September 19, 2005 -- Business Week Magazine


My Dinner with NutriSystem

It may be a bit cynical for CEO Michael Hagan to point out that the failure rate of dieters is what makes NutriSystem a good business. But it's also true. An estimated 55 million Americans will go on diets this year. And while some will succeed in losing weight, very few -- perhaps 5% -- will manage to keep it off in the long run. Close to $40 billion will be spent on diet foods and programs this year, not including the cost of weight-loss surgery.

NutriSystem's program and others like it that give customers prepackaged, preportioned food may not be for everyone. But such regimes confront perhaps the worst habit of weight-gaining Americans: eating helpings more appropriate to members of Lewis & Clark's expedition than to sedentary office workers. "Americans, aided by the restaurant industry, have lost all sense of what normal portioning is," says Jay Satz, the company's chief nutritionist. Thomas Simon, a thin 20-year-old French student visiting the U.S. for the first time last August, for example, ordered a ham sandwich, and was astounded by nearly one pound of filling. In France, a ham sandwich has one layer of ham on a baguette with light butter. "Too much. Too much," he said of the U.S. version, holding his belly.

Satz admits that not every NutriSystem dish is delectable. But the lasagna, pasta fagioli, and macaroni and cheese with beef in a cup reflect what people "eat in real life." 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. Neither Simon nor any other Seine-strolling 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.

But the food is not aimed at subscribers to Cook's Illustrated. A lot of people gain weight because they eat food of little nutritional value on the run. "Convenience and ease of preparation is as big an issue for us as any big food company," says Satz. Clients are strongly urged, Satz adds, to "fiddle" with their meals by adding their own herbs and spices.

Even if one man's NutriSystem basil chicken with tomato sauce is another man's Reebok in red gravy, a study by Consumer Reports earlier this year nevertheless concluded that controlled-portion diet plans like NutriSystem's were most effective. One study of 302 overweight volunteers conducted at five medical centers, cited by Consumer Reports, found that the group eating prepared meals lost three times as much weight in a year as the group on a diet in which portions were not controlled.

Most dietitians say people would be better off using fresh food of their own served in small portions. Experts agree, though, that the most effective diets are ones people can stick to "based on their food preferences, lifestyle, and medical profile," says Dr. Michael Dansinger, director of Tufts-New England Medical Center's Atherosclerosis Research Laboratory. Meanwhile, here's a quick tip to get started on portion control: Get rid of the big dinner plates and eat meals on salad plates or even saucers.


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