If you're one of the millions of people who are dieting right this minute, or even thinking about it, here's some good news: You don't have to throw a lot of money at the problem to see results. In fact, you may not have to spend much at all.
Every year, consumers spend billions of dollars on supplements, diet foods, books and meal replacements. But the truth is that success depends not so much on what diet plan you choose or what program you join.
"What matters most is your level of motivation and your willingness to change," says Kelly D. Brownell, a psychologist and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
A study published in the Feb. 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, for instance, compared four popular diets and found they all produced similar results. After two years, the dieters in each group lost an average of 9 pounds. The dieters who attended more counseling sessions lost a little bit more, which may support the notion that behavior is more important than diet alone.
Motivation, though, is not always easy to come by. Some people may need help to kick-start a weight-loss regimen, whether that means following a popular diet or enrolling in an organized program. Your goal, though, should not be short term.
"Keeping weight off permanently is a lifelong process," says James O. Hill, a psychologist and a founder of the National Weight Control Registry (www.nwcr.ws), a database of 6,000 people who have lost weight and kept it off.
How ready are you? The more committed you are, the less you will need to spend. Try the do-it-yourself approach first. If that doesn't work, move on down the list below.
Free: Do it yourself
If you're highly motivated but low on cash, this approach is for you. You will need to reduce the calories you consume, exercise more and learn new eating habits.
Your primary care physician can give you basic guidelines for a healthy, low-calorie diet. You can also look at the dietary advice on the Weight-Control Information Network (win.niddk.nih.gov), Brownell suggests.
Your new diet should comprise fresh food when possible, especially items high in fiber and low in fat. If you already eat well, reduce your portion sizes. Weigh yourself regularly to track your progress and try to get 30 to 40 minutes of exercise a day.
$: Buy a guide book
For $20 or so (less if you get it used; free from the library), a book can offer inspiration and advice. If you want a plan to follow, try The South Beach Diet or The Best Life Diet. Both provide realistic, healthy programs.
Another good book is The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan, which explains how to build a diet around foods that make you feel full.
Chronic dieters should read the new book by former chief of the Food and Drug Administration Dr. David Kessler, called The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Kessler explains why and how we get hooked on unhealthy food and provides tips to help control your impulses.
$$: Join a group
Organizations like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig can provide support, education and a healthy dose of peer pressure.
Weight Watchers is a good place to start, because it's relatively inexpensive. You'll pay an initial fee of $15 to $20, and then $13 to $15 for each weekly meeting. In exchange, Weight Watchers will teach you how to use its points system and provide you with a weekly weigh-in.
Jenny Craig is more expensive, but may suit those who need one-on-one guidance. A yearly membership costs $399, and you'll spend an additional $83 a week, on average, for Jenny's Cuisine meals.
$$$: Hospital programs
If you need to lose a substantial amount of weight and have a condition like diabetes, you might want to invest in a hospital-sponsored weight-loss program.
At Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore, for instance, you pay $250 for an initial four-hour assessment with a doctor, a dietitian, a psychologist and a trainer. Followup visits are $125 a week, but that includes food.
Priceless: Keep it off
If you become one of the lucky losers, you'll need to fight hard to protect your losses. One way is to exercise — a lot.
"Diet is a key for losing weight," Hill said. "But physical activity is the key for keeping it off."