Battle the Bulge
As the summer weather lures us to daydreams of barbecues, bikinis and relaxing poolside, plans to lose a few layers of clothing can be stopped short by the desire to shed a few pounds first.

For many, this will mean turning to prepared-food diet plans -- not surprising, since we're bombarded daily by commercials from companies such as NutriSystem ( NTRI) and Zone Chefs touting their both healthy and tasty meals as an ideal way to lose weight.

It can be difficult to choose one that's worth the investment, though, so here's how they stack up.

Package Deal

Whether your aim is to look good this summer or to make a permanent move toward healthier eating, starting a diet plan means giving up or significantly cutting back on certain meats, sweets and snacks, or opting for healthier versions of old favorites.

NutriSystem, Jenny Craig and Kraft's ( KFT) South Beach Diet line offer low-fat versions of popular items such as beef stew, enchiladas and chicken fettuccine alfredo, and allow dieters to choose from a variety of packaged entrees and snacks.

NutriSystem sells its prepared meals through its Web site, Jenny Craig food can be ordered by phone or at local membership centers, and South Beach Diet foods are available in grocery stores. A daily menu consisting of three prepared meals and a snack or two costs $10 to $20 per day.

Some of the prepared entrees can be satisfying, but the replacement ingredients -- such as the low-fat and soy cheeses in Jenny Craig's cheese enchilada -- might give you the smell and taste of the real thing and leave your stomach feeling empty.

Thankfully, each plan recommends adding supplements of fruit, vegetables, milk and yogurt every day. Customers have some leeway in planning what they eat but are required to do additional grocery shopping.

Another downside to these diets is that some of these entrees, snacks and desserts contain processed ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and chemical additives to make up for the taste and texture of cream, fat and sugar that are missing from the diet versions of old favorites.

And qualitywise, compared with authentic or fresh food, an offering such as NutriSystem's small serving of cheese tortellini is unfortunately most reminiscent of Chef Boyardee ravioli.

To its credit, NutriSystem revamped its entire selection of offerings in 2003, removing complex carbohydrates such as white rice and replacing them with more-wholesome grains such as brown and wild rice, and is planning another menu update in 2008, according to Dr. Jay Satz, the company's vice president of product and program development. But these meals just can't compare to the taste and freshness of gourmet-quality food.

Freshen Up

While processed, prepackaged meals may require additional foods for a dieter to feel full and get all the basic required nutrients, daily menus from companies providing fresh gourmet diet foods -- including Zone Chefs and Nu-Kitchen -- eliminate the need for grocery shopping and decision-making altogether.

Of course, fresh food, a team of gourmet chefs and the advice of nutritionists comes at a price. Zone Chefs and Nu-Kitchen deliveries cost about $40 to $50 a day.

But weighing dishes zapped with added starches and flavorings in processed diet foods vs. meals made from farmer's-market-quality ingredients, you get what you pay for. And if living the Good Life in a healthy way means paying double the cost of processed meals, so be it.

When a dieter joins Zone Chefs, basic personal information such as height and current and ideal weight are used to formulate a plan based on calorie consumption and the glycemic index, which measures food based on its effect on blood-sugar levels.

Both Zone Chefs and Nu-Kitchen take into consideration food preferences and prepare food fresh for delivery before 5 a.m. each day.

While Zone Chefs offers service across the U.S., Nu-Kitchen currently only serves most of New York City, Nassau County and Westchester, N.Y. But among New Yorkers, by word of mouth and partnerships through a few Equinox gym locations, Nu-Kitchen has developed a loyal following.

"We care as much about delicious foods and results as we do about service," says Mark Newhouse, co-founder of Nu-Kitchen, which focuses on eating healthy and tasty food, not just losing weight. "Our level of attention is what keeps our customers with us."

That attention is worth paying for, and it could be why even some Zone Chefs customers have crossed over to Nu-Kitchen, which offers a flexible and accessible plan with online menu managing, as well as the ability to cancel orders or change a delivery address online.

However, those who don't live in a house or an apartment building with a 24-hour doorman might have trouble receiving orders from either gourmet delivery company or might have to be awakened midsleep to accept them.

Food on the Brain

What NutriSystem and Jenny Craig lack in food freshness and quality they make up for in counseling, which the companies consider a vital part of any diet plan.

Counseling comes free with membership. Jenny Craig representatives offer the service at individual locations, and NutriSystem has a staff of behavioral psychologists fielding calls from distressed dieters tempted to quit.

Regardless of the diet plan, a big part of what the diets are designed to teach is portion control.

"We recommend taking their food and putting it on a plate so they can eyeball what a portion looks like," says Lynn Dolgicer, a Jenny Craig Center Director in New York. "Then later, they can see that at a restaurant what they're getting is two portions."

But one of the most important things Jenny Craig's diet plan teaches, Dolgicer says, is that "they don't have to eat till they're stuffed." Eating smaller portions five or six times a day helps control appetite and prevents blood sugar levels from spiking, according to Dr. Satz. This also helps to curb the urge to binge.

"We all move to the dark side for a little while," Dr. Satz explains. "But if you do fall off the wagon for one day, you just get right back on."

And finally, it's essential to keep in mind that no weight-loss plan is complete without exercise.

NutriSystem and Jenny Craig counselors encourage exercise in addition to dieting to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle, while Zone Chefs and Nu-Kitchen mention exercise on their Web sites but focus primarily on food.

If only a personal trainer came with that little black bag of food delivered each morning, it really could be the perfect weight-loss solution.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Althea Chang is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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