The Optavia diet has generated big buzz all year. This weight-loss program requires users to sign up for a low-calorie meal plan, then purchase the packaged foods that are part of their chosen plan. No food group is off-limits in this low-calorie regimen, which promises "lifelong transformation, one healthy habit at a time."
Optavia isn't cheap, but the diet has earned many fans. It was ranked second in the fast weight loss category by U.S. News and World Report, and it was a top trending diet on Google in 2018. "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro credits Optavia with his recent weight loss.
Should you try the Optavia diet, and will it help you lose weight? Here's everything you need to know: if this structured plan is hard to follow, the likelihood that you'll keep any weight loss off for good, and what the health drawbacks might be.
How to follow the Optavia diet
Like many commercial plans, Optavia involves purchasing most of the foods allowed on the diet in packaged form. The company sells a wide range of food products—which they call "fuelings"—on its website, including shakes, pancakes, soups, pasta dishes, smashed potatoes, popcorn, and cookies.
The brand offers a few different structured weight loss programs, and users pick the plan they feel will work best for them. The 5&1 Plan involves eating five small meals per day. The meals can be chosen from more than 60 interchangeable fuelings plus one “lean and green” meal (think protein and veggies) prepared on your own. The Essential Optimal Kit, which costs $ 356.15, provides 119 servings, or about 20 days' worth.
The 4&2&1 Plan is a bit more flexible. It includes four daily fuelings plus two of your own “lean and green” meals, and one Optavia-purchased snack. A kit with 140 servings costs $ 399.00, and it includes a similar mix of convenience foods.
Optavia pros and cons
It sounds simple: Order a box, eat the foods supplied based on the instructions, and whip up a simple meal or two on your own. Voila—the pounds come right off.
But how effective are plans like this in reality? Though U.S. News & World Report gave it a high ranking for fast weight loss, Optavia did not fare as well for long-term weight loss, nutrition, and heart healthfulness.
One of my reservations about programs like this is the lack of fresh food, and also how highly processed the products are. The Golden Chocolate Chip Pancakes are provided as a mix, which requires adding water and cooking. The Homestyle Chicken Flavored & Vegetable Noodle Soup comes in a satchel, which requires adding water and heating. Even the "hearty" smashed potatoes are sold in powdered form.
Processed diet products also contain common allergens. For example, soy protein concentrate is the first ingredient in the Chicken Flavored Soup (which doesn’t contain any actual chicken), as well as the Creamy Chocolate Shake, Decadent Double Chocolate Brownie, and Creamy Vanilla Shake. Soy is one of the eight most common allergens, and it's a common trigger of food sensitivity symptoms. While some allergen-free options are available, they are limited in certain categories.
I’m also not a fan of the intense sweeteners many of the products contain, including stevia and monk fruit extract. Anecdotally, in my practice, I’ve seen that these sugar alternatives, which are about 200 times sweetener than actual sugar, may stoke a sweet tooth, disrupt appetite regulation, and cause naturally sweet foods—like carrots—to taste less sweet.
In my experience with my own clients, I've found that some people do benefit from relying on diet plans that include a few ready-to-eat foods. Bars, protein drinks, frozen meals, or heat and eat soups can help control portions, reduce eating decisions (which may prevent veering off track), and skirt less healthful choices, like fast food.
However, you really don’t need a commercial program to build these in. Many of my clients simply opt for clean ingredient or even organic options they can purchase at their local supermarket or online.
One pro to Optavia is its built-in support, which includes access to a coach, online forums, weekly support meetings with other members, and video chats. Exercise is also encouraged. In my opinion, this type of reinforcement is essential for success. However, the tricky part is transitioning from Optavia's eating pre-packaged food to preparing meals on your own, ordering from menus, and navigating social situations, holidays, travel, and the like.
Should you try Optavia?
I wasn’t able to find data on Optavia’s long-term outcomes, as far as weight loss and maintenance. But before you decide to sign up for any commercial program, ask yourself how you think you’ll feel following the plan—physically, emotionally, and socially (even if you are losing weight). Ultimately, sustainable weight loss requires long-term lifestyle changes.
Bottom line: It may be best to forego quick results (like the kind the Optavia plan might offer) and focus your efforts on fostering healthy habits you know you can stick with for longer-lasting success.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.