I tried the Jenny Craig diet, and here’s what I found
By Mary MacVean
My first day on the Jenny Craig diet I ate a mixed berry bar and vanilla shake for breakfast; chicken tacos and salad for lunch; and spaghetti and meatballs and lemon cooler cookies for dinner. Packaged and portioned for my convenience.
I’ve written about food for years, and have been curious about these diets that make so many choices on your behalf.
The dishes above seem like a decent day’s menu, even if they’re not what I’d cook if I were trying to lose weight — and believe me, I know about diet cooking. Of course that’s the point — to make it seem you can diet non-dietly.
Ah, but turn the packages over, and there’s another way to look at it:
The breakfast shake included cream and oats, plus milk protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, and little bits of resistant maltodextrin, cellulose gel, cellulose gum, Sucralose, calcium phosphate, sodium phosphate, zinc aspartate, tocpherol acetate, D-calcium pantothenate, chromium chloride and copper amino acid chelate.
Got those in your pandemic-stocked cupboard? No? Me neither.
The first ingredients of my mixed berry bar were soy protein isolate, corn syrup, sugar, rice flour, inulin, dried cane syrup, fractionate palm kernel oil. Finally, we come to oats, almonds and dried cranberries.
Were I to make chicken tacos, I’d cook some chicken, shred it and put it on a tortilla with tomatoes, onions and salsa. Maybe some cilantro. Straightforward, simple and delicious food. Jenny’s version has most of those ingredients, plus carboxymethyl cellulose gum, maltodextrin, yeast extract, modified cornstarch, maltodextrin (That again? I had it for breakfast!) and xanthan gum.
The salad was on me. I promise that it was recognizable food.
If you have not had enough of food by Jenny, as the program counselors refer to her, there’s dinner still to come, including that maltodextrin (a thickener, filler or preservative) again.
And so many diets include desserts on the idea that we overweight people (over what weight exactly?) would be thin if we didn’t eat so much calorie-laden dessert. My “naturally flavored” lemon cooler cookies have wheat gluten as the №1 ingredient, followed by margarine made from palm and soybean oil plus some other things, citric acid, whey and then finally, flour. I am a baker, and gosh darn good at cookies. And I can tell you that Jenny’s ingredient list and mine are rather divergent.
Despite the sound of some of these ingredients, they’re not unsafe. They’re just all not recognizable as food. Obviously — or maybe not so obviously — a lot of that stuff is so the meals can be packaged and stored. And it’s not just diet food that has them; factory-made food often needs to have a long shelf life.
Which is yet another problem. I loved TV dinners as a kid, but I loved them as rare treats when we had a babysitter for an evening. I don’t want to eat from a package every night. I for one have had enough packaging from pandemic takeout.
Taste is an opinion, though restaurant critics may disagree. And I didn’t like much of the food on the diet. But the Jenny Craig website says its members “rave” about the food, from a “dedicated team of chefs.”
I’ve spent a lot of time trying really hard to cook and eat healthfully. My kitchen is full of fruits and vegetables, grains and beans. But still I have put on and off 100s of pounds, usually 20 pounds or so at a time, year after year. Some years more, much more. So I hoped that maybe a month on processed food would do what all that grown-with-love, local, organic green and orange food has not.
My mom, raised on a farm to eat what her family grew, became beguiled with the better-living-through-chemistry mantra and spent much of the early 1960s on and off Metrecal, meal replacement shakes.
Metrecal was created by Mead Johnson, not Alice Waters, and perhaps you can imagine that vaguely sweet, vaguely chalky aspect to the shakes. Mom usually made chocolate, and she hoped to improve them by freezing the liquid in ice cube trays and then running them through the blender. Get it cold enough and it almost tasted not terrible.
I had a hard time deciding between Jenny Craig with its successful celeb endorsements from Valerie Bertinelli, and NutriSystem, which has Marie Osmond. A sister from “One Day At a Time,” or the sister in the most supremely uncool music duo ever?
Valerie it was.
Who cares? Diets are for losing weight, you might say. Food I don’t like will just have me eating less. And the spokespeople are beside the point. OK, then, does Jenny’s plan work?
Most diets work — while you follow them. And there is evidence that structured programs can be helpful. No decisions to make, no cookbooks to read, no portions to control.
Jenny Craig says that one of its programs leads to 11.6 pounds lost in the first month, and a pound or two a week after that. Millions of pounds have been lost in its 35 years, the company says. It also says “results may vary.”
What I want to know is how many pounds have been regained.
When you join Jenny Craig, you are assigned to a consultant, who is cheerleader, advisor and salesperson. I first met with a lovely young — and thin — woman recently out of school, where she studied nutrition. She said she wanted to help people. She weighed me, asked about my goals, activity, allergies. She told me about the 1,200-calorie plan.
If you want a super-structured eating plan that eliminates measuring and guessing and looking up calories or points, this is that. If you don’t care about how your food tastes, this is for you. If cooking to you means pressing buttons on the microwave, this is for you. If you don’t eat out, this is for you.
This was not for me.
At the moment, midway through the end-of-year eating season, a Jenny Craig plan that includes three meals a day runs from $19.49 to $22.49 a day, the higher price including “personal coaching.”
I do understand the desire for a diet that takes all the thinking, all the intuition, all the decision-making away. All the dieter has to do is stay away from nearly all real food, the food their family is having, the food they’ve always loved. One small silver lining of the pandemic is no envy over friends eating in restaurants.
So did it work for me? Maybe you don’t even need to ask by now. I followed this diet pre-pandemic. I didn’t quite hit the 11.6 pounds, but the weight loss was fine. I had decided to give it a try for a month. And a month felt like a very long time.
Thanks for reading.
Mary MacVean has been cooking for half a century. And writing about food for a good part of that time. She also has been an urban farmer. When her day sucks, she finds her equilibrium by coming in the door and starting to cook.