A Dietitian's View of Nutrisystem
Weight loss is a journey. Some people attempt to find their own way, while others prefer a roadmap. Nutrisystem is one such navigation system on the road to losing weight.
The basics of Nutrisystem involve selecting a plan of 1200 calories for women or 1500 calories for men. The plans are structured to eat 6 small meals every 2-4 hours with the goal of maintaining energy levels. Research has shown that when energy levels remain steady through consistent intake of quality nutrition sources, metabolism will work more efficiently to promote weight loss. Increasing your body’s ability to burn calories at rest (known as basal metabolic rate) is one of the main goals of the Nutrisystem plan. Safe weight loss is ½ to 2 pounds a week, which promotes long term success while reducing risk of gaining back weight.
Meal Timing and Metabolism
A common weight loss mistake is skipping meals or drastically cutting calories. It is assumed that less intake of calories automatically leads to weight loss. And if significant calories are cut, weight loss should occur faster. However, our bodies don’t follow this logic. When we go long periods of time without providing energy, our body assumes there is an emergency and goes into survival mode. This means the body is conserving energy by slowing down metabolism because it doesn’t want to waste unnecessary energy (ie. calories). In turn, fat stores are built up. Fat is a very rich source of energy the body doesn’t like tapping into unless absolutely needed. Essentially, it’s the energy equivalent of a 401K – lots of money but impossible to withdraw from the account. While you simply are trying to lose weight through reducing calorie intake and skipping meals, your body assumes you’re stranded on a desert island with no sources of food or water. This triggers “starvation mode” and a slower metabolic rate.
Nutrisystem attempts to keep the body out of starvation mode by supplying meals and snacks and a suggested meal timing schedule of every 2-4 hours. The meals provide an average of 150-250 calories, while snacks are around 150 calories. This allows the body adequate energy to meet nutrition needs while simultaneously promoting weight loss.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, my main goal is educating clients on meal timing and quality food choices. Some need just a few pointers and encouragement to get them on track. Others need a very “paint by numbers” approach, like Nutrisystem. I had an opportunity to review Nutrisystem in more depth to determine if it’s a potential option to offer clients.
What Works with Nutrisystem Plan
When it comes to weight loss, behavior change is more important than the actual food being consumed. Nutrisystem is a plan that encourages behavior change through meal timing, portion sizes, cooking skills, and some planning. One sign I tell my clients to be wary of when looking at weight loss programs are those that require the purchase of special food items. However, the premise of Nutrisystem is following their meals that are pre-planned and pre-portioned with healthy weight loss in mind. As I mentioned, there are some people who need that extra hand-holding when it comes to starting a weight loss plan, which Nutrisystem’s meal plans can provide. As a dietitian with a “food first” philosophy, I appreciate that Nutrisystem puts emphasis on food rather than promoting the use of supplements.
The key to success on the Nutrisystem plan is the reinforcement that meals or snacks must be consumed every 2-4 hours and discourages skipping meals in order to keep metabolism boosted. This plan also heavily encourages the addition of fruit and veggies to all meals. The recommendation is to have at least four servings of veggies (1 serving = ½ C cooked or 1C raw) and 1-2 servings of fruit per day. When it comes to changing eating habits, any plan that does not promote the intake of fruits and veggies is questionable. Bravo, Nutrisystem! It should be noted that most meals or snacks provided by Nutrisystem don’t come with a significant serving of veggies or fruit (if they are included at all), so those must be purchased on your own at a local grocery store. Water is another nutrient that is encouraged on the plan, with a general guideline of at least 8 eight ounce glasses per day. Other positive lifestyle factors like adequate sleep and smoking cessation are also encouraged to promote optimal success on program.
All Nutrisystem plans begin with a Turbo Takeoff during the first week of the program. This portion was designed to shock the system in preparation for the duration of the Nutrisystem plan. Select breakfast, lunch, and dinners are provided during this week, along with TurboShakes™ and NutriCrush bars. Personally, I’m not a fan when shakes and bars are promoted as a meal replacement instead of eating wholesome fruits and veggies, but it is only for the first 7 days before fully transitioning on to the program.
Once a participant is fully utilizing the Nutrisystem plan, they have the flexibility to select their own meals. Participants receive daily trackers with meals outlined and color-coded, a food diary, and a Grocery Guide to help in selecting supplemental fruit and veggie items. Food are categorized as follows:
Smart Carb: complex, high fiber carbohydrates including fruits, whole grains, and starchy veggies
Power Fuel: lean sources of protein including meats, dairy, and nuts
Veggies: non-starchy vegetables
Free Food: items used as flavoring including spices and seasonings
Extras: sweeteners, fats, and oils including butter, mayo, avocado, honey, and dressing
Need more info on specific foods that fall into these categories? Check out this helpful guide. The NuMi tracking system, available online and via smartphone app, helps participants monitor program progress. This can also sync to fitness device.
An important aspect of the Nutrisystem plan is the incorporation of FlexMeals. These are meals that participants prepare for themselves. One breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack are required on your own each week (no all in the same day). I like this feature because it forces participants to take some ownership and control of their meals. While I’m sure Nutrisystem would love people to be on their plan forever, it’s not realistic. People need to be given tools to fly on their own for long term success.
Which brings us to the Nutrisystem Success plan, a guided transition off the Nutrisystem meals and promotes maintenance of positive habits in addition to weight loss. Nutrisystem Success provides meal plans, portion control containers, and a start-up guide to eat more self-prepared meals. Participants are given the option to continue ordering meals and snacks a la carte.
What Needs Improvement for Nutrisystem
The premise of meal timing and incorporation of fruits and vegetables are two positive factors for the Nutrisystem plan. However, upon viewing the options available to participants, the quality of foods offered could use a makeover. Breakfast and snacks are particularly the most concerning, as they are very carb-heavy foods including cinnamon buns, muffins, and bars. One area of emphasis I work on with my clients is ensuring breakfast include a source of protein and high fiber foods to feel fuller longer and slow glucose absorption. While the items are labeled as “good sources” of protein and fiber, the amount of protein provided in these items is inadequate for a meal. There should be more PowerFuel items promoted for breakfast and potentially even recommend supplementing as needed.
Likewise, the snack options available still promote intake of cookies, cakes, chocolate bars, pretzels, and cheese puffs. Sure, the items are considered “diet-friendly”, but swapping a Nutrisystem cookie in place of non-Nutrisystem cookie is not changing the behavior to make better choices. Instead the plan should be encouraging intake of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, nuts, and healthy fats such as nut butters and avocado. The same can be said when pizza and stromboli make up a lot of lunch and dinner options. More emphasis should be placed on portion size and the incorporation of veggies rather than swapping a less desirable choice for a different brand.
Another educational area I work on a lot with my clients is the intake of bars. A bar is not a meal. It can sometimes be a snack. But the quality of bars can be questionable and often a glorified candy bar in disguise. Seeing Nutrisystem include a multitude of bars as a breakfast or lunch option is a little discouraging when it comes to truly changing behavior.
Lunch and dinner provide more substantial sources of protein. However, it feels like there is a missed opportunity here to incorporate more variety and educate on whole grains and plant-based proteins. Whole grain options can be incorporated into meals where rice or pasta are currently being used. Whole grains actually freeze better and don’t lose their texture like pasta, which can get mushy after freezing. With movements like Meatless Monday, it would be ideal to incorporate more bean, soy, and other plant-based proteins into meals. You have a captive audience, so why not try something new?
Cost is another factor to take into account with a program like Nutrisystem. Plans range from Basic ($9.82/day), Core ($10.54/day) and Uniquely Yours ($11.96/day). This does not include supplemental items including fruits and vegetables that need to be purchased as well. However, I always ask my clients to assess the cost of convenience before assuming something is too expensive. With Nutrisystem, you are paying for meals that are prepared, portioned, and ready to eat, along with a plan and support. When taking all those features into account, the cost isn’t as prohibitive as one may think. Plus, with Nutrisystem, food waste (which leads to money waste) can also be eliminated due to frozen meals and having a plan in place.
There are a few areas that could use more emphasis with Nutrisystem. Physical activity could definitely use more attention within the program. The USDA recommendation of 30 minutes most days tends to be casually mentioned, but not promoted as much as meal consumption. When it comes to behavior change and health, exercise is as important as food choices. Another missed opportunity is teaching clients how to read food labels, which becomes extremely important once someone transitions to the Nutrisystem Success maintenance plan.
Nutrisystem has a few contraindications for people to consider before starting the program. The ingredients are not ideal for people with celiac, latex/soy/peanut allergies, or chronic kidney disease (CKD). Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not be cutting calories and therefore this program would not be appropriate. There are lacto-ovo vegetarian options (dairy and eggs), but no vegan options are available at this time. One area where Nutrisystem has put focus is offering a diabetes-friendly plan, but this is another area where more education could be provided on carb counting and label reading.
Finally, as the author of the couple’s nutrition blog, Nutrition Nuptials, one area I heavily stress with couples is aim to consume as many meals together as a couple – and ideally the same meal. Eating different meals all the time can feel like a disconnect. We don’t realize it, but mealtime is an incredibly important bonding time with our significant other. And for households with children, parents eating different foods can send a confusing message. This can promote pickiness or food/eating issues in children. Significant others can show support for partners participating in Nutrisystem by doing the program as well or having the occasional Nutrisystem dinner together for support. Partners can help participate in planning and prepping for FlexMeals, and becoming educated as well to help with long term maintenance and motivation on the Nutrisystem Success plan.
The Dietitian Verdict on Nutrisystem
This dietitian feels Nutrisystem can provide a good starting point for those aiming to really get a jump on their weight loss goals. Working in conjunction with a registered dietitian nutritionist addresses gaps in education to ultimately set you up for success. Many dietitians accept insurance, which can help offset cost concerns. To find a registered dietitian in your area, consult your insurance plan or visit the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics dietitian database.