Long a familiar part of the diet landscape, the Jenny Craig program has spent more than 20 years helping dieters shed pounds. Initially dieters traveled to Jenny Craig Centers for advice. Now Craig, a former overweight mom, is broadening her client base with Jenny Direct, a home-based program with telephone counselors, food delivery, and an interactive Web site. Need a cookbook, exercise video, or basic exercise equipment? If it's part of a diet-and-fitness regimen, chances are Craig sells it at the Web site. She also markets her own brand of prepackaged foods. And serious do-it-yourselfers can always try to find an old copy of Jenny Craig's What Have You Got to Lose: A Personalized Weight Management Program at a library or used-book store. (The now-out-of-print guide shows how to put together Craig's program at home, sans cuisine or counselors.)

On the surface this sounds like the perfect diet package: a three-part program with low-calorie menus, advice about exercise, and behavior training. And yes, it does work for some dieters. The hidden turnoff: that expensive packaged food. (Did someone say "camping"?) It isn't going to win any taste awards, and you won't find an easy way around it. In fact, a common theme among disgruntled former customers venting at is that counselors are little more than salesfolks pushing Jenny Craig products. Hmmm. Maybe dieting with the book is a better strategy.

Basic principles:

Calorie counting is back! But rather than doing the counting themselves, dieters are assigned a calorie level, and counselors show them how to follow that level using a combo of Jenny Craig cuisine or grocery-store food. Personalized exercise and behavioral strategies are crucial.

How the diet works:

Clients work with consultants to determine an appropriate calorie intake, ranging from 1,200 to 2,300 calories a day. The diet's newest program, called YourStyle, customizes the program further based on a person's eating style, level of activity, and "weight-loss mindset."

What you can eat:

Jenny Craig prepackaged foods. Jenny Craig prepackaged foods. Jenny Craig prepackaged foods! While the Web site does offer some recipes, dieters are strongly encouraged to buy the company's meals, especially during the initial weeks of the diet. Eventually, though, you make the transition to cooking for yourself. The diet encourages complex carbs, healthful unsaturated fats, and lean proteins, and instead of counting individual calories in each food, you think in terms of food groups and exchanges (proteins, vegetables, fruits, milk, and so on).

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

Who knows? Not a single medical study has looked at the program or compared it to other popular diets. Of course, the book is rife with anecdotal data, and the Web site carries amazing before-and-after photos and stories. Interestingly, the tiny print near these photos reads "weight loss not typical," suggesting that these folks are losing weight much more rapidly than the 1 to 2 pounds per week Jenny Craig promises.

Is the diet healthy?

Sure. Plans start at 1,200 calories-probably a little lower than many health experts might recommend but enough to provide dieters with the nutrients they need. (If possible, opt for 1,500 calories. If you exercise, this is more realistic.) A good thing: The complete program encompasses exercise advice and behavior training.

What do the experts say?

"They may offer anecdotal reports, but there is no scientific data to show the program works," says Baylor College of Medicine professor John Foreyt, PhD. With several decades under his belt as a weight-loss researcher and counselor, Foreyt says he's had a lot of patients find success with Weight Watchers. But he's never had one single patient try Jenny Craig. "In my experience, most people find that buying prepackaged foods tends to be boring," he says. "It's just plain difficult to adhere to." Registered dietitian Jane Kirby, author of Dieting for Dummies (Wiley, second edition, 2003), has mixed feelings about the Jenny Craig method. She acknowledges the good advice, exercise, and behavioral strategies, but she questions the long-term success. "These kinds of programs are great when you're eating the prepared foods," Kirby says. "But when you're put in a situation that doesn't use the foods, how are you going to cope?"

Who should consider the diet?

People who don't want to lift a finger figuring out a diet plan; singles or folks who hate to cook. Oh, and since it's not so appetizing to cook from scratch for the family and then dig into a shelf-stable "pouch" supper, dieters with families might be better off trying something else.

Bottom line:

Skip it. If you have this much money to spend, fork it over to a registered dietitian and a personal trainer instead. As for the packaged food, lean frozen meals are available at virtually every supermarket.
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