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February 18, 2010

So this semester I’m taking two classes that fall in the discipline of “Food Studies.”  One course is called “Politics of the Global Food System,” and the other “The Science of Food, Farming, and Flavors.”  Being that I have to do writing for these classes, I figured I’d also post the papers I write here on the blog for everyone to enjoy!  Anyways, here’s the first thing I’ve written this semester for “The Science of Food, Farming and Flavors;” a dietary critique of NutriSystem.

Being from Pittsburgh (go Browns!), no wonder Dan Marino thinks NutriSystem tastes good!

Being that I am a.) male and b.) a sports fan, this would mean that I do spend a fair amount of time watching ESPN.  The truth that follows invariably from watching ESPN is that, at times, you will be absolutely inundated, nearly bombarded, by advertisements for the NutriSystem diet.  This is because in the last couple of years, there have been a number of sports broadcasters and former pro athletes who have lost significant amounts of weight via NutriSystem.  NutriSystem has taken the success their diet plan has had with male athletes, and now they are using that, I think, as their main marketing strategy for attracting other (less famous) male customers.

According to, NutriSystem is a commercial weight loss program based in Philadelphia that started in 1972 by producing a liquid protein diet.  By 1978, NutriSystem had abandoned this business plan as companies like Slim-Fast and Carnation were taking control of major shares of the liquid protein market.  NutriSystem then transitioned to functioning more in the style of brands such as Weight Watchers, establishing a number of “centers” where dieters would come and weigh in, and then purchase prepackaged, portion and calorie-controlled meals.  The early part of the 1990s saw the company go bankrupt, but then reemerge in 1999 as an internet based meal delivery service.  In 2007, the company was purported to have 800,000 customers and a market value of somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion.

NutriSystem offers six different weight loss programs; the women’s program, Silver for Women (women over 60), the men’s program, Silver for Men (men over 60), Type II Diabetic Program, and an all-vegetarian program.  The silver programs also contain a free multivitamin supplement.  NutriSystem, as I said before, sells prepackaged, calorie and portion-controlled entrees and snacks.  There’s no contract to sign, but food must be ordered in 28-day supplies costing roughly $300 per month.  In each of the six programs, the meal plan is designed around eating five times a day (three entrees and two snacks).  Since NutriSystem’s food is prepared by a “soft canning” process, it does not require any refrigeration and can be stored at room temperature. (I cannot help but jump in here and say this is a huge red flag!)  Some items are ready to eat straight away, but others require heating either in the microwave or on the stovetop.

This is all nice information that is important to understanding what NutriSystem is, but what about the science?

Personally, it seems like there is very little science involved, or at least mentioned.  NutriSystem has claimed that they base all their food selections on the glycemic index (GI).  The glycemic index “measures” food by the effect it has on a person’s blood sugar within two hours of eating.  Foods that have a low ranking on the glycemic index raise blood sugar levels more gradually, and for this reason, a person feels nourished for a longer period of time (most of NurtiSystem’s food is low on the GI).  It should be noted here that there are two different glycemic indexes.  One uses pure glucose as the reference standard while the other has white bread as its baseline.  It is not clear which point of reference NutriSystem uses.  NutriSystem does claim that their meal plan, “meets, and in many cases, exceeds the government standards for healthy eating,” and honestly, this means nothing as our government has been getting nutritional standards and information wrong for quite some time.  For example; remember when George McGovern decided margarine was better for you than butter?  Yeeaaah . . . there was never really any scientific truth to that . . . at all.

There is also very little information about the company outside of what they themselves have provided to the public.  Their chief dietitian, a man named Jay Satz, has allegedly never even been published in a professional medical or nutritional journal.  NutriSystem, as of 2007, had also not been rated by the American Dietetic Association (I was not able to find evidence to the contrary).  NutriSystem has also never gone through any independently run clinical trials of any kind.

The best thing about NutriSystem is that it is convenient and private.  Meals are shipped directly to your house, and there is over the phone “coaching” available twenty four hours a day and seven days a week.  Preparing the food is also ridiculously easy; either tear off the lid and throw it in the microwave, or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, add a little water and use the stove.  NutriSystem users also claim that the program provides structure in that you have a set menu for every day of the week.  Users do not have to worry about counting calories or overeating.

And the negative?  Unfortunately, at least for me personally, the negative aspects far outweigh any positive.  The main critique is that the food is absolutely garbage, and, one could argue, in theory, that it is not really food at all, but a food product.  According to Dr. Kendra Pearsall, a naturopathic doctor, “The products contained artificial, unhealthy ingredients like Sucralose and hydrogenated oils [these are also used in margarine].  In line with the low-fat diet myth, the food was very high in carbs and low in fat.  The meals included granola bars, muffins, frosted flakes, pancakes, snack bars, shakes, pasta, pizza, puddings, dessert bars,” (“NutriSystem Diet Review”).  So basically, NutriSystem could also be known as a diet subsisting mostly on the sugars found in carbohydrates.  Pearsall finishes up by saying, “None of this food is nutrient dense and is exactly the kind of food overweight people should avoid at all costs!” (“NutriSystem Diet Review”).  On top of this, some customers reported the food made them ill and that the over-the-phone counseling was a complete joke.  There is also no mention of exercise anywhere in the diet plan.

Refrigeration?!?! Who needs it! This "pizza" still tastes great, and it's been sitting in my garage for three months!

As far as my personal views on NutriSystem, I cannot say one good thing about it.  I do my very best to eat as organically as I possibly can because this is, in my opinion, the most natural form of human existence.  Humans were not made to live on corn syrup, soy byproducts, preservatives, and artificial nutrients, so I really can’t see how going on a diet that is completely made up of these things makes any sense.  You may lose weight, but by no means does this mean you will end up healthier.  In this sense, I think NutriSystem is misleading their customers.  I think they modeled their business to go after less-educated, overweight, lazy people who won’t exercise or take the time to learn how to cook, which is really the biggest problem with the program; it serves as a sort of crutch for the gastronomically ignorant.  In order to eat well and live a healthy life, you must posses the knowledge to do so, and this means learning how to cook, but also, it requires some small amount of devotion to actually learning about food; how it’s made, where it comes from, etc.  These are the paramount issues, I think, when it comes to discussing gastronomy, and subsequently, nutrition.  NutriSystem fails to address them, and for this reason, I think the diet falls flat on its fat, double-chinned face.

And by the way, you’re welcome for the Sinbad clip.  And also – good people of Pittsburgh, please do not be offended by my caption under Dan Marino’s glistening mouth of teeth.  I’m only kidding; a Primanti’s sandwich is one of the best sandwiches ever.

Credit to and Dr. Kendra Pearsall.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Oly permalink
    September 26, 2010 11:22 pm

    I love this blog, suer opens your eyes to what a person is about to get themselves into before purchasing this product. Keep these blogs going and hopefully open the eyes to people that there is really no short cut to loosing weight.

    • rmthon permalink
      September 30, 2010 7:46 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Oly! I appreciate it! Be on the lookout for a new post next week!


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