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Nutrisystem

Definition

NutriSystem is a commercial weight loss program based in the Philadelphia area that delivers heat-and-eat foods directly to the customer’s home in 28-day packages. Its products have been described as ‘‘fast food for weight loss.’’ Customers select one of six specialized subprograms, each of which offers a prepackaged assortment of food items called ‘‘Favorites Package’’ or a completely customized selection. As of 2007 NutriSystem has about 800,000 customers in the United States and Canada. In addition to its meal delivery programs, the company offers dietary supplements, including a multivitamin called Nutrihance. It has also recently formed a business partnership with a network of franchised fitness centers called Slim and Tone. In early 2007, NutriSystem combined its direct online marketing of diet foods with its network division of franchised consultants. The company’s market value was estimated at $2 billion as of early 2007.

Origins

NutriSystem began in 1972 as a producer of a liquid protein diet, which it abandoned in 1978 as a result of competition from Slim-Fast, Carnation weight loss products, and other over-the-counter liquid diet drinks. NutriSystem then started a chain of 1,200 bricks-and-mortar weight loss centers roughly similar to Weight Watchers; dieters came to the centers in person to weigh in and then purchased prepackaged portion-controlled meals to take home. The company went bankrupt in the early 1990s but reinvented itself in 1999 as an online meal delivery service. As of the early 2000s, customers may order their monthly food assortments by telephone as well as online. Although a free weight loss counseling service is available by telephone or online chat, fewer than 20% of customers make use of it.

Interestingly, the company’s advertising that is aimed at women differs from that of its competitors in nothiring celebrities. The company president has been quoted as saying, ‘‘Celebrities are risky. If they don’t lose the weight, it can work against you.’’

The next demographic that NutriSystem is seeking to attract is older customers. Two of the company’s six subprograms are designed for people over 60, and offer such options for health-conscious seniors as green tea and gingko biloba supplements to improve memory.

Description

NutriSystem does not ask customers to sign a contract. To begin the program, the client either chooses one of the six programs online and continues to fill out the order form for their 28-day supply of prepackaged foods, or calls the company’s toll-free number to order over the phone. As of early 2007, the six subprograms are:

  • Women's Program.
  • Silver for Women (women over 60). This program includes a free multivitamin supplement.
  • Men’s Program.
  • Silver for Men (men over 60). This program also includes a free multivitamin supplement.
  • Type II Diabetic Program.
  • All-Vegetarian Program.

To complete the first order, the dieter selects one breakfast, one lunch, one dinner item, and one dessert (dessert choices include non-sweet snacks like pretzels or nacho chips) for each day of the 28-day package. The total meal plan is designed around eating five times a day—three meals and two snacks. The NutriSystem foods do not require refrigeration; they are prepared by a ‘‘soft canning’’ process and can be stored at room temperature. Some items, such as the

KEY TERMS

Gingko biloba—A deciduous tree native to northern China whose leaves are used to make an extract thought to improve memory and relieve depression.

Glycemic index (GI)—A system devised at the University of Toronto in 1981 that ranks carbohydrates in individual foods on a gram-for-gram basis in regard to their effect on blood glucose levels in the first two hours after a meal. There are two commonly used GIs, one based on pure glucose as the reference standard and the other based on white bread.

Saturated fat—A fat that has no room for additional hydrogen atoms in its chain-like structure. High levels of saturated fats in the diet are thought to increase the risk of heart disease.

Trans fat—A type of unsaturated fatty acid that takes its name from the fact that its alkyl chains are arranged in the so-called trans configuration (in which the carbon atoms that have double bonds form a long chain rather than a kinked shape). Trans fats occur naturally in small quantities in meat and dairy products; however, the largest single source of these fatty acids in the modern diet is partially hydrogenated plant oils, used in the processing of fast foods and many snack foods. Trans fats are not necessary for human health and increase the risk of coronary artery disease.

Very low-calorie diet (VLCD)—A term used by nutritionists to classify weight-reduction diets that allow around 800 calories or fewer a day. None of the NutriSystem meal plans are VLCDs.

snack bars and nacho chips, are ready to eat; the others are prepared on the stovetop or in a microwave oven. Some require the addition of hot water. There are at least 120 different items for the dieter to choose among in each program, with new items added from time to time. In addition to such predictable standbys as cinnamon oatmeal, chocolate pudding, and tuna casserole, the food choices include thin crust pizza with cheese, pot roast, vegetarian chili, chicken cacciatore, fettucine Alfredo, and almond biscotti.

NutriSystem claims that its food selections are based on the glycemic index (GI), which measures foods by their effect on a person’s blood sugar level within two hours after a meal. Foods ranked low on the GI index raise blood sugar levels slowly and gradually, thus allowing a dieter to feel satisfied for longer periods of time. The company advertises this aspect of the program as the ‘‘Glycemic Advantage.’’

The dieter’s first order arrives with a ‘‘Welcome Kit’’ containing a meal planner, which outlines the meals and snacks and includes a daily food diary for keeping track of the dieter’s consumption of fresh foods as well as the prepackaged items. The Welcome Kit also explains the support services available, including online chat groups, classes, newsletters, and the ‘‘Daily Dose Motivational Message’’ as well as the option of one-on-one telephone contact with a counselor.

The daily cost of the three prepackaged meals and dessert is about $10, which means that the dieter must allow close to $300 per month for the NutriSystem program in addition to the cost of fresh dairy products and produce. As of early 2007, the company is offering 7 days’ worth of meals with the first 28-day package. In addition, customers who choose the auto-delivery option for their second and subsequent deliveries get a 10-percent discount for each month they remain in the program.

Function

NutriSystem is intended as a moderately paced weight reduction program for people who prefer the convenience of prepackaged portion-controlled entrees, whose schedules do not fit well with weigh-ins or group meetings, who do not have time to cook or plan diet menus, or who simply prefer to diet at home. It is not a rapid weight loss program, detoxification diet, or total lifestyle regimen.

Benefits

Some people who have tried NutriSystem are pleased with the range of food choices available as well as liking the taste of the foods. One customer said on a general diet weblog (not one sponsored by NutriSystem), ‘‘I find the food very good and actually good value considering all—I am never hungry and enjoy this diet very much.’’ Another benefit mentioned by some customers is that the food choices are well within mainstream tastes; those who would feel intimidated by a diet designed for ‘‘upscale’’ clients like the familiarity of the NutriSystem options. One customer remarked, ‘‘I do not have a sophisticated palate. . . . I am a happy camper, and I can afford [NutriSystem].’’

Many customers state that the convenience of the prepackaged foods is what appeals to them most. One person acknowledged, ‘‘I am lazy…I love the box arriving; the prep without thinking; the learning to eat small portions.’’ The NutriSystem items can be easily taken to work and consumed during lunch hour, since they don’t require refrigeration. People who cook only for themselves also mention the convenience of not having a refrigerator full of leftovers, since the NutriSystem items are one-meal portions.

Precautions

A common criticism of the NutriSystem program is that dieters do not learn to plan meals, gauge portion size, or cook for themselves after they have lost the desired amount of weight on the program. To counter this criticism, the company published a book in 2004 that contains recipes, tips for sizing portions, and other advice about maintaining weight loss for NutriSystem clients who are making the transition to their own cooking and calorie counting.

The program also does not place much emphasis on exercise; in fact, some of the advertising copy for the men’s program contains such remarks as ‘‘Whenever you get low on NutriSystem meals and snacks, another batch arrives at your door. You don’t even have to leave that comfortable chair in your living room.’’—hardly an incentive to physical activity.

Another difficulty some clients have with the NutriSystem program is that it does not fit well into family meals unless everyone in the household is using the program. Many customers report that they must prepare a second meal for the rest of the family—a common source of temptation to go off the diet.

Risks

The NutriSystem program seems safe from a nutritional standpoint for most dieters who have had a medical checkup for previously undiagnosed conditions or food allergies. It does not depend on appetite suppressants, fasting, or other practices that may be dangerous to health.

Research and general acceptance

NutriSystem does not appear to have been used in any clinical trials reported in the medical literature, most likely because of its heavily commercial emphasis as well as the number of different subprograms it markets. Its chief dietitian, Jay Satz, has apparently never published a research article in a professional medical or nutritional journal. NutriSystem has not yet been rated or evaluated by the American Dietetic Association. Existing feedback about this diet program is informal as of early 2007, consisting solely of testimonials in television commercials and the website itself, and comments or reviews on various Internet diet websites and online chat groups.

The only nutritional information that NutriSystem supplies is that its meal plan ‘‘meets, and in many cases, exceeds the government standards for healthy eating,’’ the government standards in question being the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. There are no endorsements by physicians, dietitians, or other health care professionals on the website, although a physician is listed as the second author of the 2004 book on the NutriSystem program.

General acceptance of the NutriSystem program is mixed. Some people who have tried the system report that the meals vary considerably in tastiness and overall quality. A 2005 article in Business Week reported that the company’s own chief dietitian acknowledges that some of the items are less than delectable. The reporter continued, ‘‘The meals and snacks, all packaged to keep without refrigeration, are not unlike offerings from competitors and have a mushy nursing-home quality when heated…. [No visiting] Frenchman would stomach the beef Burgundy with rice. And the Thai noodles with peanut sauce and tofu, left on my desk for two days, sent a vegetarian colleague fleeing.’’ One unhappy customer said, ‘‘I couldn’t stand NutriSystem but was able to get a partial refund …. They were really quite nice about everything, considering I told them I didn’t like their food’s taste and consistency.’’

The company maintains a blog called NutriSystem Food Reviews and Recipes Blog at http://www.nsfoodreviews.com, where people can leave reviews of the various food choices available. Dieters who are unhappy with their selections may return unused food items within 30 days of receipt for refunds with no questions asked. In addition to the poor quality of some of the foods, another customer complaint is the occasional unavailability of popular items around holiday seasons. The average customer stays on the plan

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR

  • What is your professional opinion of NutriSystem?
  • Do you know of any published clinical studies of this program?
  • Have any of your other patients tried it?
  • Which of the six subprograms did they use?
  • Did they like the foods available?
  • Were they able to lose weight and keep it off?

for about 9 weeks and loses an average of 20 pounds; about a third will return to the plan within a year. Most, however, regain the lost weight; in fact, the company’s business strategy is based on this fact. The president has been quoted in print as saying, ‘‘It’s a sad thing from the consumer’s standpoint; but it makes a very attractive business model.’’

BOOKS

NutriSystem and Dr. James Rouse NutriSystem Nourish: The Revolutionary New Weight-Loss Program. Hobo-ken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.

Scales, Mary Josephine. Diets in a Nutshell: A Definitive Guide on Diets from A to Z. Clifton, VA: Apex Publishers, 2005.

PERIODICALS

‘‘The 200 Best Small Companies: –1 NutriSystem.’’ Forbes, October 12, 2006.

Kiley, David. ‘‘My Dinner with NutriSystem.’’ Business Week, September 19, 2005, 84. Available online at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_38/b3951108.htm (accessed March 31, 2007).

‘‘NutriSystem Lures Men with Pizza, Sex.’’ CNN.com, January 30, 2006. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/diet.fitness/01/30/diet.nutrisystem.ap/index.html (accessed March 30, 2007).

Palmeri, Christopher. ‘‘How NutriSystem Got Fat and Happy.’’ Business Week, September 19, 2005, 82. Available online at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_38/b3951105.htm (accessed March 31, 2007).

OTHER

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dietary Standards for Americans 2005. Available online in PDF format at http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document.

ORGANIZATIONS

NutriSystem, Inc. 200 Welsh Road, Horsham, PA 19044. Telephone: (215) 706-5300. Website: http://www.nutrisystem.com.

Slim and Tone. 300 Welsh Road, Bldg 1, Suite 225, Horsham, PA 19044. Telephone: (877) 453-SLIM. Website: http://www.slimandtone.com.

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD


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