Nutrisystem is a packaged meal delivery company focused on weight loss. They claim that their prepared meals are “clinically proven to work” for weight loss.
In this article we’ll review the Nutrisystem program and the medical study on how it affected weight loss, to determine whether we believe it’s a good option for weight loss and whether the meals are healthy overall.
Are the Meals Healthy?
Health obviously exists on a spectrum, and food can be “healthy” or “unhealthy” depending on context. That being said, we don’t find many of the Nutrisystem meals to be especially nutrient-dense or healthy.
All of the animal products used (meats, cheese, butter, etc.) can be assumed to be sourced from conventionally-raised feedlot animals rather than pastured (grass-fed animals), since Nutrisystem doesn’t state otherwise.
We know from medical research that products from pastured animals are healthier, because they’re more nutrient-dense, have a more optimal fatty acid ratio of omega-3 vs. omega-6 fats, and tend to be lower in toxins and other contaminants.
Plenty of Nutrisystem meals also contain preservatives, colorants, added sugars, and added synthetic vitamins, all of which are arguably unhealthy.
Their Salisbury Steak recipe, for example, contains the preservative disodium phosphate twice on its ingredients list. It also contains a blend of added vitamins and minerals like ferrous sulfate and riboflavin. We don’t recommend random additions of vitamin and mineral blends: these should be supplemented based on proven deficiencies and not in random blends where they serve no purpose and are potentially harmful.
Many of their snacks contain added sugars, like their chocolate flavored pretzels which contain 10 grams (g) of added sugar in only 140 calories, in the form of both processed cane sugar and corn syrup. We know from medical studies that added sugar can be harmful to human health, and recommend avoiding it.
Nutrisystem’s Cranberry Orange Muffin has an ingredients list (shown above) that’s a perfect example of why we don’t recommend processed meal replacements.
In only 150 calories it contains all of the following questionable ingredients: sugar, soybean oil, sweetener blend, sugar (again), sugar (again), polydextrose, polysorbate 60, natural flavor (an essentially unregulated term that could include any host of safe or unsafe chemicals).
You don’t have to be a food scientist to recognize that eating such a processed food product over the long-term may be harmful to health.
Extremely Low Calories
We find it strange that so many of the “meals” sold by Nutrisystem have extremely low calories. Nearly every breakfast option on their site at the time of writing this article contains under 200 calories, and the vast majority of their lunch and dinner options contain under 300 calories.
These calorie counts are simply insufficient to provide the energy needs of even a dieting patient.
Caloric needs vary a lot based on the individual, but the general recommendation is 2,500 calories for men and 2,000 calories for women. Since most people using Nutrisystem are overweight and looking to diet, assume their baseline caloric needs are even higher on average.
If an overweight man with a base metabolic need for 3,000 calories cuts to a caloric deficit of 2,600 calories to lose weight, he’d need an average of nearly 900 calories per meal. A woman cutting to 1,600 calories would need over 500 calories per meal (assuming 3 meals daily in each case).
The three Nutrisystem meals seem to average less than 1,000 calories total including a snack! This isn’t sufficient for the vast majority of the population, even for those dieting. This is extremely confusing and we’re surprised they don’t publish an explanation of the relatively low calorie count in their meals.
We’d assume such a low calorie diet sets their consumers up for failure, because very few people have the willpower to maintain a sub-1,000 calorie diet for long periods of time. It’s likely not even healthy.
Nutrisystem sells Weight Loss Plans as a separate add-on service, but we find this to be deceptive marketing. Since most consumers won’t pay for that added service, and will likely just eat a breakfast lunch dinner and maybe a snack or two without monitoring the calories, we believe the system sets them up for failure.
Will Nutrisystem Work for Weight Loss?
Regardless of whether the meals are healthy or not, some consumers are solely focused on the potential weight loss benefits.
Nutrisystem has been studied in a few medical trials. One study compared Nutrisystem with a self-directed weight loss diet, and found that participants on Nutrisystem lost more weight.
However we believe it was a very poorly-designed study with significant bias. First of all, the study was designed by employees of Nutrisystem as stated in the Conflict of Interest section.
The study also had the Nutrisystem participants eat a lower calorie amount than the self-directed dieters for the first week, which alone invalidates any results in our opinion. It’s absurd to compare two diets for weight loss if they don’t have exactly the same caloric intake.
The researchers even stated “The lower calorie level during the first week of the commercial program was designed to promote an early larger initial weight loss to encourage compliance and continued weight loss with this program”. This is basically saying we made the Nutrisystem participants more likely to succeed so our results would be favorable.
We can’t find any studies on Nutrisystem’s long-term effectiveness, but we don’t believe the program is likely to be effective long-term because the caloric intake is so restricted (for the base package of three meals and one snack).
Extreme diets can be effective short-term for weight loss, but adherence long-term can be unsustainable. If people are hungry over long periods of time, often they break the diet and start binging. This is why the vast majority of lost weight from weight loss programs was regained, as reported in a medical review.
We believe that Nutrisystem could be effective for a short-term weight loss intervention, but adherence would be challenging over the course of months or years.
As we mention in nearly every article reviewing a weight loss program or product, we believe that dietary changes are the most cost-effective, healthy and efficacious way to lose weight long-term.
Eating a whole-foods diet high in fiber can be very effective for weight loss, because dietary fiber intake is associated with weight reduction in a dose-dependent manner. This means the more fiber you eat (to a reasonable limit), the more weight you can expect to lose (on average; no dietary intervention works for everyone).
The reason increasing fiber can be so effective for weight loss is that it makes you feel full without adding calories. Fiber is the reason why it’s much more challenging to eat 1,500 calories of quinoa and salad than to eat 1,500 calories of pizza. The processed, unhealthy pizza meal has very little fiber.