Is the OPTAVIA diet a sustainable way to lose weight, or just another dangerous diet trend. Read this article to find out!
Have you heard of the OPTAVIA diet? It’s one of those trends that’s been floating around on social media, with a mix of transformation photos boasting its effectiveness and plenty of criticism. Maybe you’ve come across it while looking for fat loss solutions and you’re curious about whether it would be the right approach for you.
On the blog and on my Instagram account I like to myth-bust fad dieting in general, but sometimes there’s a specific diet that needs special attention to address some of the claims the company is making.
The purpose of this article isn’t to bash anyone who has tried OPTAVIA and found success. For every diet out there, there are going to be a few people who get results from it, and I’m happy for anyone who has found something that works for them.
But my goal for today is to break down the nutrition claims OPTAVIA makes and provide you with some evidence-based info. I’ll also give you my perspective as a Registered Dietitian on whether this diet is going to be beneficial for your health in the long run.
Plus, we’re also going to address some of the problems with OPTAVIA’s business model, and highlight the issues around the lack of regulation for online “nutrition coaches”.
If you feel like you’ve exhausted all your weight loss options and are considering spending a significant amount of money on a program like OPTAVIA, make sure to read this article first.
You may see impressive transformations on Instagram, but for every success there are likely hundreds of others who have wasted their money, developed a negative relationship with food, and harmed their metabolism in the process of seeking weight loss results with OPTAVIA.
OPTAVIA’s parent company, Medifast, was founded in 1981 and creates meal replacement products. In 2002, Medifast launched Take Shape for Life, a business that provided Medifast’s meal replacements, guided by independent coaches, using a multi-level marketing business model.
In 2017, Take Shape for Life was rebranded as OPTAVIA. The new OPTAVIA approach centered around The Habits of Health, outlined in a book by one of the OPTAVIA founders, Dr. Wayne Scott Anderson in 2008. These Habits of Health include 6 main categories:
OPTAVIA’s “Coaches”, many of whom used to be clients, guide clients through The Habits of Health, while the clients consume a very specific diet primarily comprised of meal replacement products (1).
Now, maybe from reading that it doesn’t sound too bad; developing Habits of Health seems like a good idea, right? But let’s take a closer look at the OPTAVIA diet to see whether this approach is really promoting good health practices.
OPTAVIA offers two weight loss plans: Optimal Weight 5&1 Plan, which is their most popular option, and the Optimal 4&2&1 Plan, which is slightly less restrictive (2).
Today we’re going to focus on the 5&1 plan, as this is the one that’s designed for rapid weight loss and is most heavily promoted by the company. We’re going to take a look at the key components of the diet before we get into the issues with the company’s approach, and why this is something I would never recommend based on my education and experience as a Registered Dietitian.
Each plan involves consuming a certain number of “Fuelings” – a selection of shakes, soups, bars, hot beverages, biscuits, pretzels, pudding, and brownies that all have the same calorie content and nutritional breakdown.
According to the OPTAVIA website, their fuelings contain probiotics, 24 vitamins and minerals, and no artificial sweeteners, flavors, or colors (2).
However, these items are packed with processed ingredients, additives, and preservatives. Here is the ingredients list for one of the fuelings, the “Decadent Chocolate Brownie with Greek Yogurt Chips”:
Soy protein isolate, Greek yogurt drops [sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil, nonfat milk, Greek yogurt powder (nonfat milk solids, culture, lactic acid, natural flavor), lactic acid, soy lecithin, natural flavor], dextrin, brown sugar, fructose, cocoa (processed with alkali), rice flour, cocoa, egg whites, baking powder (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, corn starch, calcium phosphate), maltodextrin, modified food starch, xanthan gum, soy lecithin, natural flavors, steviol glycosides, inulin, salt, Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 6086, Vitamins and Minerals blend (3).
While there is nothing inherently wrong with consuming small quantities of food additives, the OPTAVIA diet is built around consuming these ingredients in every meal. Additionally, many of their Fuelings, like bars and baked goods, contain up to 9g of sugar each. Adding that up over 5 Fuelings in a day, it’s easy to exceed the US dietary guidelines of no more than 25 g/day for women and 37g/day for men (4).
Here is the typical nutrition information for OPTAVIA’s Fuelings (5):
In addition to their Fuelings, OPTAVIA has one other meal option that’s included in their plan each day: the “Lean & Green Meal”.
Lean & Green meals are made up of 5-7 oz. of cooked lean protein, plus 3 servings of non-starchy vegetables, and the possibility of up to 2 servings of healthy fat, depending on the fat content of the protein source.
OPTAVIA categorizes proteins as “lean”, “leaner”, and “leanest”, with the lean option allowing for no added serving of fat, and the leanest serving requiring 2 servings of healthy fat. The servings size they refer to is 5g of fat with less than 5g of carbohydrates.
For the “Green” part of the meal, each serving of vegetables means 1 cup of leafy greens, or half a cup of other non-starchy vegetables (6).
These meals meet several specifications:
Now that we’ve got some of OPTAVIA’s terminology out of the way, let’s take a look at what the 5&1 plan entails.
As mentioned, this is OPTAVIA’s most heavily-promoted plan on their website.
The website states the 5&1 plan puts the body into “a gentle but efficient fat burning state while retaining lean muscle mass” although little information is provided to explain this claim. But we’ll get further into what they mean by this when I break down some of the issues with OPTAVIA below.
On the 5&1 plan, clients consume 5 OPTAVIA Fuelings and one Lean & Green meal, eating every 2-3 hours (7).
Adding up the nutrition information, this ends up being:
Each day, you’re also able to have one optional snack (up to about 50 calories). Here are some examples of snacks on the plan:
They go on to recommend against having nuts very often due to their higher caloric content compared to other snacks.
The diet also allows for 3 servings of condiments, with these options and quantities provided as examples:
After 12 weeks on the 5&1 Plan, clients enter a 6 week transition phase, slowly raising caloric intake each week to reach 1550 calories per day. After the 6 weeks, clients begin the Optimal Health 3&3 plan, which is designed to maintain the weight they have lost by consuming three Fuelings and 3 Lean & Green Meals each day (6).
As you can see from the description above, consuming 5 OPTAVIA meal replacement products really adds up over the course of the 12 weeks of the 5&1 program.
For the first month, OPTAVIA costs $414.60 to purchase 30 days of Fuelings. After the first month, the cost is 559.35 per month (8).
So to complete the program? You’re paying $1033.30 over 3 months, not including the transition phase and the continued financial commitment of the 3&3 plan to sustain your results.
And this, of course, is only what is ordered from OPTAVIA, and doesn’t include the costs of Lean & Green Meals, which can really add up if you consume a lot of meat.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably realized there are significant costs to completing this program and they aren’t just the financial ones I’ve just described. Participating in OPTAVIA may have damaging effects on your physical, mental, and social health. Let’s get into the major issues with the OPTAVIA diet below.
The main thing you should know about OPTAVIA?
It’s not a magic solution.
It works in the same way as every other weight loss program, and that’s by creating a caloric deficit, meaning you are taking in fewer calories than you burn. And with OPTAVIA, the results are quick because the caloric deficit is very large.
800-1000 calories a day, which is the intake on the 5&1 plan, is not enough to sustain ANYONE. Just so you know, a 2-3 year old doing very little physical activity still requires approximately 1000 calories per day, based on information provided by the National Institute of Health (9).
If you suddenly restrict your intake to 1000 calories, of course you’re going to see massive weight loss fairly quickly. You might get excited and attribute the weight loss to something special about OPTAVIA. But it’s not anything special about this diet – it’s the insane caloric deficit that the diet is creating.
Mostly, it’s because people like new things. There is a feeling of hope associated with starting a new diet program – the excitement that maybe this one will be the diet that FINALLY works. OPTAVIA is also built on our human needs for structure and control. There are boxes to check and rules to follow, and the thrilling thought that if you just do exactly what the plan says, you will get results.
And what about the “gentle, fat burning state”, you might ask? This is just another way of saying that your body is in a mild ketogenic state due to the low carbohydrate intake on the diet. However, there is no research to support that this diet in fact helps you achieve a state of mild ketosis.
There is research to back up the claim made by OPTAVIA that the diet can reduce fat while preserving muscle mass (10); however, not much is known about the long-term effects of this diet, as it is difficult to sustain over time (11).
There have been several studies testing the effectiveness of OPTAVIA’s program, which have found positive results with respect to weight loss on the program. However, what they all have in common is that none of them is longer than 24 weeks. What I want to see is these same people 2-5 years later to find out how long the results have been maintained (12).
On the OPTAVIA diet, you may develop some healthy habits (related to hydration or sleep, for example), but you do not build any skills to nourish yourself without strict rules and diet-approved Fuelings. Therefore, the success of their approach in the long term is based on continuing to buy their programs for the rest of your life.
One of the huge problems with OPTAVIA is they talk a lot about balance and sustainability, while simultaneously promoting an incredibly unbalanced and unsustainable approach to health.
Most of their claims make the diet sound like the solution to chronic dieting and restriction:
“At OPTAVIA, we believe optimal health is about what’s added to your life, not what’s subtracted from the scale” (6).
But at the same time, the programs directly promote removing things from your life with the goal of extreme weight loss.
In addition, OPTAVIA recommends sticking strictly to their program in order to be successful, including meals out, where you are required to modify restaurant options to meet the Lean & Green Meal guidelines.
Here is some advice I pulled directly from OPTAVIA’s Dining Out Guide (13):
By providing these recommendations, the program instills a fear of food by categorizing food as “good” and “bad”. It creates a life where clients navigate food-related experiences and social situations with stress around their food intake and a mindset of deprivation.
In the end, say you go through the 12 weeks and lose the weight that you want to. You’ve made sacrifices in the enjoyment of your food, you may be experiencing the negative effects of an extreme caloric deficit, and you’ve missed out on social events because they weren’t in line with the diet plan. How do you transition back to normal eating?
While OPTAVIA does have a transition and maintenance plan and claims to help build healthy habits through their coaching program, everything that is promoted on their website is based around restriction – and continued use of their products, of course.
After the 12 weeks have passed on the 5&1 plan, OPTAVIA recommends transitioning to the Optimal Health 3&3 plan, as mentioned above. While it does include more calories than in the weight loss phase – 1200-2500 the website claims, how these caloric needs are determined is unclear (6).
OPTAVIA’s 30 Day Guide says the following about what happens after the transition phase:
“When you know what optimal nutrition looks like, healthy eating becomes second nature. Work with your OPTAVIA Coach to calculate a calorie intake level that maintains your new, healthy weight.” (6).
There are a few issues with this statement. First, eating 5 prepackaged food and one high protein, low carb meal every day for 12 weeks does very little to teach anyone “what optimal nutrition looks like”.
Secondly, how do OPTAVIA coaches with no nutrition education determine the nutritional needs of their clients?
The last important component of the OPTAVIA approach I want to touch on is their business model. OPTAVIA uses a Multi-Level Marketing model, like other companies you may have heard of, such as Arbonne, Young Living, and Amway.
In this kind of business model, independent contractors, referred to as “Coaches” by OPTAVIA, sell products to clients for a commission. In turn, Coaches aim to encourage their clients to also sign up as Coaches, for which they earn additional compensation.
I’m not going to get into the specifics and issues with Multi-Level Marketing today, except to say that in 2019, over 21% of OPTAVIA coaches earned no income after purchasing OPTAVIA’s $199.00 business starter kit (14).
What I want to emphasize is that there is NO requirement for OPTAVIA coaches to have nutritional qualifications. Purchasing a diet program and following it yourself (about 90% of OPTAVIA coaches are former clients) does not suddenly give you the knowledge to provide nutrition information to other people.
While coaches are guided by information provided by OPTAVIA, coaches often build a level of trust with clients and there is nothing stopping them from spreading nutrition misinformation that clients may accept as true.
On their website, OPTAVIA states the following: “Study after study shows that support and guidance increase your chances for success in reaching your optimal weight” (15).
And this is one claim that’s absolutely true! But doesn’t it make more sense to place your trust in a qualified nutrition professional with years of university education than someone who decided to buy a nutrition business starter kit to make some extra money?
OPTAVIA’s program uses a lot of fancy terminology, from their “Fuelings” and “Lean & Green Meals” to their “gentle, fat burning state”. But this doesn’t change the simple fact that the only way fat loss occurs is through a caloric deficit.
Taking this into account, the key to fat loss isn’t figuring out which diet plan you should follow, but which nutrition strategy is the most sustainable. OPTAVIA’s approach is a highly unsustainable option, promoting extreme restriction and a significant financial commitment in order to achieve and maintain the results you’re looking for.
There’s a simple fact I like to remind my clients when it comes to weight loss: the results that come quickly are not the results that last.
Whether or not you can maintain healthy habits over 12 weeks means so little when you look at your lifetime as a whole. Instead of 12 weeks of restriction, I want you to think about years of steady progress, enjoyment and moderation, and a life spent having a healthy, peaceful relationship with food and your body. This is what true health and nutrition looks like, and it’s not something that can be packaged and sold.
I am all about making an investment in your health, but the best investments are the ones that will produce the biggest returns. Now ask yourself, is rapid weight loss worth it if you can’t sustain it over time?
If you are ready to level up to new way of looking at your nutrition and health and need support and guidance from a Registered Dietitian to help you accomplish sustainable results, you can apply to our Nutrition Makeover Method Program today by clicking here.
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