“As you are aware spring wedding season is right around the corner. This year, another wave of brides-to-be will want nothing more than to look perfect on their big day.”
This PR pitch, which hit our inboxes with a thud, went on to suggest that we feature a program called MediFast in any “health wedding stories” and described a diet that was “easy to follow” resulting in “astounding” results. MediFast, the claim went, was the solution for brides who “may not have extra time to devote to proper dieting and exercise. In fact, since busy women will be stressed and will always be on the go, they are more likely than not going to choose to eat out more and choose unhealthy diets.”
Usually, we ignore these emails. Even the egregiously bad ones get deleted without comment, maybe eliciting an eyeroll but not much else. This one, though, hit my editor in just the wrong place on just the right day. She forwarded it to me with a note. “This slays me. SLAIN.”
I was curious, though, and I’ll tell you exactly why: I know a bride who made the decision to buy a wedding dress a size too small, and diet her way into it. She’s tried cleanses and juice fasts and that old cabbage soup diet that came back ‘round the mountain recently. None of it worked. The last time I saw her, she told me that she gave up on dieting altogether because she felt hungry all the time. She’s tried “easy wedding diet” after “easy wedding diet” and none of them have worked for her because she can’t stick to them—which, as we all know, is exactly the problem with quick loss programs. Parasitic weight loss-pushers are just repackaging old fad diets and adding a bridal tax.
I’m no longer a blushing bride-to-be, which means that the stress of planning a wedding, along with the pressure I put on myself to “look perfect” for the big day is behind me, so I volunteered my body to science and offered to try the diet for a week and share my experience with you.
MediFast set me up with a personal nutritional consultant, Charlotte. We spoke on the phone before I began the plan so she could walk me through the basics of how it works and answer any questions that I have.
Charlotte is aware that I’m trying the diet for a week in order to write about it for I Thee Dread, but I fill her in on a few other points that are likely to have an impact on my experience with the program. I explain that I’ve lost about 15 pounds since starting a diet program in January, and that I’m about five pounds from my goal weight. There’s a pause, and then Charlotte tells me that the plan isn’t meant for people with less than 20 pounds to lose. That seems at odds with MediFast’s very specific pitch that this diet was great for brides looking to shed a few pounds before their wedding day but, hey, Charlotte isn’t doing their PR. I let it pass.
The diet promises that you’ll lose two to five pounds a week for the first two weeks and then one to two pounds a week after that if you follow the 5 & 1 Plan, which allows for the consumption of five meal replacements and one home cooked meal of lean meat and three servings of vegetables; they call this the Lean & Green. Users may also opt to purchase microwavable Taste of Home meals to replace the Lean & Green. The 5 & 1 Plan is between 850-1000 calories a day.
You read that correctly. 850-1000 calories a day. This is a starvation diet and it is being marketed towards brides.
Let’s get the duh part of this out of the way: If you have more than 20 pounds to lose and you adopt a 1000-calorie daily diet of any kind, you’re going to lose a lot of weight in the first two weeks. It’s the second half of that that doesn’t sound particularly impressive—losing a pound or two a week is pretty standard even for diets that allow for a more reasonable consumption of calories.
I asked Charlotte about how the plan can be adapted to factor in my exercise routine; I work out regularly, and had every expectation that the diet was one that could be adjusted based on a user’s activity level. Nope. Another pause, this one much, much longer.
Charlotte explained that they don’t recommend exercising at all during the first few weeks of the diet and people who have already established a workout routine are asked to cut that in half. There are plenty of reasons why a person might not incorporate exercise into their lives; injury or disability, financial barriers, a lack of time or access and there should absolutely be diet plans available for people who cannot be more active. Even so, it’s extreme for a diet plan to not allow adjustments for those who exercise.
Nothing about this sounded remotely healthy.
I told Charlotte that I was planning to start the diet the day after we spoke, but when I looked at my calendar I realized that I had social engagements that I didn’t want to cancel, which would make it hard for me to really give the plan a chance. She agreed that it made sense to wait until the beginning of the following week.
The extra time proved useful, as I realized that I’d utterly forgotten to ask about coffee. I email Charlotte, “Is coffee allowed? I must have my coffee! I drink it with skim milk and Splenda, to the extent that’s helpful to know.” She responded:
I sincerely apologize but I don’t believe I emphasized the importance of hydration during our phone call! We recommend that you drink at least 64 ounces of plain water daily. Any flavored waters or other beverages can be consumed in addition to these 64 ounces, but are not to count as part of them. You may have zero-calorie, zero-carbohydrate beverages in addition to the 64 ounces of plain water. This could include coffee, tea, diet sodas, etc. We also recommend to limit caffeine intake to no more than 300 mg per day. As for the milk and splenda, I have attached our condiments list to this e-mail (it’s not part of the Quick Start guide). These are optional, and you may have up to three per day on the plan. They include things like spices, baking condiments, etc. There is a section on there for calorie-free sweeteners and milks. For cow’s milk, 1 Tbsp counts as one condiment serving, so you could technically have 3 Tbsp per day and that would count as all of your condiment servings. You could also do Silk unsweetened almond milk instead, and 1 cup would count as one condiment serving. As for the Splenda, 1 packet counts as one condiment serving. Starting on page 2 of the condiments list, you’ll see a box titled “Healthy Fat Options”, these are not to be confused with condiments, these are extra examples of the Healthy Fats that are used with the Lean and Green Meal.
248 words to tell me that I can have a cup of coffee with a tablespoon of milk and two Splendas, and to drink 8 glasses of water a day on this “easy to follow” diet. Got it.
(A note on the Splenda: I promise that I really and truly know how bad it is in so very many ways. Breaking the Splenda habit is on my list of 2015 goals, but it’s one I plan to tackle after I’ve got my weight loss goals handled. So if I may, I’d like to ask that you keep any thoughts you may have about my Splenda habit to yourself and rest easy in the knowledge that I’ll be off the stuff and into Stevia by the end of the year. Thank you for your kindness.)
I also inquired about pricing for this diet. Like many of its ilk, including NutriSystem, MediFast forces you to order a month’s worth of their food at a time. The price is steep: A 28-day supply of their meal replacements will run you $375.00. The microwavable Flavors of Home meals, which are meant as a quicker alternative to cooking your own dinner, are $29.70 for a box of 6. Whether or not you opt for the Flavors of Home meals, you’ll be on the hook to pay for a meal a day on top of the $375.00 you shell out for the meal replacements.
I wake up thinking about coffee. This isn’t unusual, but generally my waking thoughts of coffee aren’t accompanied by a resigned sigh. My husband gets the pot going; I remind him that today I’ll get up to fix my own cup instead of having him deliver one to me in bed, as is our routine. MediFast is even depriving me of my morning coffee service.
When the machine’s gurgles and chugs indicate that the coffee is ready, I head to the kitchen to prepare my cup. Two Splendas and a tablespoon of milk.
Have you ever measured a tablespoon of milk? I’ve done it when baking, but it takes on an altogether different meaning when you’re measuring out a tablespoon allotment of milk for your coffee. And that meaning is something along the lines of, “This feels like disordered behavior.”
After my morning cup, it’s time for the first of my 8 daily glasses of water, which I drink while reviewing the Quick Start Guide and filling out the Food Journal MediFast provided. Optional condiments, check check check (that was the tablespoon of milk and 2 Splendas); one glass of water, check; Lean & Green, check and check. Charlotte and I have agreed that the best way for me to get as much of the MediFast experience as possible in my weeklong trial was to alternate between cooking dinner and eating the pre-fab Flavors of Home microwave meals I’ve been provided. I decide to cook on night 1; dinner will be pork loin, broccoli and mushrooms.
Breakfast isn’t my strong suit and, despite everything I know about how it’s the most important meal of the day and dedicated efforts on my part, I’ve never been able to get a proper breakfast routine going, instead opting to eat a savory mid-morning snack as my first meal of the day at 10 or 11 a.m. It’s a compromise that works for me, but on this diet it’s not going to fly. I’ve been sent cereal, snack bars in assorted flavors and two kinds of shakes (chocolate and vanilla), but because I’m weird about what I eat in the morning I opt for the mashed potatoes. This is absolutely allowed; on MediFast, you can eat any of the foods at any time, as long as you only have 5 a day and try to eat every 2-3 hours.
I started eating the mashed potatoes at 9:18 a.m. and by 9:19 realized I’d already eaten a third of the very small portion. It’s not bad. But it’s also not good. The diet literature emphasizes eating slowly, asking that you “spend at least 15 minutes eating each meal” before going onto suggest that you, “cut bars into small pieces and eat one little bite at a time.” First of all, that is not a normal, healthy behavior. If I worked in an office and a colleague saw me cutting a 1.13 ounce diet bar into tiny squares that I then consumed over a 15 minute span, that person would be well within her rights to ask me, “What in the actual fuck, Jolie?”
It also strikes me that the act of cutting your starvation bar into a million tiny pieces goes somewhat against the great-for-those-on-the-go selling point. “Let me just pull out my pocket knife and carve my lunch up right here on the trail,” isn’t exactly the way I expect to describe my convenience food.
At 9:25 I let out a rolling belch that sounded like a noise a creature from a Harry Potter movie might make. There’s a spoonful of potato left in the bowl. I grimace and eat it. It was bad. Real, real bad—cold, congealed and slightly grainy. And I’d already failed at my first MediFast task: I only managed to stretch the meal out to 8 minutes.
I chugged the rest of my water to cleanse my palate and got up to pour another glass. I’d been rather dreading the water requirement but I quickly see that it will be no problem at all to hit my daily quota of eight glasses: all that fake food isn’t going to wash itself down.
At 9:54 I was still burping potato.
Two hours later, it’s time for my next meal. I cut up a S’mores-flavored bar into 16 pieces and pop one in my mouth. It’s fine, a little fake-y sweet but the bite is so tiny that it’s not cloying. Over the next 15 minutes I eat one 1/16th of a bar a minute a time.
By noon, I’d finished writing and was ready to hit the gym for my reduced workout. But I was feeling off. Headswim-y. I suspect that had more to do with the one cup of coffee (I almost always have two cups in the morning) than the lack of calories, but I remind myself to be extra aware of how I’m feeling while exercising so that I don’t, like, topple off the elliptical machine and decide to buy some Diet Coke to augment my morning coffee. Maybe it was because I was feeling off and more than a little spacey, but I ended up puttering about the house and detoured to toss a load of wash in at the laundromat, so it was maybe around 1 p.m. by the time I got to the gym. I dutifully cut my workout in half and was fine until the last two minutes, during which I started to feel very lightheaded. I slowed down, held on for balance, completed my workout, folded the towels and headed home for a delicious lunch of ziti marinara.
Except that the lunch was neither delicious nor was it ziti marinara. In fact, it was barely lunch. What came out of the microwave was soupy, with tiny floating bits of what I assume are some sort of soy meat and a handful of the smallest noodles I think I’ve ever seen. They were crunchy, even after cooking and steeping for the requisite three minutes. I nuked the dish for another minute and tucked in. It was...unappealing. It’s not fair to go as far as saying that it was disgusting, because I was able to ingest it all, but yeah—this is not good food. By comparison, my breakfast potatoes were a culinary delight.
What the actual fuck?
The late afternoon snack of honey mustard pretzels seemed more promising. The first bite was like, “Oh! This isn’t bad, not bad at all.” And then the sour aftertaste kicked in. I grimly finished the pretzels and left the house to run an errand. The sourness lingered. The food felt like a punishment.
Dinner, as I mentioned, was pork roast, steamed broccoli with lemon and salt for flavor and dry-sauteed mushrooms. I made it, so it was delicious. Feeling confident, I fished into my bag to pull out the brownie that would be my dessert. I was expecting some sort of tiny, wrapped affair but to my extreme dismay I discovered yet another powdered packet. Oooooh noooo. The face I made was so sad that my husband took one look at me and offered the most genuinely concerned, “Oh de poor rabbit!” I’ve heard in a long time as he swooped over to offer a hug.
Dejected, I shuffled into the bedroom and announced that I was going to lie down. It was 7:59 p.m.
It turned out that the brownie wasn’t half bad after all. It was still a sad diet brownie, but as far as sad diet brownies go it was a relatively tasty one.
It also turned out that the previous day’s headswimminess was not caused by the diet but rather by the ear infection I was apparently developing.
In deference to my illness, I opted for the chicken soup for breakfast. The first and last two bites were just revolting, but everything in between was fine, maybe even a little better than the Day One mashed potatoes. I packed up a Cookie Dough bar and headed off to Urgent Care, where I discovered what I thought was an infection was actually a build-up of fluid in my middle ear. Prescription-grade antihistamine was the ticket, which was a relief for two reasons: 1. Adding antibiotics, which tend to upset my stomach, to this already rather bizarre diet sounded like a recipe, no pun intended, for disaster; and 2. I find that Claritin-D has a suppressive effect on my appetite. Now, I’m not about to go around taking medicine I don’t need so that I can feel less hungry, but under the circumstances I was happy to have the assist.
I mention the flare-up with my ears because I think it lends itself to an important point about these kinds of fake-food diets. Illness happens. To be deprived of food—whether it be a bowl of actual chicken soup or a half a sleeve of Saltines—that offers a curative effect doesn’t suggest that this type of diet is one that truly encourages healthy choices. There are no healthy choices to be made on this diet. There aren’t, when it comes down to it, even choices. The choice between a paper packet of powdered “Chicken Flavored Noodle Soup” and a paper packet of powdered “Ziti Marinara” is really no choice at all.
I wake up thinking about the diet. I feel like the diet is all I think about. It’s all-consuming, and very depressing.
The thought of eating a reconstituted packet of dust fills me with dread, so I decide that today I’ll stick mostly with the bars and try some of the Cinnamon & Brown Sugar Cereal Crunch I’ve been sent. A word on the cereal: it’s meant to be eaten dry. Per Charlotte:
“Great question about the cereal – it’s not meant to be paired with milk, we actually added the almond milks to condiment list when the cereal was introduced as a new product so that people would have something to pair it with if they didn’t want to eat it dry. I recommend you actually try Silk’s new unsweetened cashew milk, it’s delicious! It’s not on the condiment list because it’s so new, but 1 cup would count as a condiment serving!”
At this point, I’m not confident that I can even complete a week on this diet, so I opt not to spend my money on unsweetened cashew milk that will, no doubt, go mostly unused. I’m really struggling, not with the calorie deficit but with the eating of fake food and the restrictiveness of the condiment allotment. I was stressed—literally stressed—about the fact that I put some unauthorized lemon juice on my Day One broccoli. Look, if lemon juice is going to make or break a diet, the diet is no good. Also, no one should ever feel stressed about lemon juice.
The cereal, by the way, was so bad I only managed to eat about a quarter of it before throwing the bag in the trash. I’d rather go hungry.
I tell my editor that I’m struggling, mostly because she’s a sadist who will respond to my cries with some variation of “Suck it up. This is an assignment,” and then I’ll have to stick with it because she said so. My own willpower and determination to suffer through this diet is no longer enough. I’m genuinely surprised at this turn of events; I’ve been on a diet since January 1 and have not given up, not at all. It has not been a huge struggle; it’s been work, but it’s not life-altering in the way that this meal replacement bullshit is. MediFast feels like all or nothing, and I can already see that a binge is waiting for me at the end of the road. I hate that I’ve agreed to this—I won’t let it happen, but the reality is that a week on this horrible diet may very well put me off dieting entirely, and I won’t realize the goal I’m already so close to achieving.
Unfortunately for my willpower, my editor does not tell me to suck it up. She’s all, “Don’t kill yourself for a blog post.” I tell her I’m going to give it one more day and reassess.
In the end, I only managed to last one more half-day. After pitching the cereal, I inhaled a S’mores bar an hour later. Taking too much time to eat any of this food (“food”) rendered it too gross for words. A few hours later, starving but with absolutely no appetite, I opened a Peanut Butter Crunch Bar and took two bites before feeling too nauseated to continue. I threw it in the trashcan and started crying. I was crying for a whole host of reasons. I was hungry, yes. But also, I had gone to a place where I would rather be hungry than eat. Where I was supplementing my morning coffee with Diet Coke and taking Claritin to suppress my appetite and skipping my daily workouts and stressing over lemon juice—lemon fucking juice, you guys—in pursuit of making this diet work. Sadly, more than anything, I was crying because I had failed.
As I cried, I realized that there was something else going on. I was in a scary place. I was anxious and depressed and the only thing I was focusing on was this diet. I understand that the first week on any diet will cause a dip in energy, physical and emotional, but this was something different. This isn’t my first rodeo, after all. This diet was, very quickly, sending me into a depressive spiral and it was time to cut bait.
So I did. As of this writing, I’m still shaken by the experience and, if I’m being really honest with you, I had a hard time returning to healthy eating habits. Three days is all it took for this diet to essentially trip my wires into disordered eating.
The problem with writing about this diet is that, no matter how bad I make it sound—and, oh God, is it ever bad—one of you out there will read this and think to yourself, “I could do that!”
Maybe you can. After all, every diet works for someone. Instead of trying to talk you out of it, because you’ve got cockiness on your side and I’m not going to try to smack you down, I’d like to suggest this: If you’re hellbent and determined that a meal replacement diet is what you need to look good on your wedding day, try two to three days on a DIY version. Buy a box of Special K Cereal Bars, a box of Special K Protein Bars and two to three 300-calorie frozen dinners; each day, have two protein bars and three cereal bars and your microwave meal. That’s essentially what MediFast is, so if you can stick to a DIY version then okay, maybe meal-replacement diets are indeed for you, but, God, don’t spend your money on expensive meal replacement plans until you know that you can handle such an extreme diet. Do that before you spend hundreds of your dollars on some pre-fab food that you may, or may not, be able to ingest.
But really, don’t do that. And here’s why, beyond the obvious that these diets aren’t good for you and the vast majority of people won’t be able to stick to them: This will make you feel bad. Really, really bad. It made me feel SO bad. I can’t imagine doing this to myself on top of how bad planning a wedding made me feel.
This diet is not the solution for brides who are too stressed to follow a sensible diet and exercise program. This diet is a ticket for the bride who wants a one-way ride to misery town. And who wants to spend her engagement being miserable over a diet?
Disclosure: Product samples were provided by representatives of MediFast. All opinions stated are my own.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.