Weighing up the cost of losing weight

RICHARD MEADOWS
Last updated 11:00 29/05/2013
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WEIGH IT UP: Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers work for many people, but there's nothing to stop you coming up with your own diet at little or no expense.

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You can't put a price on good health, but losing the love handles doesn't have to break the bank.

Buying into commercial weight loss programmes like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers can end up making your wallet even skinnier than your waistline.

We weigh up the cost of signing up with the above two market heavyweights, versus visiting a nutritionist or attempting a DIY diet.

DIY Diet

A typical weight-loss diet for a smaller person starts from about 1200 calories a day.

To get a base-line figure for the cost of food, we wandered around Countdown to price out a simple 1200 calorie meal plan.

Brekkie was oatmeal with trim milk, honey and berries. Lunch was a chicken sandwich with wholegrain bread, tomato, lettuce and mustard.

Dinner was baked salmon with green beans and salad, and we squeezed in an apple, almonds, milk, yoghurt and berries as snacks.

The total food bill worked out to roughly $14 a day, or $100 a week. Over the course of a year, that's $5200.

Weight Watchers

The standard Weight Watchers membership is $54.90 per month.

You buy all your own food as per normal, so the programme adds an extra $658 on top of the $5200.

Jenny Craig

A year's worth of support on the Jenny Craig Signature plan costs $249.

That's relatively cheap but Ms Craig makes her real money by selling you food.

A week's worth of pre-packaged food to chuck in the fridge and freezer is roughly $150.

Then you'll need to drop another $20 or so on fruit, veges and dairy from the supermarket to top up the food provided..

All up, it's just over $9000 if you bought food for a full year.

Nutritionist

Seeing a nutritionist usually involves a one-off initial consultation, several follow-ups and then short check-ins as needed.

Prices range quite a bit, but you could expect to pay anywhere from $250 to $500 for five sessions.

That makes for a total cost including food of roughly $5700 a year.

WHAT DO YOU GET?

We can see that Jenny Craig slaps an extra 50 per cent on your food bill, and joining Weight Watchers or seeing a nutritionist will cost several hundred dollars.

The question is whether the service you receive from each makes it worth your money.

DIY Diet

You're on your own - planning, tracking and motivation are all up to you.

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And we all know how well that works out!

Jenny Craig

Signing up with Jenny gets you a personalised diet plan and an armful of food, which requires neither brain cells nor cooking skills.

Auckland hospitality worker Janet Johnstone has been on the programme twice, both successfully. For her it's all about the convenience.

"As an intelligent human being, I know what I need to eat to stay healthy and lose a bit of weight," she says.

"But especially with my job, the hours I do make it hard to have stuff cooked or go to the supermarket and have stuff prepared."

Jenny Craig clients weigh in weekly in a one-on-one session with a consultant, and pick up their week's worth of food.

Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers requires a bit more thinking. It's more or less a simplified form of calorie-counting, with "Pro Points" assigned to each food instead of calories.

Your $55 a month gets you access to online tools and calculators, a handbook to look up the Pro-Points of various foods, and group meetings with your fellow Weight Watchers.

There's nothing like standing on a pair of scales in front of a group of strangers to keep you on track.

Queensland-based kiwi expat Carmen Hale says following Weight Watchers wasn't exactly revolutionary, but it worked for her.

"It really just reflects everything you learnt from school - five plus a day, so many servings of this and that, and your 8 glasses of water plus 30 mins activity," she says.

Others who did Weight Watchers as an online only service said although it was inexpensive and the tools were useful, the lack of real-person follow up made it hard to get motivated.

Nutritionist

A nutritionist will sit you down for an hour or so at the first consultation and map out your dietary needs.

They'll prescribe you a meal plan, and help you adapt the foods you enjoy into your diet - or healthy versions of them, at least.

A couple of follow-up sessions every fortnight or so make sure you're sticking to your plan, and introduce any foods you might be pining for.

If you want to go back after that, you'll pay about $35-$50 for a check-in whenever you feel it's needed.

DOES IT LAST?

There's no point doing a weight loss programme if all the fat's going to pile back on when you stop. Staying on Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers for life will cost you a small fortune - so are there exit strategies for going it alone?

Weight Watchers spokeswoman Laura Gurnett says members do learn about healthy eating and exercise at meetings, so there is an education element.

Once members hit their goal weight - defined as having a BMI in the healthy range - they become lifetime members.

As long as they stay in that healthy range, they no longer have to pay the monthly fees.

"We've got lifetime members that have been members for 30 years, and they still go to meetings," says Gurnett. "They like the support they get."

Those that have done Jenny Craig say they didn't learn much about about dieting in the outside world, other than controlling portion size.

But a spokesperson says once clients are halfway to their goal weight, they start making their own meals and are slowly weaned off the Jenny Craig food.

Once they've reached a maintenance weight they generally don't buy food at all.

Results Nutrition Centre director Helen Ross says she ends up seeing a lot of clients who have crashed after leaving a commercial weight loss programme.

Her goal is to get her clients to the point where they don't need her anymore.

"We're teaching people how to eat everyday foods that that they can buy from the supermarket ... to incorporate it into a big picture healthy eating plan that they can follow for life."

DOES IT WORK?

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers undoubtedly work for many people.

But there's nothing to stop you doing some basic research - or consulting a nutritionist if need be - and coming up with your own diet at little or no expense.

"Education is the easy part - you can teach people what they need to do," says Ross.

"Changing behaviours is the more difficult part."

She estimates that barring a few people with medical issues, all her clients who commit to their plan meet their goals. But compliance is only about 50-50.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

That's where the motivational weekly check-ins, or forced feeding approach of Jenny Craig, really come into their own.

For what it's worth, Weight Watchers' own research shows that those who join a slimming group lose five times as much weight as DIY dieters.

If it falls in the too-hard basket, paying someone to help with your diet is really no different to paying an accountant to fill out your tax return.

But if you do have the time, effort, and willpower to commit to a healthy lifestyle without having your hand held, you stand to save a small fortune.

Do you think commercial weight-loss programmes are worth the money? Leave your comments below.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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