(Diet Review) The Optavia Program: Could the Cake Boss be Wrong?

(Diet Review) The Optavia Program: Could the Cake Boss be Wrong?

This review of the Optavia program is an opinion piece based on current literature and my findings, as well as the firsthand experience of a previous Optavia coach. 

I’ve been asked by many people – and Women’s Health Magazine, actually – to review the Optavia weight loss program. Apparently it’s super-popular and going around social media like wildfire, although I’ve never heard of it until now. Apparently, Cake Boss Buddy Valastro used it to drop a bunch of weight and afterwards was all over the media saying how much he loved it. Okay, Buddy. Okay.

These diet programs just keep on coming. They’re like cockroaches…while there’s some out in the open, there are many more lurking in the cracks.

One of the people who asked me to write about this program messaged me on Facebook and told me her entire experience with it firsthand. Unfortunately, her account was shocking, but not all that surprising, since I’ve heard of the cult-like behaviour and high-pressure sales tactics that exist in these MLM companies. I’m including bits of this woman’s story, in her own words, in this review. 

What is Optavia?

You may have heard of the Medifast program, which is a brick and mortar-based weight loss program. Optavia, on the other hand, is the web-based version of Medifast, complete with access to ‘coaches’. Optavia has been around since the 1980s, and forgive me for saying this, it appears not to have updated their nutrition philosophy since then. You’ll see what I mean in this post. 

Cutting to the chase, Optavia is a low calorie diet, plain and simple. There are a couple of configurations for the program, but they all involve eating Optavia ‘fuelings’ aka pre-prepared meals that are shipped to your door, plus one or two ‘Lean and Green’ meals, each of which consist of three servings of green vegetables and 5-7oz protein. You may get one snack depending on which program you’re on. Because my source tells me that it’s the most popular configuration, I’m focusing on the 5 and 1 program, which is 5 fuelings and 1 Lean and Green meal. Fresh fruit is not on the plan, and neither is dairy. 

It’s important to note that vegetarians will find their fueling choices limited on Optavia, and vegans will not be able to follow the diet at all, since the fuelings contain lanolin.

Regardless of which program you choose, you’re still consuming at least three Optavia-branded meals a day. You’ll get 6 small meals a day, every 2-3 hours. My source tells me: “One thing I really remember is having to set the timer of when I would get to eat again- I was so hungry! You’re instructed to eat every 2 1/2 to 3 hours and I don’t eat that much now and I’m not hungry like I was when I was eating their food.”

Even with 6 ‘small meals’ a day, it’s no wonder that she was hungry:

Fuelings range from bars and shakes, to unappetizing-looking entrees like chili and ‘wild rice and chicken-flavored’ soup. Chicken flavored soup – *shudder* 

The nutrition stats per fueling average:

32-35 gram weight

12 grams of protein

8-12 grams of carbs

100-110 calories. 

Many have around 6 grams of sugar per serving. 

To give you a better idea of how small the fuelings are, most of them weigh between 32 and 35 grams. A standard granola bar weighs 46 grams; a small apple is 186 grams. One packet of the ‘Rustic Tomato Herb Penne’ fueling is 34 grams and 110 calories, leading me to believe that the packet (which is $3) contains approximately 4 pieces of pasta and a tablespoon of sauce. Even with five of them a day, you’re still consuming very little actual food. In fact, the 5 and 1 program provides between 800 and 1000 calories per day. For comparison, the 4 and 2 and 1 program provides 1100-1300 calories per day. The 3 and 3 program provides 1200-2500 calories per day. 

Adding in the protein from the Lean and Green meal, Optavia users on the 5 and 1 program are getting around 100 grams of protein per day, which for a 220 pound person is 1.0 grams/kg; for a 150 lb person, it’s 1.5 grams/kg. This may not be enough to be muscle-sparing during weight loss, according to a 2013 study, which found that 1.6g/kg, but not higher, may preserve muscle mass in dieters. The last thing you want is to burn more muscle than you have to, as muscle is what keeps our metabolic rate humming. 

What Does Optavia Claim?

Optavia claims that their diet is low enough in carbohydrate that fat will become a person’s main fuel source. In other words, they are claiming that being on the Optavia program puts your body into what they call ‘gentle’ ketosis. I wasn’t aware that there were different varieties of ketosis to choose from: you’re either in it, or you’re not. It’s not like buying a mattress where you can choose soft, medium, or hard. 

The thing is, that the Optavia plans provide between 80 and 100 grams of carbohydrate a day, which is far too much carb to put most people into ketosis. Ketogenic diets generally contain 5-10% of their calories from carbs. If you’re eating 1000 calories on the Optavia program, 5-10% of that is 50-100 calories, which equals 12.5-25 grams of carbs. Some people can eat more than that and achieve ketosis, but 100 grams a day? Not likely.

So what are you burning? Fat, sure – but probably a fair bit of muscle, too. No bueno.

The Research Behind Optavia

The fact that Optavia – or rather, its sister diet Medifast, has actual research behind it is something I don’t see very often. 

Optavia claims that it helps people lose more weight than other diets.

Fair enough, but that’s only half of the story, and here’s the other half: There are around nine research studies that Medifast has been a part of, the follow up time was never longer than 12 months, except for in one case, when follow up was done after 86 weeks. That particular study found that at the 86-week mark, most if not all participants had put back all of their lost weight except for 3 pounds. 

A 2016 study on Medifast published in the journal Obesity found that subjects lost 12 pounds in 12 weeks, but they also took Phentermine, which is an amphetamine-type weight loss drug. Major confounding variable. 

The dropout rate in that study was 80 percent, which is undoubtedly a massive dropout rate for any study. However, it’s consistent with many of the Medifast studies, which saw huge attrition. People drop out for a variety of reasons, but we have to consider that the diet was just too difficult for many of the participants in these studies to follow long-term (or short term). The other common observation in many of the studies was weight regain after the dieters began increasing their calorie levels. 

So to sum things up here, the Medifast research studies tell us basically what we’d expect to see with low-calorie, pre-packaged food diets. It’s an antiquated diet concept from a bygone era where we didn’t understand the negative effects of diets like this to someone’s relationship with food and with themselves. Just give people everything, make them dependent on the program and its food, and keep them hooked for life. No mindfulness, no holistic focus, no appreciation for food, no education about how to self-manage. So ’80s. They even recommend low-fat margarine over butter in their meal plans. Let’s do the time warp, AGAAAAAAAAAIN!!

And as far as their ‘more weight lost’ claims, who cares how much weight a person loses if they can’t keep that weight off? Isn’t that the point of losing weight? 

How Much Does Optavia Cost?

Optavia starts at around $425 a month. That’s a lot of money, especially held up against the monthly cost of fresh food for one person. 

Optavia Coaching

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen my posts about unqualified people coaching and/or counselling others about nutrition. While it happens a lot, it’s a seedy practice that is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. Losing weight is a lot more than ‘eat less and work out more’, and to be effective at helping people on their weight loss journey, you need to be well-versed in counselling techniques, not to mention have a good grasp of physiology and nutrition science.

It’s safe to say that hastily-recruited Optavia coaches don’t have any of those things, making the coaching side of the business truly about money and not about helping people. Shameful. And the more people they recruit for the program, the more money the coaches make.

With Optavia, ‘coach’ also equals ‘salesperson’. It goes without saying: You should also not be making money from selling products to the people you’re coaching. AHEM conflict of interest *cough* *cough*

My source had a lot to say about Optavia coaching:

“You are hounded from the start to become a coach. You are told that you are 5x more likely to keep the weight off if you’re a coach. The woman who coached me was only on the program 10 days before she became a coach. Conventions are held in fancy hotels like the Gaylord in Nashville. Awards are given out for how far you advance in the company. You are also told that you can spend no more than 5 minutes with a client. My friend and I were doing the program together and we always talked about how we could never ask (our coach) any questions. The whole conversation was about how much weight have you lost and you need to become a health coach. 

When I did become a health coach then my coach had hours to help me set up my business. To become a coach you buy a $199.00 business kit and take a short quiz. To become a certified coach you take a one day class through Villanova university and then you are COPE certified and you make more money. They would also offer the class at conventions.”

I had the chance to check out one of the training videos on YouTube, and it was rudimentary at best. A one-day class teaching people how to be a coach is embarrassingly poor preparation. I’m sure they don’t care though – they lure people to become ‘certified’ coaches not only through pressuring them, but also through monetary incentive. If you’re a certified coach, you make more money from Optavia. 

She went on to describe to me how she felt pressured to make more money with the company:

“They would have zoom calls etc to learn how to make more money,.They tried to convince me to quit teaching and go full time. One of the coaches would walk around his multimillion dollar house with his hat on backwards telling you how to make more money. Never said a word about how rich he was, but you sure saw it.”

Yuck.

The Dangers of Very Low Calorie Diets

While in most cases Optavia doesn’t qualify as a VLCD (Very Low Calorie Diet), the 5 and 1 and 4 and 2 and 1 are low enough that they can cause some serious issues in some people.

Aside from the emotional side effects such as guilt and shame around food, very low calorie diets can cause gallstones, hormonal imbalances, fatigue, metabolic slowing, obsession with food, and depression. They can also cause rebound weight gain, which Optavia appears to do. And let’s not forget HUNGER. Hello, can you eat 1000 or fewer calories a day for weeks on end? I certainly couldn’t. It’s punishing. Even 1300 calories a day, as is offered on the 4 and 2 and 1 program, is extremely difficult for most people to sustain. 

The Optavia diet is meant to be followed until you reach your goal weight, at which point you can transition off of it.

Good luck with that; my source says that the program is ‘addictive’, not only because of the weight loss, but also the convenience of having pre-made meals. What good is a program that doesn’t teach people how to make their own whole-food choices? That doesn’t teach people how to grocery shop and cook for themselves? That continues to earn money off of people forever and ever? 

That’s right: I got a hold of an Optavia ‘transition’ meal plan, meant for after you’ve reached your goal weight. It has meal plans for weeks 1-8, and I was scandalized to see that even at week 8 and beyond, they’re STILL recommending that people eat three Optavia fuelings a day ‘to control calories’. So you’re never really free of this program.

BRU-TAL. It’s a ca$h cow that just keeps on giving…to the people selling it, that is.

Emotionally and socially, what is it going to feel like when you’re limited to Optavia prefab meals while everyone around you is eating fresh food? That’s a very important consideration and one that can directly impact your ability to remain on the program.

My Review on Optavia

Optavia is a low-calorie diet that relies on pre-packaged food, tiny portions, and unqualified ‘coaches’. It appears, according to the research, that many people regain the weight they lost on this program, if they don’t drop out of it before that.

The financial, emotional, social, and possibly physical costs of Optavia appear to be very high.

For a better chance of preserving your relationship with food and yourself, and maintaining your health and healthy weight for you, focus on choosing more whole foods and taking care of your physical and emotional health. If you need help, rely only on people who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to nutrition (like registered dietitians).

Hard pass on the Optavia program.