011414 weight loss programs 1 310

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Usher in the New Year with a new you. For many, this means resolving to eat better and exercise more. If that's your goal for 2014, a well-balanced and easy-to-follow weight-loss plan can help you hit the mark.

There are many types of weight-loss plans. The least expensive are self-directed; that is, you learn about a diet and exercise options from a book and resolve to stick with the program. Would-be dieters who prefer more guidance can find lots of meal plans, food, and exercise recommendations in online diet programs along with interactive tools and community support; most are membership-based and some require a weekly or monthly fee. There are also food-delivery diet programs that send you prepared meals and/or snacks, but these tend to be expensive and don't suit everyone's palate. Moreover, you don't really learn to make smart food choices when all the preparation is done for you.

Cheapism weighed the pros and cons of several of the best-known and low-cost diet plans, with an eye on cost, food options, healthy-lifestyle recommendations, and level of support.

Proven Success, for a Price.

Our top pick is Weight Watchers. For $18.95 a month members receive access to online tools and a robust community that offers peer support and advice. Aside from an optional two-week program called Simple Start, Weight Watchers doesn't restrict your choice of foods. Instead, the focus is on overall intake that's tracked through a points system. A point value is assigned every food based on its protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber content; dieters are allowed a total number of daily points that can be increased by exercising. This relatively flexible system, combined with the online tools and community, has yielded much success and generated rave reviews. Access to in-person meetings coordinated by Weight Watchers is also available for an extra fee.

Still More Diet Plans.

The South Beach Diet is a web-based program that was preceded by a book of the same name first published in 2005. This diet emphasizes so-called good carbs and good fats along with protein and restricts certain foods in various phases of the program. Dieters like the South Beach approach largely because of the noticeable weight loss, even in the first of the three phases, and because they learn to eat differently. They also appreciate the active online community and the access to recipes, meal planning tools, and tracking resources available through the site.

SparkPeople is another web-based diet program that shares information (articles, videos, etc.) and advice on how to eat well, exercise, and sustain success by altering everyday habits. Membership in SparkPeople is free and offers access to recipes and tools for tracking calories, nutritional intake, and weight, and also participation in community forums, teams, and challenges. SparkPeople and the associated SparkDiet require more self-motivation and control than some other diet programs given the absence of food restrictions and strict rules. But it seems to work, or so say scads of enthusiastic followers.

Diet Plans that Disappoint.

It's certainly cheap enough to learn about The Atkins Diet -- just buy the book or check out the site -- but seeing it through may be costly. There's no peer support, for one, and the protein- and fat-heavy diet may be associated with bad health outcomes (e.g., heart and renal disease, osteoporosis, constipation, insomnia). Moreover, reviews say the acceptable list of foods gets pretty boring after a while.

Then there's Nutrisystem, a diet-food delivery program that takes all thinking and doing out of the weight-loss process. For a starting price of $229.99, Nutrisystem sends you enough pre-made meals and snacks for 28 days, but you'll need to shop for fresh produce and dairy. Some dieters' reviews indicate it delivers success in terms of weight loss but many assert the food is relatively tasteless and loaded with salt and artificial ingredients. The total outlay for food each month plus the limited training for making smart food choices over the long term deters many dieters.

Diets in a Modern Age.

Most of the well-known weight-loss plans now make mobile apps available to members. The apps are typically geared toward reminding dieters what's allowed and not, tracking weight and food intake, planning meals, and suggesting workouts. The Weight Watchers' app also recommends menu items when dining at restaurants and scans barcodes at grocery stores and finds the items' point values. The South Beach Diet app lets members query nutritionists via a message board.

Final Tip.

Always speak with a doctor before beginning any diet plan.

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