Taking a few inches off your waist can also take a good chunk out of your pocketbook -- especially if you go with the wildly popular Atkins or South Beach diet. ''Be prepared to dip into your budget,'' grocery guru Phil Lempert warns.
USA TODAY asked Lempert to calculate the cost for a dieter to stick to the meal plans on the low-carb Atkins program and the fish-and-fowl-rich South Beach diet. For comparison purposes, he also analyzed the cost of following the government's Thrifty Food Plan, which was created by the Department of Agriculture not for weight loss but to help budget-conscious consumers meet the nutritional recommendations of the Food Guide Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Using national grocery store data provided exclusively by AC Nielsen and his own supermarket research, Lempert analyzed the first three days of meal plans from Atkins for Life by Robert C. Atkins, three days of meals from Phase 2 of The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, and three days of the Thrifty Food Plan. In each case, his calculations were based on the cost for one person to cook all meals at home.
A caveat: Food prices vary among regions and supermarkets, and measurements of ingredients aren't always precise, but Lempert's totals should give dieters a realistic idea of how big a bite their diet will take from their grocery budget.
When a specific brand of a product was not given in the meal plan, Lempert used store and generic brands to keep costs down. He also cut costs by, among other things, using the price of farm-raised salmon instead of wild salmon.
* The Atkins diet's ongoing weight-loss phase (45 grams of carbs a day) averaged $14.27 a day, ranging from $11.04 to $15.97.
* South Beach diet's Phase 2 averaged $12.78 a day, ranging from $11.16 to $14.90.
* The Thrifty Food Plan from the USDA (www.cnpp.usda.gov/Pubs/Cookbook/thriftym.pdf) averaged $6.22 a day, ranging from $6 to $6.61. (The government's calculation is slightly lower.)
''The more I've worked on this, the more it has really become apparent that our obesity problem in the U.S. is directly linked to the fact that eating foods that are healthy or in this case lower carb costs more,'' Lempert says. ''It's hard for lower-income and middle-income people to be on these diets. We need to help this population eat healthier.''
The salmon-based dinners on the Atkins and South Beach menus, for example, are far more expensive than the ground beef and noodle casserole in the government's diet. Also, the olive oil, berries, fresh vegetables and wide variety of other ingredients in the recipes for these programs cost more than the fruits and vegetables used in the government plan, he says.
For families of modest means who want to try the trendy diets, Lempert suggests trade-offs:
* Use frozen fish instead of fresh.
* Use frozen fruits and vegetables instead of fresh. Frozen produce is often packed at the peak of freshness and also will taste better than out-of-season produce.
* Use canola oil instead of olive oil when cooking.
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