believe NutriSystem is the best way to lose weight.

"If you follow the 1200-1500 calorie diet stipulated by NutriSystem most people may lose some weight," Downer wrote. "However, the average individual eating the same amount of calories, without the high cost could achieve the same results. While NutriSystem prepackaged meals is a convenience for some there are better and healthier alternatives to weight loss."

"Not only are these programs costly, but the quality and texture of many meals are unpalatable. Unless people intend to eat NutriSystem prepackaged meals for the rest of their lives, they must learn the importance of preparing healthy meals. After all, there is life after NutriSystem."

"There is no substitute for understanding the value in learning how to eat regular healthy foods, and portion control," Downer wrote. "Furthermore such a low calorie diet must be carefully planned to meet the minimum daily values (DV) for most nutrients."

Downer suggests people who want to lose weight should practice moderation. A healthy balance of all types of foods coupled with lots of physical activity is a healthy way to lose weight.

For more information on healthy dieting visit the American Dietetic Association website, www.eatright.org.

ConsumerAffairs.com tried to get in contact with NutriSystem but all our calls went unanswered.