These trendy programs may encourage healthier eating and even weight loss. But consider the cost and sustainability.
For people who don’t have the time, energy, or interest to plan and prepare their own meals, a subscription meal delivery service may be an appealing option. A growing number of companies will deliver partly (or even fully) prepped meals right to your door. Many cater to a variety of dietary preferences, including vegetarian and gluten-free. Some are geared toward people seeking to lose weight or who have diabetes, and at least one provides low-sodium meals.
If you’re concerned about preventing or treating heart disease, what should you consider before trying one of these plans? That depends on your particular situation, says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
When you need convenience
“For example, if you have heart failure or are recovering from heart surgery, you may have little energy to shop or cook,” she says. If that’s the case, meals that require very little preparation beyond simple reheating are your best bet. One such option is BistroMD, a company created by a physician who noticed that many of her patients struggled to plan and cook healthy meals.
This plan can accommodate a low-sodium diet — 1,500 milligrams (mg) per day — which is sometimes recommended for people with heart disease. But there are no vegetarian options, and the plan is primarily focused on helping people lose weight.
Looking to lose weight?
If your main goal is shedding pounds — which will definitely benefit your heart — there are several options. One of the best known is Nutrisystem. Its microwavable meals and packed snacks mean you don’t have to think about portion size or count calories or carbs. However, the shelf-stable foods are highly processed, with additives to make them last longer. You can add fresh vegetables and fruits to your meals, but that means you’ll still need to go to the grocery store, says McManus. According to the company, the plans provide about 2,000 mg of sodium a day, a good limit for most people.
The similar South Beach Diet also ships pre-packed foods, but the overall diet is lower in carbohydrates, so the meals have slightly more lean protein and vegetables. “They pay attention to saturated fat levels and try to encourage whole grains,” notes McManus. The structured aspect of both plans (which provide three meals and two to three snacks daily) may help people avoid unhealthy snacks and takeout meals.
One potential downside is the cost, which is around $300 per person per month, although that’s about the same amount you’d pay for mostly home-prepared meals with a liberal (as opposed to a moderate or thrifty) food budget, according to the USDA. Other common complaints: people get bored of the packaged meals, and they miss going to restaurants and having friends over for meals, says McManus. And, she adds, “Maybe you’ll lose a few pounds, but you won’t really learn how to incorporate healthier foods into your diet over the long term.”
On the other hand, meal kits that include fresh foods may actually encourage healthier eating. One company, Blue Apron, recently partnered with WW (formerly Weight Watchers) to create meals that fit with the popular diet plan’s “SmartPoints” system. But there are many other companies, such as HelloFresh, Sun Basket, and Plated Joy. The pre-portioned ingredients arrive once a week in insulated packaging, along with step-by-step instructions and photos. You may spend anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes preparing the meals, which cost about $10 to $12 per person.
Inspiration in a box?
“Meal kits can help people become more comfortable in the kitchen and try new foods and cooking techniques,” says McManus. Look at a few of the sample menus to make sure the recipes seem appealing before you commit, and select a plan with dietitians in charge of the menu, if possible. Choose meals that are plentiful in vegetables, beans, seafood, or poultry rather than those focused on red meat or cheese, she recommends. One that may fill that bill is Terra’s Kitchen, which follows the principles of the Mediterranean diet, long recognized as a heart-healthy eating pattern. If you’re looking for inspiration to eat more plant-based meals, Purple Carrot offers meals that are 100% vegan.
But for a more affordable option, take advantage of your local supermarket’s delivery service. Many offer online ordering options to let you easily choose all the healthy foods you need — and avoid the temptation of the bakery, soda, and candy aisles.
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