A healthy comparison: counting those calories doesn't have to cost the earth

Counting those calories doesn't have to cost the earth, but it often does. Some diet plans seem to use our desire to shed those pounds as an excuse to sell us expensive products, when it should be possible to craft tasty and filling dishes at much lower prices. But what we don't want is a cheap and inferior alternative which puts us off diet plans for good. Is there an economical and fulfilling plan out there to embrace?

There are certainly plenty of plans around. There is Saints and Slimmers, with its emphasis on letting the client choose and a sophisticated way of calculating the dietary needs of each slimmer. Then there is the Diet Chef which also delivers dishes to the door of the customer, or Boossh, which specialises in providing dehydrated food resembling that eaten by astronauts. There are also old favourites like Weight Watchers still turning out ready meals and providing information to slimmers. It's a competitive market, but are any of these services actually providing value for money and helping us to stay slim?

Diet Chef claims to provide daily meals for its customers from as little as £190 per month, or £225 when the current offer expires. As they say, that works out at around £47 per week, not bad if that is all you'll be eating. Then again, Saints and Slimmers claim to offer and even cheaper rate. On a daily plan for the average slimmer, they only charge £6.09 per day for a 1200 calorie diet. That works out at just £180 per month, while they currently offer a 28 day plan for just £150. So for savings alone, Saints and Slimmers do offer a cheap slimming service, which takes the economic pain out of cutting those calories.

Services like Diet Chef and Saints and Slimmers also come in far cheaper than services involving weekly meetings like Weight Watchers. Far, far cheaper, actually. Compared to the £6 daily spend on Saints and Slimmers meals, the £15 charged by weekly meeting brands seems quite expensive. But for us slimmers, the only question is really - does it work? After all, most of us would pay a little more money to access a service with a proven track record. Looking great and being healthy is surely worth £15 per week.

The problem for more expensive plans is that delivery-based schemes are becoming much more effective at informing slimmers and keeping us on track for effective weight-loss. Instead of just delivering the meals and leaving us without support (alone with the temptation to snack), Saints and Slimmers has been pioneering a support-based dieting service. While Diet Chef and others  specialise purely in delivery, Saints and Slimmers diet plans are accompanied by an online forum which links slimmers to expert advice and other people with the same goals. Before ordering any food, customers can access diet plans, recipes, forums and expert advice free of charge. This kind of support is what makes other slimming packages so expensive. By providing information online, the idea is to drive down the cost of slimming, while providing a social network to support customers when they start their plans. It all makes sense, but only if it works.

So far, the evidence is encouraging. Many analysts and reviewers have praised the online model for providing information free of charge. They have been particularly taken by the ability of Saints and Slimmers to bridge "traditional" weight-loss schemes like Weight Watchers and newer web-based delivery plans like Boossh. The most attractive part of the scheme for many people is the community element. With a forum for slimmers and expert advice on hand, Saints and Slimmers may have found a way to capitalize on the cost benefits of delivering meals and the social benefits of meetings and interaction. As all slimmers will know, it is much easier to lose weight if you are able to share your experiences with others in the same position. Sometimes we need to ask questions about how to cook healthy meals, when to treat ourselves and how to stay motivated, and that's where friendly expert advice comes in handy. So combining high quality food with community involvement should make slimming much easier for all of us.

The internet has created new opportunities to lose weight. Sure, we spend a bit of time sitting in front of screens, but we can now access affordable well produced diet plans and chat to other slimmers about their strategies and successes. With companies like Diet Chef offering good food at cheap prices, we can all afford to access plans which work. But what I like about Saints and Slimmers is the social aspect. Along with good, cheap food, you can get invaluable free advice, and that might make all the difference.