Diet industry observer John S. LaRosa, president of Marketdata Enterprises, distinguishes between major and minor changes.
Major he calls Jenny Craig's decision to offer customers an electronic BodyMedia FIT Armband that accurately and automatically records the number of calories they expended on exercise and during everyday activities like washing the dishes, climbing stairs or taking out the trash.
The dieter downloads this information from the armband onto a home computer. Software then compares it with information already entered that tracks the person's eating habits. Voila! A chart tells you if you are eating too few or too many calories, in relation to your weight loss goals.
"The armband monitor -- that's truly a new thing," LaRosa says.
"It brings an element of high-tech to our program," says Steve Bellach, Jenny Craig's VP of marketing. "We've always been very good at measuring calories going in" -- Jenny Craig supplies customers with ready-made meals, whose calorie content is predetermined -- "but we've never had a way before this to accurately monitor calories going out. We believe ours is the most personalized program out there."
To use it, of course, you need to have a home computer. But Bellach says he doesn't see that as a problem: "Household penetration of computers is nearly 100 percent for our customers."
LaRosa says he sees the program's cost as an issue.
"You don't have the option, as you do on Weight Watchers and some other programs, of eating their food or your own. You eat theirs, and you spend $1,100 to $1,200 for three months. We're still in a period now where budgets are tight. People are more into a do-it-yourself dieting: They walk more, and they're using inexpensive meal replacements such as bars and shakes. The use of free diet websites now is very popular."
LaRosa, who has followed diet market trends since 1989, has his own website, BestDietForMe.com, which is free. It helps people determine which diet -- among the 100s out there -- is right for them.
Weight Watcher's updating of its "Points" weight-loss program sounds minor -- it's a change both in the way point values are assigned to food and how many points-worth of food a program member is allowed to eat -- but the company calls this its biggest change in more than a decade.
"PointsPlus" gently nudges eaters toward natural, unprocessed foods and away from foods with added sugars and fats. It takes into account how much energy the food takes to digest (ones that require more are preferred) and satiety -- the fact that some foods satisfy hunger better than others.
The old system allowed a dieter 22 daily points-worth of food and an extra bonus of 35 points a week. Those numbers under PointsPlus are, respectively, 31 and 49. While fruits cost points before, they don't now -- a person can eat a bag of apples and accrue zero points. Many vegetables (excluding starchy ones, such as corn, peas and potatoes) also count for zero.
Karen Miller-Kovach, the Weight Watchers scientist who devised PointsPlus, compares the change-over to Detroit's introduction of a new model: "The same car will get a tweak or two every model year. Then, once a decade, it gets a total re-design."
The only thing PointsPlus has in common with the prior system, she says, "is that it's easy to learn and follow."
Reaction from followers of the old system has been mostly favorable. "You've liberated bananas!" exclaimed one member.
But Stephen Harris, a Weight Watchers group leader in Manhattan, says there's also been some push-back. Some members have said, in effect, "That can't be true" -- that you can eat an unlimited amount of fruit and still stay within the program's calorie and sugar guidelines.
They're correct: PointsPlus doesn't say you can eat an unlimited amount of fruit. It says you can eat as much as it takes to satisfy your appetite. Whether you're eating bananas or prime rib, Weight Watchers tells you to stop when you feel full.
Under the old system, explains Miller-Kovach , a piece of fruit and a mini-candy bar might each have been worth two points. Understandably, some people opted for the candy bar. Now, she says, the fact the fruit costs them no points impels them toward the fruit, which, compared to candy, has less sugar, less fat and more nutrients.
Isn't there a danger that the binge-inclined will gobble 57 nectarines? Miller-Kovach thinks not. Being high in fiber, nutritious and full of water, fruit satisfies the appetite quickly. Plus, "it tends to be self-limiting." Meaning what? Meaning that if you did eat 57 nectarines, you wouldn't do it twice.
"You'd feel ... uh ... crappy," says the scientist. "No pun intended."
At Nutrisystem, whose new campaign is called "Hooray You!" the biggest changes include a $100 price cut: The 28-day program now costs $299 a month, down from $399. A new menu adds fresh-frozen entrees to what before had been a menu made up mostly of "shelf-stable" processed foods not needing refrigeration.
"They reformulated a lot of items to make them more tasty and appealing," says John LaRosa. "There had been concerns about taste and quality with the entrees being shelf-stable."
The change comes too late to placate Christy, an ex-Nutrisystem customer in Manhattan who asks that her last name not be used. The 40-year-old communications executive describes herself as a "lapsed" graduate of many diet programs, including Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. She says she found Nutrisystem's cuisine off-putting.
"You could smell it down the hall," she says. "It smelled like burning rubber -- an acrid, chemical smell. I had to throw it out."