What are the cheapest diets? Welcome to part two of my recap of Save Money Good Health series two. This variety show covers all sorts of health topics to find the best value
for money for consumers.
The only segment that appeared in every episode of the series was all about the best value diets, so I thought I’d pop this part of the recap all in one post. Which diets are a waste of money? What’s the alternative?
Read my Save Money Good Health part one recap to find out more about the show and the other health topics they investigated. That covers related issues like who needs to spend on fitness supplements and extra vitamins, and how to get better sleep without bankrupting yourself.
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
The Sirtfood Diet
The Military Diet
5:2 Veggie and Vegan
Diet Fact vs Diet Fiction
The Final Leaderboard
How did they test the cheapest diets?
One volunteer each week reported back on a diet they tested for the show. These all have a cost attached, but some of the diets are far more expensive than others. (They also might be more than what the volunteer would normally spend on food).
The show then calculates the “value” of the diet pound for pound i.e. how much did it cost them for every pound of weight they lost. The cheapest diet is not necessarily the same as the best value with this criteria.
So why have I titled this the cheapest diets? Presenter Sian Williams says that different diets work for different people. The value per pound is only relevant for each volunteer. The “best value” diet then is whichever one works for you regardless of cost. Still, the breakdown below indicates what the volunteers spent and the tenets of each diet.
Everyone has a unique body and lots of variables contribute to weight loss. I would take the value assessment therefore with a pinch of salt. The next person might find the cost very different. This might be because they lose less weight, or even put weight on (yes, that happens with crash diets!)
The point of the premise overall therefore is to demonstrate that a quick fix diet might kickstart a lifestyle change if it triggers some weight loss initially. The price of this kickstart can vary quite wildly per person.
What to expect from the cheapest diets
I also haven’t included what any of the volunteers weighed at any point for this reason. It might seem counterintuitive to not mention any weights when writing about whether a diet “really works”. In my layman’s opinion though, it’s not useful because it’s only replicable so far.
If someone spoke to their doctor and decided to try one of the diets below, then they might lose some weight and replicate the results in that sense. But no diet on the planet can tell you in advance exactly how it will change your body composition, if at all. (Be very suspicious if it does).
I’m not a dietitian etc., myself, so the majority of the information here comes from the programme. I’ve tried to make clear any asides from me. (I always try to link to a more qualified source if I’m adding my two-bits anyway. Otherwise I’d have no reason to interject!) I’m not trying to offer medical advice, just sharing information on the nation’s obsession with losing weight…
I’ve mentioned in other posts so far that it’s possible to save for a big goal like a house so long as we have spending priorities. I don’t think it’s a conflicting goal either to want to eat nutritiously or run a mile. These things don’t have to ruin your spending priorities or lead to an either/or situation.
It’s just as important to our wellbeing to have a roof over our head. I’m skeptical of the value in spending all our savings on losing weight if it means we’re never any closer to a home for the future. Especially when there are lots of ways to exercise for free. I’ve written about those in this post:
Let’s see what the volunteers spent, shall we? We spend billions in the UK on dieting, so I hope this recap helps you funnel your savings somewhere that gives you a financial return rather than just making the diet industry rich!
Cheapest Diets #1: Bodychef
This was marketed as the first fresh-diet plan, and involves deliveries of calorie and portion controlled meals with some choice over what is sent.
Volunteer Amy loved biscuits and chocolate all day long and got most of her daily calories from snacks (1500 daily in snacks). I haven’t included her weight because this is not the only measure of health. They did measure her BMI also and put the two together.
Mainly she was concerned with her own health and that she might not live to see her daughter grow up.
For weeks one to two, the dietitian set her 2000 calories, or the daily recommended limit for women. The plan dropped to 1600 calories in weeks three to four to avoid a weight loss plateau.
What does Bodychef really cost?
Costs: £475.04 for a 28 day plan, or £74 more than their volunteer Amy would normally spend on 28 days of food.
The verdict: Amy found week one hard. One lunch was a tuna beetroot salad with an orange for a snack, quite an adjustment for a junk food lover. In week two she started feeling faint and dizzy despite not dropping calories yet.
At the end, Amy concluded that it got her eating more healthily generally. They suggest you exercise while doing Bodychef too, so she started walking more.
Cost versus value: The show makers calculated the diet cost her £28.62 per lb lost. I missed series one, but apparently in series one they found Exante the “best value” because it cost £13.19 (per lb lost).
I wonder if Amy had swapped out some of her snacks, and snacked less overall, if it would have SAVED her money and made a health difference… But ya know, I’m not a doctor, so wondering is all I will do. Also a diet plan that just controls calories doesn’t tackle any of the complex reasons why we eat. Neither does my casual hypothesis. Food is fuel, but it’s also comfort, or part of our social rituals.
Either way for £475 I’d expect to buy my own tuna farm, and an orange tree at least. One thing I find bizarre about these shows is that most of the diets are calorie restricted, and yet the volunteers end up spending more than they normally would. It shouldn’t cost more to swap a takeaway or packaged snacks for less food in a day overall.
Cheapest Diets #2: The Sirtfood Diet
Sirt uses the theory of activating sirtuins, certain proteins in our body. These are supposed to burn fat and boost our metabolism. The diet revolves around twenty foods. (Only twenty?! Excuse me while I start chewing my own arm).
Mark loved takeaways, so he was often consuming 3000 calories in one meal, plus 2500 calories per week in beer. He was concerned about his health for the future of his very young daughter.
What does The Sirtfood Diet really cost?
Costs: £364.75 for 28 days. “The sirt diet claims you can lose 7 lb in 7 days.”
The verdict: Mark found it boring, with not enough carbs. He lost weight after two weeks, but was unhappy and didn’t enjoy eating any of the food.
After 1000 calories per day at the start, Mark was allowed to eat three meals per day in week three, or the “maintenance phase”. His mood improved; he even got to make Sirtfood pizza. By the end he had more energy and returned to playing football.
Cost versus value: £16.58 per lb lost. He spent about the same as on his old takeaway diet. I think this was a missed opportunity therefore.
The show’s resident doctor Ranj Singh couldn’t say that the weight loss was down to sirtuins, or just generally cutting out takeaways and booze.
What if…Mark had stopped spending on takeaways and booze, and saved on his food shopping…all with the same result for his health? I guess we’ll never know!
Cheapest Diets #3: The Military Diet
This is a carb free diet and is supposed to have been devised by dietitians in the US army. The calorie limit on four days is 1500 calories, and 1200 on the other three days. This is classed as intermittent fasting. (Carb free and intermittent fasting! One dude’s heaven is another dude’s Hell, I guess?)
Corinne was eating up to five packets of crisps per day as comfort food and was concerned about her diabetes.
According to Supershoppers, some crisps are also mostly bags of air, so they can be a right money drain. (I’m not saying anyone should exist on fresh air instead of crisps though. You would also hope that eating crisps would have less impact if there’s hardly any product in the bag in the first place, but apparently not).
What does The Military Diet really cost?
Cost: A free online plan! Huzzah! But they said it would cost £200 per month to buy the food…So I guess it’s a gold coated military or something.
The verdict: Corinne liked the first breakfast of toast…That’s it. I don’t think there was anything on the toast. Perhaps she was baking her own bread? I hear that’s rewarding. Hugh Jackman loves it (hence his not so secret alter ego: The King of Bread). He’s also proof that we shouldn’t be afraid of carbs. I think his activity levels might be slightly higher than most of us though…
They recommended walking 30 minutes per day seven days per week too.
The 1200 calorie days start in week two and Corinne found this too tough. Her meals included cheese on rice cakes for breakfast, egg and toast for lunch, and a tin of tuna with nothing else for dinner(!) It definitely reduced her blood sugar levels (from around 12 to around 7).
It changed her mind about eating crisps too; she started making a conscious choice between whether she wanted the crisps, or to lose weight.
Hm… Sounds a lot like “do I want another pair of shoes, or a house?” What are your spending priorities?
Cost versus value: £11.60 per lb lost. She spent £197 on groceries, so very close to the £200 prediction.
How is The Military Diet the best value?
This is a very good question because I don’t think £197 in 28 days is cheap or good value at all.
How did 28 days of calorie restricting with rice cakes, egg, bread, cheese and none of her usual crisps cost £197? Unless her tuna had caviar in it too…I’ve got a way for you to save on food at the bottom of this post (and it doesn’t require any fasting unless that’s what the doctor ordered).
For the amount she was “allowed” to eat, I have no idea how this could have come to £200 unless everything was big brands in very small quantities. Her sample meals also didn’t seem to add up to 1200 calories, so it’s not like it was implied that she was going over the diet which might have explained a £200 bill.
They declared this the #1 diet rather than Exante. The Exante diet cost a volunteer £13.19 per lb lost in series one. In my non-medical opinion, I’d say it’s possible to eat within the NHS calorie recommendations daily without destroying your blood sugar levels AND without spending this amount on food in one month. Perhaps she shopped at M&S?
Cheapest Diets #4: Huel
This is a meal replacement plan from UK nutritionists, with a 2000 calorie limit per day. It begins with two solid meals and one shake per day. Then by the end of week one meals are slowly replaced with shakes full time.
Sample food in the early days includes smoked salmon and cream cheese on rice cakes (to make it extra miserable when you can no longer eat solid food??)
Andrew was a hotel manager who loved homemade chips and picking at all the goodies available in the kitchen.
What does Huel really cost?
The verdict: Flatulence is a common side effect and it’s very antisocial flatulence too! You know, unlike the social kind(?). Andrew stopped snacking in the work kitchen though. He was bored by week four and resolved it by going for a walk every time he had the urge to eat something other than shakes.
Cost versus value: £12.17 per lb lost.
What if…Andrew had acquired the habit of going for a walk instead of impulsively snacking, but still been “allowed” to eat solid food?
There’s more than one dude on YouTube spending less than £100 a month at Aldi on a bodybuilding diet. (Joe Delaney for example talks through his meal prep in detail in several videos like this one to demonstrate how far the ingredients go for less than £20). This suggests it should be possible to eat and exercise on a budget of far less than £260 per month.
In fact, in part one they said men who aren’t in training only need 55g of protein per day i.e. I’d expect a bodybuilder to spend more…
Cheapest Diets #5: 5:2 Veggie & Vegan
This is a version of the original 5:2 Diet (popularised by Dr Michael Mosley). For two days per week the calorie limit is 600 calories.
Ashraf took part mainly because of his diabetes. Ashraf was a meat eater who was used to binge eating currys, Chinese, and Thai in the evenings.
Cost: £250pm for the ingredients.
The verdict: Ashraf missed fry ups, but he was excited to see cashew and brazil nuts. Time crawled on the fasting days and he had no energy.
In week three he felt better and was exercising. On his way home he walked home past so much food though. (I saw another dude on TV who moved house and became a personal trainer after attributing his weight loss to leaving behind a neighbourhood full of takeaways…) By the end of the four weeks, Ashraf was enjoying his smaller portions.
Cost versus value: Ashraf spent £246.66 on ingredients, or £16.44 per lb.
Again I’ll hazard: make friends with a bodybuilder, head to Aldi, put less in your basket than them if you don’t need the extra protein, voila! Groceries for a month for less than £100.
Vegans need to pay attention to their protein intake as it’s possible to undereat without animal products. However, the same could still be true of a meat eater with poor nutrition overall. Either way, it doesn’t have to be expensive.
Cheapest Diets #6: Pioppi Diet
This is normally a 21 day diet of no sugar and one day a week of fasting, so their dietitian designed an extra week.
Wendy was a member of a running club, but her joints were affected by her weight. She ate irregularly because of shift work and relied on 2000+ calories of snacks each week for fuel instead.
Cost: £425 monthly.
The verdict: The first dinner was a cheese burger with avocado and salad instead of a bun. Wendy struggled to find time to make the recipes and couldn’t resist chocolate cravings, but by week four she was feeling happier than before the diet as a result of eating regular meals.
Cost versus value: £25.01 per lb lost. This was roughly what Wendy would normally spend on food. (Must be another caviar diet).
Diet Facts vs Diet Fiction
Susan Jebb, a professor at the University of Oxford gave the rundown on various diets:
The NHS normally don’t recommend shake replacements versus balanced meals, but they can be a low calorie way to obtain nutrients.
Yo-yo dieting isn’t the end of the world because we will still benefit from the weight loss while we’re lighter even if we put the weight back on in the long term.
Slimming clubs might be effective because trials consistently demonstrate that groups are better for losing weight than doing it alone. These offer accountability (weigh-ins) and support, and she thought more GPs should refer people to them.
We can use portion control instead of diets! Half our plate should be veg. Meat should be the size of a deck of cards. Carbs like potatoes should take up no more space than size of a tennis ball. This roughly matches the image dietitian Priya Tew promotes regards using our hand to measure portion sizes. More on that in this series:
What’s the true cost of the cheapest diets?
The last point about portion control seems like it could do with repeating. What if instead of crash diets the volunteers were able to eat whatever they needed, but just followed recommended portions?
While a few volunteers had their perspective changed by their diets, none of them are sustainable in the long term. It’s a struggle for a reason to find a nutritionist who would recommend cutting out entire food groups like on The Military Diet.
I doubt that these diets really teach that much in the long term about how to eat more nutritiously, and they perpetuate the idea that being “healthy” can only be achieved through punishment. Is it me or do crash diets make food an enemy rather than a source of fuel and nutrients? How can we ever have a healthy relationship with food that way?
The most bizarre part is the sheer cost! While I know the point of these experiments is to test the “best value” diet, and I’m the first one to say that value and price are not the same thing, the ingredients costs seemed very high even when there was no expensive plan attached. The cheapest diets are relative indeed…
Especially when you consider that beforehand the volunteers were overeating in their own opinion and spending on takeaways. Removing these factors should have achieved big savings. It shouldn’t be this expensive to lose weight. Otherwise that’s not sustainable either, and it’s counterproductive if we have other goals like saving for a house.
The Final Leaderboard
The programme came up with a leaderboard of the cheapest diets to cover the first two series. The Military Diet came first. Despite what I said previously about everyone being built differently, I suspect it is possible to get the same “£ for LB” value or better than Corinne did, but only because £200 for such a calorie restricted diet seemed weirdly high.
This is very much a crash diet though (and really anything designed for only a few weeks or a month sounds like crash dieting). Here’s the NHS guidelines on calorie restriction: Very low calorie diets
Most doctors advise against crash diets, so is there any value in the cheapest diets really? Any PTs or nutritionists out there who want to drop into the comments? Dr Ranj does point out on the show that they use these diets to give the volunteers a jump start. Some jump starts can result in long term changes.
Here was their leaderboard:
- 1st The Military Diet (£11.60 per lb)
- 2nd The Sirtfood Diet (£16.58 per lb)
- 3rd The Juice Diet (£16.68 per lb)
- 4th Slimming World (£19.63 per lb)
- 5th Weight Watchers (£21.10 per lb)
Should we all go on The Military Diet?
What does this leaderboard really mean?
The third, fourth and fifth place cheapest diets were from series one. The cost per pound of course is individual to the respective volunteers again, so perhaps all it proves is that dieting is expensive if we’re buying into big name quick fix diets.
The Juice Diet again sounds like a crash diet (and also health fads at their most backwards: drink nothing but sugar with all the fibre removed to lose weight! Yay!)
Bodychef from this series came sixth of the cheapest diets, but by the end I thought it was much of a muchness. We could just eat nutritiously as a lifestyle while choosing the best value ingredients and have good health that way…But then again, I’m not a doctor.
In such a brief programme, they also don’t touch on other aspects linking weight and health like the psychology behind weight gain and weight loss.
I’m not criticising the showmakers or the volunteers for the amounts spent. Instead I think this highlights a wider problem. As a society, we think it’s normal to spend these amounts on food and health goals. If we challenge our concepts of value for money though, we can eat more nutritiously while spending less and achieving health AND financial goals.
Save Money Good Health Series 2
Here’s the link again if you want to read part one of this Save Money Good Health recap.
In part one I covered:
- What’s the Best Value Treatment for Sweating?
- Are Fitness Supplements a Waste of Money?
- What’s the Best Value Treatment for Insomnia?
- Are Alcohol Alternatives Worth It?
- Are Cholesterol-lowering Foods a Waste of Money?
- Are Cold Tablets Worth Paying More For?
- Should We Buy Vitamins to Prevent Flu?
- Are Whitening or Sensitive Toothpastes Worth the Cost?
- Do We Need Gadgets to Combat Stress?
- Is it (Financially) Possible to Eat 10 Portions of Fruit & Veg a Day?
- Are Water Alternatives a Waste of Money?
I’ll be doing more recaps like these including the related series Save Money Lose Weight and Save Money Good Diet. The latter and my other recap of Save Money Good Food seem to have a more balanced approach to nutrition while also genuinely saving the participants money. I’ll round up all these over time on this page.
Don’t forget I’ve compiled as best I can 100+ Best Value Food Ingredients on one page. If you want to get your food bill down while buying more plants and less weird things like diet shakes, that might be a place to start!
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