Just in time for New Year's resolutions, dieters have a new list of easy ways to shed pounds or kickstart healthy eating habits.
U.S. News and World Report released the 2012 edition of its annual rankings of Best Diets, this year adding a list of easiest diets to follow.
Weight Watchers took the top spot on the new list, followed by Jenny Craig, the Mediterranean Diet, Slim-Fast and Volumetrics.
An independent panel of 22 experts, including nutritionists, dietitians, cardiologists and diabetologists reviewed 20 popular diet profiles that were developed by reporters and editors at U.S. News and World Report. Categories were then created to rate the nutrition plans, including Heart-Healthy Diets, Weight Loss, Diabetes Diets and Healthy Eating.
For the Easiest Diets list, programs received points for convenience, ease of initial adjustment, fullness and taste.
Dr. David Katz, co-founder of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and one of the panelists judging the diets, said ease is an important factor in determining how well a diet will work.
"It's one thing to go on a diet for a week, but how confident do you feel you could do this for the rest of your life?" Katz said, noting that he judged a diet plan's ease based on its restrictiveness and any support and guidance the program offers to dieters.
Weight Watchers Takes the Cake
The much-publicized diet program took home the prize for the easiest diet, earning 3.7 out of 5 points in the category. The report touted the program's many tools for monitoring food intake and the freedom dieters have to balance healthy choices with the occasional guilty pleasure.
"It's very user friendly, and allows people to go out to eat and live like a human being," said Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "It's got enough flexibility to be tailored to the kind of person you are."
Weight Watchers, which is built on a points system accompanied by weekly group meetings, weigh-ins, recipe suggestions and behavioral counseling, has garnered praise from diet and nutrition researchers before. A 2011 study found it was the most effective program for helping dieters lose weight.
In the Best Diets 2012 rankings, Weight Watchers also slipped into the top spots of the Best Weight-Loss Diets and Best Commercial Diet Plans lists, prizes the program garnered in the 2011 rankings too.
"Weight Watchers one of the big winners here. It has so many good attributes," Katz said. "It's easy, they make the monitoring easy, and it is a structured program. You don't have difficulty finding right foods and the program also lends you support."
Prepackaged Foods Mean Convenience
A number of the programs on the Easiest Diets list emphasize certain doses of prepackaged foods.
The Jenny Craig diet offers its own brand of food, including single-serving entrees, snacks and desserts, which are sent to dieters' homes. Prices vary, but the cost of the food can range between $400 and $600 per month. The Slim-Fast program prescribes twice-daily shakes to its dieters, costing about $35 for a 24-pack of shakes. Weight Watchers also sells its own line of frozen meals and snacks to its point-counting participants.
The programs are popular and successful, according to some studies. Rankings from Consumer Reports in 2011 placed Jenny Craig and Slim-Fast in the top spots of its list of best diets. A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 92 percent of Jenny Craig participants stuck with the program for two years, and weighed an average of 8 percent less than before they started the program.
"Jenny's clinically proven program that offers balanced menu plans as a model for proper portions," said chief executive officer Dana Fiser in a statement from the company.
But some nutrition experts say they find a dieter's reliance on prepackaged foods unpalatable.
"Most of these diets do not address the lifestyle changes needed to improve health bur rather attempt to simply rein in bad habits with smaller portion sizes or with pre-packaged food products," said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Beth Kitchin, a dietician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said she recommends that dieters stick to real foods and smart portion sizes, but said some products can offer an easy way to get people to begin much-needed weight loss.
"Would I love to eat home-cooked healthy meals every day, every meal? Sure, but who's got the time?" Kitchin said. "We need to be practical and pragmatic when it comes to eating healthfully."
A DASH Under Easy
The DASH diet took home U.S. News and World Report's prize as the best overall diet, but barely missed a spot on the list of easiest diets, earning 3.1 out of 5 points in that category.
"DASH is actually awesome. It's pretty realistic, it's not bizarre. It just asks people to eat a lot of fruits or vegetables and low-fat or non-fat dairy, which really is how I measure the quality of a diet," Ayoob said. "It's not inhuman."
DASH -- Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension -- was originally designed to help people lower their blood pressure by controlling their sodium intake, cholesterol and triglycerides. Several studies have shown that the diet is successful in improving heart health.
Katz said DASH is a moderately easy diet, but it doesn't have the support that some of the other diets have, which may be why it ranked lower on the list.
Overall, experts say the list of easy diets can be an important tool to give dieters options for how they can begin to lose weight and stay healthy.
"There's more than one healthy diet," Ayoob said. "But people have to accept that you have to take a hands-on approach."