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Obesity Fact #7: Provision of Meals Leads to Greater Weight Loss

sharma-obesity-jenny-craigObesity fact #7 in the New England Journal of Medicine paper on obesity myths, presumptions and facts, states simply that,

“Provision of meals and use of meal-replacement products promote greater weight loss.”

This “fact” is not surprising, as obviously if all you eat are the meals that are provided as part of a hypocaloric meal plan, then this is going to result in more weight loss than trying to compile those plans on your own.

Thus, as the authors rightly note,

“More structure regarding meals is associated with greater weight loss, as compared with seemingly holistic programs that are based on concepts of balance, variety, and moderation.”

While this may well be the case, the question ultimately is not just one of efficacy but also of effectiveness.

In other words, how likely, in the real world, is someone going to stick with a highly structured diet that essentially consists of meals delivered to your doorstep or even to meal replacements (rather than “real” food)?

While there are no doubt people who would fare well with such a regimen and would be willing to sacrifice variety for a plan that requires no effort in preparation and little effort in terms of decision-making, this may well be a minority of individuals.

While such strategies may well work to lose weight – the question really is whether such strategies results in long-term behaviour change that continues once you go back to eating “normal” foods in “normal” settings. Both cost and monotony could well be limitations of such approaches in the long term.

Nevertheless, I am certain that some of my readers will have their own experience with weight loss plans that either provide meals (e.g. Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, etc.) or plans that involve replacing meals with bars or shakes (e.g. Slim-Fast).

That both strategies can be highly effective and promote weight loss is without question – they definitely work – whether such strategies are effective in the long-term (beyond the confines of a clinical trial) is perhaps less certain.

Obviously, any diet plan only works as long as you stick with it and there is probably nothing simpler or more convenient than having someone else prepare your meals for you.

Chicago, IL


  1. Unfortunately, meal plan services and meal replacements have become what most people consider a “diet” to lose weight as opposed to the necessary lifestyle change to keep it off and improve health.

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  2. I was going to add that this general idea works well with foods you prepare and portion ahead of time. For example, you can go to Costco and get a large bag of frozen chicken breasts. If you are not picky, these can go directly into the oven. You can then pair the chicken breasts with roasted/raw veg and something like half a potato or sweet potato. Everything is pretty easy to make, keeps well during the week, and larger portions than those tiny lean cuisines. Most people cringe away from the idea of eating the same thing every day, but really what you want is a general template. The chicken breast can be subbed out for grilled flank steak, salmon, etc and flavored the way you like with spice rubs or marinades.

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  3. I absolutely agree that the prepared meals are easy and will get the pounds off quickly, but as Dr. Sharma points out, the hard part is keeping the weight off. I have seen many people subscribe to meal replacement programs that consist of two shakes and a heat and eat for dinner. Typically the calories are so low in these diets – some are only 800 – 900 calories a day – that it’s impossible and unhealthy to adhere to the program long term. When the program ends, the weight returns and many people gain back more weight than they lost.

    Losing weight and keeping it off is about behavior change and a lifetime commitment to healthier eating and exercise. It’s not as easy, but it’s the only think that really works.

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  4. I hate to cook. At 60 years old, that’s not going to change. Yes, we fatties all know what we’re supposed to eat, and know it’s not that hard to throw a chicken breast into the oven, and some veggies into the microwave or a salad bowl. However, already prepared meals are tastier. Several years ago, I did the Jenny Craig plan for about 8 months – enjoyed the meals (there was quite a variety) and lost 60 lbs. But it was costly so I had to give it up. No surprise that I regained all the weight within 2 years. For those of us who don’t like to cook, and aren’t “foodies”, heaven would be somebody placing a nice meal in front of us and saying: eat this.

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  5. Nancy, you bring up an interesting point: not everyone is motivated to cook healthy meals for themselves (even if they are quite happy eating them if someone else does the cooking). Sadly, relying on someone else to do the cooking (whether Jenny Craig or a restaurant) is more expensive than doing it yourself. I think there’s a middle ground, which is to buy frozen pre-packaged low-cal meals from the grocery store (e.g., Lean Cuisine) and stock up when they’re on sale. They’re certainly not ideal because they have lots of preservatives and sodium, but what they do give you is portion and calorie control. You can then supplement those with fresh veggies and fruit to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.

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