How the Optavia diet uses prepared food and what you should know

The diet is centered around packaged foods you buy from the company, plus support options.

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By Kristin Kirkpatrick

Among the hundreds of diet plans out there, a newer plan that has gained popularity as a structured path to weight loss is the Optavia diet. The diet, which lays out how many meals to eat each day and sells packaged food, has been mentioned by some well-known names.

But what is the actual diet and how much does it cost? Can it help people lose weight and keep it off?

What is the Optavia diet?

Some people might remember the Medifast diet, which had its main claim was that it was developed with doctors. This diet is a reboot, with some additions.

There are three different diet programs from which people who want to follow the Optavia diet can choose.The variations include how many meals a day to consume and how many are pre-packaged versus made at home.

One weight loss plan, for example, is based on six small meals a day, five of which are provided to you by the company and are referred to as “fuelings.” The fuelings are essentially a month’s worth of bars, cereals, shakes, cookies, soups and snacks — none of which require any real cooking. The sixth meal is made at home with regular grocery items, which the company refers to as “lean and green meals.” These primarily consist of protein and vegetables, with an encouragement to include some healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids. The program provides transition meal plans when people are ready to stop using using their prepared foods.

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One of the additional elements this plan provides is support. In addition to the food, there are coaches, online support and instructions that favor one habit change at a time. Finally, the company provides programs tailored to seniors and teen populations, as well.

What is good about the Optavia diet?

If quick weight loss is a goal, this plan could be a solution. This is most likely a reason why it has soared in popularity. The diet may also seem easier and more achievable since the majority of meals and snacks are pre-determined.

In addition to quick weight loss, the plan eliminates alcohol and sugary drinks, which have strong ties to disease when consumed in excess. It also discourages desserts, including chocolate, as well as most solid forms of fat, including butter and coconut oil. If a participants can change their eating habits to avoid these foods as a result of following the plan, that would be an independent beneficial aspect.

Finally, the plan provides access to their online community support, weekly support calls and coaching. For some people, this can be an essential component to success in weight loss.

Why the diet probably won't work for everyone

The long-term data on whether people using the plan maintained their weight loss, however, is lacking.

The diet may teach people how to lose weight with their food, but what happens when they have to make their own meals? This may be the biggest downfall to the Optavia diet. Although the diet removes the burden of decision-making in meal planning, it can’t solve some of the other barriers to losing weight and keeping it off when it's time to transition away from eating their foods. These factors are part of what researchers call an ‘obesogenic' environment that includes intense food marketing, availability of food and portion size, coupled with stress and sedentary lifestyle.

Though the plan factors in transition foods over time, participants are still dependent on their options to get through the weight loss period, which means they may shell out hundreds to thousands of dollars just to stay on Optavia's packaged foods. Additionally, the food options may provide the quantity that makes weight loss sense, but the food is processed and lacks nutrient density. Supplements are recommended to enhance nutrition during the diet.

People who follow the diet strictly will probably lose weight. This has less to do with the program and more to do with the fact that any low-calorie plan will increase your chances of weight loss. But, it’s the long-term data that should be more important since sustaining weight loss is the ultimate success barometer, not the weight loss itself. In fact, studies show that weight loss maintenance can be a more challenging endeavor than weight loss. A recent analysis reviewing multiple studies showed that more than half of the weight loss the participants achieved was gained back in two years, and 80% was gained back in five years.

Losing weight is hard and very few programs that make buying their food a requirement have been shown to lead to permanent weight loss.

Though the social support on this program may be beneficial, cooking and consuming real food may be a better way to lose weight today — and keep it off tomorrow.

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