If you’re on your weight loss journey, you may have heard of the Optavia program. The Optavia food program is a hugely popular meal replacement weight loss program. It claims to promote sustainable habits, but is it any different than any other fad diet?
Several of my clients have been curious about Optavia after hearing about their friends’ or celebrity successes on the program. And as a sustainable weight loss dietitian, I always look at every weight loss program with a critical eye.
Does it help you lose weight? Probably. But is it sustainable? I’m not so sure. Let’s dive into what Optavia is, how it works, and if it’s worth trying to jumpstart your weight loss.
What is Optavia?
Optavia is a popular weight loss plan created by Medifast Inc., a multilevel marketing company (i.e. pyramid scheme). It is widely popular and endorsed by several celebrities including former Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro, who reported losing significant weight on the program.
Medifast Inc. was fined $3.7 million in 2012 for unsupported claims that participants lose 2-5 pounds weekly on the program. Since then this same program has been modified and is now under the name Optavia.
The program is most known for its 5&1 meal plan system, where you eat 6 small meals a day. Five of these meals are the Optavia low-calorie meal replacements called “Optavia fuelings” and one real meal called “Lean and Green Meals” that aligns with the diet.
How Does It Work?
The Optavia program consists of 4 main components to promote weight loss:
Optavia Plans and Products
There are 3 core Optavia plans, which involve a combination of Optavia fuelings, their signature “Lean and Green” meals, and snacks on certain plans. Of these three, two are weight loss plans and the third is a maintenance plan.
- 5&1 Plan (Weight loss) – Designed for those who want to lose more weight). This is the most popular plan to start with and includes 5 Optavia fuelings and one Lean and Green meal.
- Estimated calories – ~800-1000 per day
- 4&2&1 Plan (Weight loss) – Designed for those who need more calories or want more flexibility in their diet. Includes 4 Optavia fuelings, 2 Lean and Green meals, and 1 Optavia snack per day.
- Estimated calories – ~1100-1300 per day
- 3&3 Plan (Maintenance) – Designed for maintenance. Includes 3 Optavia fuelings and 3 Lean and Green meals.
- Estimated calories – 1500-2000 per day
The overall concept is to eat small meals every 2-3 hours throughout the day to support a faster metabolism and curb hunger.
A Lean & Green meal includes:
- 5-7 ounces of lean protein – such as chicken breast, ground turkey, or low-fat fish like cod
- 3 servings of non-starchy veggies – leafy greens like kale and spinach, broccoli, or asparagus
- Up to 2 servings of healthy fats – nuts, olive oil, avocado
Optavia fuelings include the following, and are all around 100 calories each:
- Meal replacements
- Shakes & smoothies
- Crunchers, poppers, & sticks
Optavia snacks include:
- Puffed snacks
The program provides coaches to help keep you motivated and accountable for your plan. While a small percentage of these coaches are qualified nutrition experts like Registered Dietitians, most are not.
This means the majority of the time you’ll probably be assigned to someone who doesn’t have any nutrition expertise, and probably just followed the program themself.
As an Optavia member, you have access to a large community of like-minded people following the program. Having a supportive community can help keep you motivated, provide accountability, and make it easier to stick to a program.
The Habits of Health® Transformational System
This is the foundation in which Optavia operates – where the focus is on adopting micro habits, small bite-sized habits that lead to large transformations over time.
This system was developed by Optavia’s co-founder Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen, which teaches you how to learn and adopt healthy habits for long-term success.
Optavia Food List – What You Can and Can’t Eat
The Optavia diet is essentially a low-calorie, high-protein, low-carb diet that involves meal replacements.
Other than the Optavia fuelings and Lean and Green meals, there are a few foods that should be avoided on the Optavia plan:
- Fried foods – fast food, meat, fish, shellfish, veggies, sweets, and pastries
- Refined grains – white bread, pasta, pancakes, tortillas, crackers, white rice, baked goods
- Certain fats – butter, coconut oil, shortening
- Full-fat dairy – milk, cheese, yogurt
- Alcohol – any kind
- Sugar-sweetened beverages – soda, juice, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened tea or coffee
Pros and Cons
- Can give you that “jumpstart” and quick weight loss
- Provides a meal structure where you don’t have to think much
- Offers coaching and a community
- Not sustainable – too low in calories
- High risk for weight regain (and then some)
- Most coaches are not formally trained
- Relies on heavily processed meal replacements
- Does not teach you how to eat healthy long-term
Does It Help You Lose Weight?
There is only one primary study done directly on the Optavia program, and it is funded by Medifast/Optavia.
This 16-week study was conducted in 2019 and involved 198 people. There were 3 groups – one followed the Optavia 5&1 plan, one followed the 4&2&1 plan, and the last followed a reduced-calorie diet on their own.
The results showed those on the 2 Optavia plans lost more weight, decreased body fat, and had a bigger decrease in waist circumference after the 16 weeks. It’s important to note this study was fully funded by Medifast, Inc.
I would not say this is a strong or convincing study for two reasons. First, it may be biased as the study was funded by the industry itself, therefore there is always a possibility that the reported results can be skewed.
Second, the comparison group followed a weight loss program on their own, which is more difficult to follow without the accountability and support from a coach and community.
Therefore, it would be a more fair comparison if the Optifast groups were directly compared to another weight loss program that had coach and community support.
The Research Verdict
In general, there are a few other studies that have shown greater weight loss with meal replacement programs like Optavia than traditional low-calorie diets. None of the studies are longer than 16 weeks, so it’s unknown if the weight loss is maintained.
It seems that the biggest predictor of short-term success is more frequent coaching sessions, and those who completed the majority of their sessions lost twice as much weight as those who did less.
So can it help you lose weight? Probably. But is it sustainable? That’s up for debate.
The problem with very-low-calorie diets like Optavia
It is very low in calories, and as you lose weight, your metabolism decreases and adjusts to this new setpoint. This means that if you then start increasing your calories after reaching your weight loss goal, you are at risk of regaining that weight back very quickly.
This is especially true if you’re not exercising, especially if you’re not doing any strength training. When you lose weight quickly and don’t exercise, you lose muscle mass. This slows your metabolism down and makes it so much easier to regain the weight back once you come off of that diet.
So this is why instead of very-low-calorie diets like this, I recommend a slight calorie deficit for weight loss. While you may not lose weight as quickly this way, you are more likely to keep it off and stop the yo-yo cycle.
Optavia Side Effects
Some people experience side effects on Optavia, mostly due to its restrictive nature. Here are the most common ones to look out for:
- Leg cramps
- Muscle loss
- Loose skin
If you’re experiencing any of these side effects on Optavia (or any diet for that matter), speak to your doctor and stop the diet immediately. These side effects are your body’s way of warning you it’s not good for you!
The Optavia food program is pretty costly at around $400-$500 per month, where the fuelings and snacks make up the majority of this cost.
I have had several past clients and friends who have followed Optavia, and their experiences are a bit mixed.
Some have met their weight loss goals and then some within a few months, while others struggled more. Many people report feeling hungry on the 5&1 plan, which makes sense since it is so low in calories.
The majority of the Optavia reviews on Reddit report fast weight loss, but it is a true struggle to prevent gaining it back.
There also are a lot of negative comments about the Optavia coaches and how they pressured them to become a coach and would not let them down on it. Since this is an MLM company, the coaches earn a commission if their clients become coaches themselves.
Is Optavia Sustainable? The Bottom Line
As a weight loss dietitian, I would not recommend Optavia to clients. Maybe if you’re looking for a weight loss jumpstart or to lose a few pounds, Optavia may be okay to try in the short term. But it’s important to remember if you make that decision that you may gain that weight back.
Especially if you have a larger amount of weight to lose or want something sustainable, Optavia is likely not the best option for you. While they do promote building sustainable habits, the restrictive nature of the program contradicts this.
I would instead recommend following a slight calorie deficit and working with a registered dietitian like myself to implement sustainable habits you can stick to.
As a sustainable weight loss dietitian, I guide my clients on how to eat healthy without feeling deprived or hungry and work on exercise, sleep, stress, and any other lifestyle habits that will help them reach their weight loss goals.
If you want to lose weight in a healthy way, contact me to see if my program is a good fit for your needs.
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