What Is the Optavia Diet?

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Consumers have long been drawn to the convenience of meal replacement diets to take the guesswork out of weight loss. One popular example of a meal replacement plan is the Optavia Diet.

Combining so-called “fuelings” (shakes, bars and other pre-packaged foods) with a six-small-meals-per-day philosophy, the Optavia Diet aims to help adherents lose weight by consuming small amounts of calories spread throughout the day. Optavia then adds a social support component by offering access to a health coach who can answer questions and provide encouragement along the way.

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of the Optavia Diet, and whether it’s really a helpful plan for healthy weight loss. 

What Experts Say

“The Optavia diet is a meal replacement plan. Followers eat a certain number of ‘fuelings’ per day (plus one homemade meal) resulting in calorie reduction and weight loss. Experts worry that it’s unsustainable; many will regain weight when transitioning off the meal replacements.”

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background 

The Optavia Diet might sound unfamiliar, as the name itself hasn’t been around very long. You're more likely to have heard of the diet by its previous name, Take Shape for Life, rebranded as Optavia in July 2017.

Take Shape for Life began as a subsidiary of Medifast, a weight loss products company founded in 1980 by medical doctor Dr. William Vitale. When Take Shape for Life was introduced in 2002, the intent was to offer Medifast’s products in an online format more suitable for the digital age.

Although the Optavia Diet isn’t intended for any particular audience, it appeals to many people who’d like to take the overthinking out of their eating. Since, on its popular “5 & 1” plan, five out of six small meals per day come in pre-planned, pre-packaged format, there’s no big decision-making when it’s time to eat. For this reason, Optavia tends to be a favorite among people with a busy lifestyle. In general, though, its reduced calorie approach is intended for anyone looking to lose weight.

Still, the Optavia Diet has not been without controversy. Since its inception, critics have called it a pyramid scheme because of its multi-level structure. Users who complete the program are encouraged to become coaches and sell the company’s products themselves, as well as recruit new sales representatives. This sales and promotions aspect can be a turnoff for potential customers. 

How it Works

Like other meal replacement diets, the Optavia Diet provides users with its own array of branded products that take the place of several meals throughout the day. The diet offers various plans for different goals of weight loss or weight maintenance.

The most popular “5 & 1” plan is geared for rapid weight loss. On this plan, users eat five fuelings and one low-calorie “lean and green” homemade meal per day.

Two other plans, the “3 & 3” and “4 & 2 & 1” offer different combinations of “real” meals and meal replacements. These can be used take weight off a bit more slowly or to keep weight steady. On all of these plans, both the fuelings and the lean and green homemade meals are kept within strict calorie ranges. 

What to Eat

Depending on the Optavia diet plan you select, you’ll eat anywhere from two to five of the company’s pre-made meal replacements per day. Additionally, you’ll make and eat one to three of your own low-calorie meals, typically comprised of lean protein and non-starchy vegetables.

Although no foods are technically forbidden on the diet, many foods are strongly discouraged, while others are highly recommended.

Compliant Foods

  • Optavia fuelings

  • Lean meats

  • Greens and other non-starchy vegetables

  • Healthy fats

  •  Low-fat dairy, fresh fruit, and whole grains (on some plans)

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Indulgent desserts

  • High-calorie additions

  • Sugary beverages

  • Alcohol

Compliant Foods

Optavia Fuelings

Pre-packaged fuelings comprise the majority of the food you’ll eat on the Optavia Diet. According to Optavia’s online guide, you can choose from over 80 soups, bars, shakes, pretzels, and other products (even brownies!) as meal replacements. The company states that “each item has a nearly identical nutrition profile” so they can be eaten interchangeably.

Lean Meats

“Lean and green” meals include a five-to-seven-ounce portion of cooked lean protein. The program distinguishes between lean, leaner, and leanest protein sources, with examples like salmon, lamb, or pork chops as lean, swordfish or chicken breast as leaner, and cod, shrimp, and egg whites as leanest. 

Greens and Non-starchy Vegetables

Optavia’s 5 & 1 program allows for two non-starchy vegetables alongside the protein at your lean and green meal. These veggies are divided into lower, moderate, and higher carbohydrate categories, such as salad greens for lower carb, cauliflower or summer squash for moderate carb, and broccoli or peppers for higher carb.

Healthy Fats

In addition to lean protein and non-starchy vegetables, the lean and green meal can be prepared with up to two servings of healthy fats, such as olive or walnut oil, flaxseed, or avocado.

Low-fat Dairy, Fresh Fruit, and Whole Grains

Once users have achieved the weight loss they desire through meal replacements, lean protein, and non-starchy vegetables, they can begin to reintroduce other food groups. Low-fat dairy, fresh fruit, and whole grains are all included in Optavia’s “3 & 3” and “4 & 2 & 1” weight maintenance programs. 

Non-Compliant Foods

Indulgent Desserts

Not surprisingly, Optavia discourages indulging in desserts like cakes, cookies, or ice cream. Eventually, though, after your initial weight loss phase, moderate sweet treats like fresh fruit or flavored yogurt can make their way back into your diet.

High-calorie Additions

Butter, shortening, and high-fat salad dressings may add flavor, but they also add large amounts of calories. On Optavia, you’ll be advised to keep these additions to a minimum, or substitute lower-calorie versions.

Sugary Beverages

Since sweetened beverages like soda, juice, or energy drinks provide calories without much satiation, they’re strongly discouraged. 

Alcohol

Like sweet drinks, alcohol should be limited on the Optavia diet. When you’re trying to stay within a strict calorie range, the 120 calories in a 5-ounce glass of wine or 150 calories in a 12-ounce beer add up fast.

Recommended Timing 

If you purchase an Optavia Diet plan, you’ll be provided with a guide that offers recommendations for when to eat each meal or fueling. In general, Optavia encourages consuming fuelings about every two to three hours.

On the 5 & 1 program, for example, you would eat one fueling each for breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, and an afternoon snack. You’d then have a homemade lean and green dinner, followed by one final fueling for an evening snack.

While most people choose to make dinner their lean and green meal, the company emphasizes that this can be any meal of the day that works for you.

Resources and Products

In addition to providing the meal replacements themselves, Optavia offers resources that outline best practices for how to prepare lean and green meals. While the diet doesn’t require any specific recipes, grilling, baking, poaching, and broiling are all recommended cooking methods for meats and other protein choices. Optavia also maintains its own Pinterest board of compliant recipes.

One additional resource that makes the Optavia program unique is the availability of a coach to cheer you on throughout your weight loss journey. Typically, coaches are people who have successfully completed the Optavia program themselves. Signing up for Optavia also allows you to join weekly group support calls where health professionals answer weight loss questions.

Modifications

Because the Optavia diet relies on proprietary meal replacement products and strictly calorie-controlled prepared meals, there’s not a lot of room for modification. And since the 5 & 1 plan can limit calories to as low as 800-1000 per day, it’s not suitable for pregnant women or people who engage in vigorous exercise.

The extreme calorie restriction of Optavia may lead to fatigue, brain fog, headaches, or menstrual changes. While the 3 & 3 and $ & 2 & 1 plans can supply between 1100-2500 calories a day, the 5 & 1 option should not be used long-term.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Packaged products offer convenience

  • Achieves rapid weight loss

  • Takes guesswork out of what to eat

  • Offers social support

Cons

  • Monthly cost is high

  • Involves a lot of processed food

  • Weight loss may be unsustainable

  • Calorie restriction may leave you hungry

  • Can feel isolating at mealtimes

Pros

Packaged Products Offer Convenience

Getting Optavia’s shakes, soups, and brownies shipped directly to your door provides a level of convenience many other diets do not. Although you will need to shop for your own ingredients for lean and green meals, the home delivery aspect of Optavia’s fuelings saves time and energy. Once the products arrive, they’re also easy to use as grab-and-go meals.

Achieves Rapid Weight Loss 

Most healthy people require around 1600-3000 calories per day to maintain weight, so restricting that number to as low as 800 essentially guarantees weight loss. If you follow Optavia’s 5 & 1 plan to the letter, you will probably lose weight very quickly. Optavia may be an especially smart option for people who have a medical reason to shed pounds fast. 

Takes the Guesswork out of What to Eat

Some people find that the hardest part about dieting is the mental effort of figuring out what to eat each day—or even at each meal. Optavia alleviates this stress by offering users clear-cut approved foods, both in fuelings and lean and green meals. 

Offers Social Support

It’s well known that social support is a major component in the success or failure of any weight loss effort. Optavia’s coaching program and group calls provide encouragement that could make a major difference for results on the scale. 

Cons

Monthly Cost is High

Optavia’s cost can be a deterrent for some prospective users. The 5 & 1 plan ranges in price from $350 to $425 for 119 servings, or about three weeks of meal replacements. You’ll also need to purchase your own ingredients for your lean and green meals.  

Involves a Lot of Processed Food

Though Optavia’s fuelings may be engineered with interchangeable nutrients, they’re still undeniably processed foods. With all that nutrition research has shown about the detrimental effects of too much processed food in the diet, this is a disadvantage.

Weight Loss May be Unsustainable

One challenge for people on the Optavia Diet is to determine how to maintain weight loss once they’ve completed the program. When people go back to eating regular meals instead of meal replacements, they may find weight comes back on quickly.

Calorie Restriction May Leave you Hungry

Although the Optavia Diet emphasizes eating frequently throughout the day, each of its fuelings provides only 110 calories, and lean and green meals are kept low-calorie as well. You may find the program simply leaves you hungry.

Can be Isolating at Mealtimes

Because Optavia relies on meal replacements, it can throw a wrench in the social aspect of eating with others. Users may find it difficult to choose to eat a shake or bar when friends or family want to dine out. 

How It Compares 

For quick weight loss, the Optavia Diet may be more effective than other eating plans simply because of how few calories its fuelings and lean and green meals provide. In fact, U.S. News and World Report ranks Optavia as the number two best diet for fast weight loss (tied with Atkins, keto, and Weight Watchers).

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Optavia Diet 31st in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2.7/5.

Compared to other diet plans, Optavia requires far less mental gymnastics than competitors like Weight Watchers, which involves learning a system of points, or keto, in which macronutrients must be carefully assessed. The coaching component of Optavia is comparable to programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, where participants can opt in to meetups for social support. However, the highly processed nature of the majority of food you’ll eat on the Optavia diet is a downside when compared to the array of fresh, whole foods you can eat on more self-guided plans like Atkins

USDA Recommendations 

In several ways, the Optavia Diet deviates from health and nutrition guidelines encouraged by the USDA. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 estimates that healthy adults require 1600-3000 calories per day. Though the 5 & 1 plan is obviously intended for weight loss, its 800-1000 calorie count is quite an extreme reduction from this recommendation. As for macronutrients, Optavia is reported to provide only 80 to 100 grams of carbohydrate per day. This means about 40 percent of the diet’s calories per day come from this macronutrient. The Dietary Guidelines advise consuming a diet with 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates.

 Additionally, the USDA emphasizes that a healthy eating pattern includes grains and dairy products, which the 5 & 1 plan does not provide.

Similar Diets

SlimFast Diet

When you think of meal replacements, you may think of SlimFast before you think of Optavia. SlimFast offers a similar array of meal replacement products to Optavia, but may not provide as much variety as Optavia. SlimFast also doesn’t include social support through coaching. However, SlimFast now has different lines of meal replacements that comply with special diets, like keto and diabetic weight loss.

Special K Diet

Another popular meal replacement plan is the Special K diet. This two-week “challenge” involves replacing two meals a day with a Special K cereal or other product, then eating dinner as you normally would. Essentially a quick-fix crash diet, this eating plan is not intended for longer-term use like Optavia’s 3 & 3 or 4 & 2 & 1 plans. Still, at just two weeks’ duration, the Special K diet certainly won’t cost as much as Optavia.

Nutrisystem

Like Optavia, Nutrisystem is a meal replacement company that sends users pre-made, pre-packaged foods. In contrast to Optavia’s fuelings, however, Nutrisystem’s products tend to resemble regular meals, with options like pizzas, sandwiches, and mac and cheese—and are intended to stand in for all three meals a day. Nutrisystem also includes support services from on-call counselors.

A Word From Verywell 

For people who thrive on structure and need to lose weight quickly, the Optavia Diet may be a beneficial option. With its extremely low-calorie eating plans, it’s certainly likely to help you shed pounds—but whether that weight loss will stick once you go off the diet is debatable.

Before you begin any meal replacement diet, give careful consideration to whether you can realistically follow it, how much you’re able to spend, and how much hunger you’re prepared to experience. And if you opt for Optavia, remember that, once you eventually go off the diet, it’s best to get educated about longer-term healthy eating.

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Article Sources

  • US News and World Report. What Is Optavia Diet? United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.