Latifah set to become Jenny Craig spokeswoman

Performer Queen Latifah is about to be cast in a new role: weight loss spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, the commercial diet that has recently helped actresses Kirstie Alley and Valerie Bertinelli shed pounds. Latifah isn’t trying to get starlet skinny, but hopes to shed about 15 pounds to cut her risk of Type 2 diabetes, a condition that affects about 20 million Americans.

Like NutriSystem and Slim-Fast, Jenny Craig is a meal replacement plan that provides sensible food portions in a supersized world.

Once spurned by many weight-loss experts, the meal replacement approach is earning a place as one option to shed pounds or maintain weight. “The old thinking was that these programs didn’t provide real food or real life experience, and that people who followed them didn’t learn anything” about nutrition, says Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University who serves as an adviser to NutriSystem and has consulted with the makers of Slim-Fast. “But we’ve found that you can use these programs to your advantage.”

Tight structure is what they provide to those who hate to count calories or points. “They’re best for those who want someone else to make the decision about what to eat,” says John Foreyt, who directs the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and has served as a consultant to several meal replacement companies. “They simply provide the food.”

Some plans, including NutriSystem and Jenny Craig, will even deliver the food to your door, eliminating the need to pick it up. There’s no need to do much cooking either. Most of the products are ready to eat, or just need to be reheated or popped into the microwave.

What the plans do best is to teach proper portion control — a lost art for many. “They give you an approximation of what a meal should look like,” Foster says.

Nearly all the programs also provide support to help keep you on track. Web sites have tools to record what you eat, track exercise, chat online with other participants or seek help from diet counselors, exercise experts and registered dietitians.

You’ll need to register at the sites, but use is usually free whether you follow the programs or not. Find more help via toll-free phone lines and e-mail.

But does all of this translate to success?

“If you stick with the plans, they can work like a charm,” Foreyt says.

More than three dozen published studies of Slim-Fast alone suggest that this structured approach produces about an 8 percent loss of body weight in approximately six months. For a person weighing 200 pounds, that works out to about a 16-pound loss — far less than the 30 to 40 pounds most dieters hope to shed. But it’s an amount that can significantly reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, according to the federally funded Diabetes Prevention Program.

Even so, the structure that seems appealing at first can “lead to boredom and monotony over time,” Foster says.

Cost also can be a drawback. Jenny Craig, for example, charges a $399 annual membership fee in addition to food. All the programs run special deals throughout the year. But it’s also possible to find similar food at your local grocery.

That’s exactly what Susan Creekmore, 50, of Northern Virginia did earlier this year. In May, she signed up for a one-week trial membership with Jenny Craig and paid $138 for a week’s worth of food that included Pesto Pizza, Bruschetta Veggie Chips, Chicken Fettuccine, Meat Loaf with barbecue sauce and Double Chocolate Cake.

“Ninety-five percent of the food was very tasty,” says Creekmore, who wanted to lose about 10 pounds. “There were a lot of choices … and it was a great way to regiment yourself. And it really worked. I lost a couple of pounds the first week.”

But Creekmore was troubled by some of the ingredients in the Jenny Craig products, including small amounts of high fructose corn syrup and the lack of whole grains. “When you’re spending that kind of money, you expect healthier food,” she says.

So Creekmore shopped for frozen dinners and soups at her grocery that provided whole grains and had no high fructose corn syrup. “Not only did it cost a lot less money than Jenny Craig, but it was healthier,” she says.

And those 10 unwanted pounds? They’re gone too.

Join Sally Squires online from 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays at www.leanplateclub.com, where you also can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club weekly e-mail newsletter.

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