Diets, New and Improved

Photo: A dieter wears the BodyMedia FIT armband, a feature of Jenny Craigs new Metabolic Max program.

The big three of dieting -- Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem -- have tweaked their offerings for 2011, giving dieters new and innovative ways to shed pounds.

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."

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