Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD
Optavia is a weight loss program that includes coaching and a packaged meal plan ordered from their website. The company claims that their program is clinically-proven to work, and offers a set of different plans at various price points.
In this article we’ll review the one clinical trial testing Optavia for weight loss, as well as the ingredients in some of their meals, to determine if we believe the program is safe and effective for weight loss.
There is one clinical trial testing the efficacy of Optavia for weight loss. It had generally favorable results.
The study duration was 16 weeks, and compared three diets: Optavia, Medifast and a self-directed reduced calorie diet.
Both of the commercial diets yielded better results than the self-directed diet, which is unsurprising since the commercial diets are portion-controlled (a fixed number of calories per day), while people on a self-directed diet have to weigh and measure their own food and caloric intake, which is more of a challenge.
Patients on the Optavia diet lost slightly more weight than patients on the Medifast diet.
The plan used in the trial was Optavia’s 5&1 Plan, which can be purchased through their website.
We’re always glad to see a weight loss program with published data in a medical journal, but we don't find these results particularly impressive or surprising. It’s well-established that overweight patients can lose weight over short periods of time like 16 weeks using portion control. It’s continuing to lose and maintaining that weight loss over longer periods of time that’s often the challenge.
Optavia does provide coaching which should help, since an online support system is proven in medical research to aid in weight loss efforts.
Are Optavia Meals Healthy?
Because Optavia meals are packaged, they’re relatively processed and low in naturally-occurring nutrients. Optavia compensates for this by adding synthetic vitamins and minerals to most of their formulations.
Here are the first five meals listed on the 5&1 Plan from Optavia’s website:
- Smoky BBQ Crunchers
- Silky Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Bar
- Creamy Chocolate Shake
- Drizzled Chocolate Fudge Crisp Bar
- Wild Strawberry Shake
These all sound like menu items a 5 year old would order from Sonic on a school trip, not what an adult should be using as the basis of their nutrition. Eating highly processed foods is definitively associated in medical research with negative health outcomes like cardiovascular disease and depression.
We do not find this diet model to be healthy at all, and believe it would be quite unhealthy over the long-term.
The Smoky BBQ Crunches contain added sugar and natural flavorings, as well as 280 mg of salt in only 100 calories. The Peanut Butter & Chocolate Chip Bar contains added sugar and hydrogenated oil, both of which are proven to be harmful to human health.
We recommend eating a diet comprised of whole foods with minimal processing, which will be both cheaper and healthier than eating Optavia’s meals. You can even eat much healthier at the dollar store than you can with Optavia in our opinion.
We also disagree with Optavia’s inclusion of synthetically-derived vitamins and minerals in nearly every one of their meals. Companies often do this to bolster their Nutrition Facts labels because there is so little naturally-occuring nutrition in their meals. Eating poor-quality food and supplementing with vitamins does not lead to the same health outcomes as eating high-quality, nutrient-dense food that’s naturally high in vitamins.
We don’t know of a single medical study proving that a poor diet can be augmented with vitamin and mineral supplementation and mirror the proven health benefits of a nutrient-dense diet.
Is Optavia Sustainable?
Part of the problem with many popular weight loss programs is they’re not sustainable. Simply cutting calories but continuing to eat a processed, unhealthy diet doesn’t work for most patients long-term because it leads to increased feelings of hunger.
Optavia’s 5&1 Plan allows users to pick 6 daily meals of the packaged foods. Each one has very low calories. Below are a few example meals and calorie counts per serving:
- Tomato herb penne: 110 calories
- Puffed Sweet & Salty Snacks: 50 calories
- Creamy Vanilla Shake: 110 calories
- Creamy Smashed Potatoes: 100 calories
- Cinnamon Sugar Sticks: 100 calories
As you can see, most of these meals only consist of around 100 calories which is incredibly low even if you’re eating 6 a day. This falls in line with the caloric intake of Optavia participants in the above-referenced medical study: 800-1,000 calories/day.
Caloric needs vary greatly based on the individual, but the average woman needs around 2,000 calories a day and the average man about 2,500 calories a day, and these caloric maintenance figures increase for those who are overweight.
Very-low-calorie diets, defined as 800 or less calories a day, do not lead to greater long-term weight loss based on a medical review when compared with low-calorie diets. This is likely because compliance is so challenging. As discussed above, it becomes very hard for people to have the willpower to eat over 1,000 calories below maintenance and not binge occasionally.
Optavia’s diet plan is right on the verge of what’s medically defined as a “very-low-calorie diet”, and we don’t believe this diet model is sustainable for long-term weight loss.
Better Alternatives for Weight Loss
The most effective dietary modification for long-term weight loss based on medical research is a whole foods diet with significantly increased fiber intake.
Fiber intake is proven to increase weight loss in a dose-dependent manner. The reason for this effect is that fiber makes you feel full. It’s indigestible plant matter that occupies space in the stomach and through the digestive process, which increases satiation.
Most people anecdotally understand that increasing fiber will reduce calories consumed, because the average person without a medical degree knows that it’s very challenging to eat 2,000 calories in one sitting of steak and salad, but can be easy to eat 2,000 calories in one sitting of pizza. That’s because a steak and salad meal is high-fiber (thanks to the salad), while pizza has very low fiber. Processed foods and fast foods generally are low in fiber, which is part of why they’re so obesogenic.
We recommend that overweight patients speak with their doctor about a modified Mediterranean diet with increased fiber intake for losing weight sustainably long-term.
Optavia may be successful for short-term weight loss, but we don’t believe the program will be effective for long-term weight loss nor does Optavia publish any research suggesting so.
Extreme-low-calorie diets are not sustainable for most patients because they lead to significant hunger and cravings.
Not only do we think that Optavia is a poor choice for long-term weight loss, but we also find it to be a very unhealthy diet model, with most calories coming from processed foods low in naturally-occurring nutrients.
We recommend a high-fiber diet as a cheaper, healthier and more sustainable approach to long-term weight loss than Optavia.