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How diet foods compare

The recipes of LA Weight Loss, Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers are put to the test

I have always been fundamentally opposed to dieting. But this year, for the first time ever, I'm considering a New Year's resolution to lose weight.

It has taken 35 years to reach this point, and frankly, it is surprising I hadn't arrived sooner. Years spent in commercial kitchens and bakeries as sous chef, pastry chef and every incarnation of cook or baker did not push me over the edge. Swimming in a sea of chocolate, butter, fresh-baked bread and cream-based soups, I was able to maintain a healthy weight.

But now, as a single mom, student and writer, I'm about 20 pounds heavier. It took long days sitting in front of computers and in classroom lectures to get here. Even though my days working in kitchens are over, I still write about, dream about and sometimes even obsess about good food. What's a self-described 'foodie' to do?

Dieting, I had always thought, took all the joy from eating. Robbed of precious seasoning and textural elements, most low-calorie and packaged 'healthy' foods tasted manufactured and never actually satisfied my cravings for fresh flavors and layered, complex tastes.

Yet now I realize that was an assumption, because I never actually gave diet food a chance.

Open to all the possibilities, I decided to look into the well-known diet companies, wondering: could their approach fit my high standards for home-cooked food? Even if they didn't quite hit the mark, surely I, an experienced cook, could make even diet recipes shine.

I tried their recipes at home, looking for insights about how seriously they took flavor, texture and satisfaction when cooking. And if they failed to hit the mark, what changes could be made to improve the end result without major losses in healthfulness?

Since cooking from scratch was an absolute, I looked into companies that allowed you to do so, at least in part. That eliminated NutriSystem, which allows only its own packaged foods.

Left to compare were Weight Watchers, LA Weight Loss Co., and Jenny Craig. All three allowed home cooking during all or parts of their plans. Jenny Craig only permitted home cooking at the final stages of weight loss. I figured I'd try one of their recipes for good measure.

These three companies have varied approaches to the weight loss process as a whole and especially, how dieters know what they can eat.

Weight Watchers encourages home cooking, and has a vast collection of cookbooks to consult. Members choose one of two options for the plan: the points system or the core plan. Either way, meals and snacks must be carefully monitored for portion size and ingredients. Frozen and packaged foods are available to purchase, and can be eaten at any time during the program. Weigh-ins occur at weekly group meetings.

LA Weight Loss Co. separates food into nutritional food groups, allowing a certain number of foods from each daily. Their approach is to carefully plan all your meals in advance and record every item you consume. Home cooking is also encouraged. Packaged foods can be incorporated, but are not mandatory. One-on-one counseling sessions provide support and weigh-in.

Jenny Craig uses packaged and frozen foods for the majority of their program. Home cooking is incorporated toward the end. Meals are planned weekly and one-on-one support is available.

All three have websites packed with recipes, tips and detailed nutritional information. With so much information on-line, a disciplined person could mine these resources and forgo meetings entirely - and save a lot of money.

LA WEIGHT LOSS

(La-weightloss.com)

Washington Square

9120C S.W. Hall Blvd., Tigard 97223

(503- 968-7546)

Recipe: Famous Philly Cheesesteak

This recipe came from Mary Shepard, director of marketing for LA Weight Loss Co. Shepard, a Lake Oswego resident, lost 30 pounds on the program 10 years ago and has recently gone back for a 'tune-up.' She'll be making this recipe on Super Bowl Sunday for her husband and three boys, who like these sandwiches as much as she does.

'Knowing I will have this for dinner, I can better plan the rest of my day and watch my portions on starches. How nice to know you're not cheating yet still be able to enjoy Philly cheesesteak while watching football?' Shepard said.

Nutritional Value: 1 protein, 2 starches, ½ dairy, 1 fat

Ingredients

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon dried basil

1 pound beef sirloin

Nonfat cooking spray

1 onion, sliced

1 green bell pepper, sliced

4 6-inch hoagie rolls, split

4 ounces light mozzarella cheese, sliced

How to Prepare: Combine seasonings in a small bowl; rub mixture into sirloin.

Wrap in plastic or wax paper. Partially freeze beef sirloin for about 30 to 60 minutes.

Remove from freezer and thinly slice sirloin.

Coat large skillet with nonfat cooking spray. Heat skillet over medium flame. Add onion and green pepper; sauté until soft and lightly browned. Remove from pan.

Coat skillet again with spray. Increase flame to high; add beef and cook about five minutes, or until desired level of doneness.

Divide meat and vegetables evenly among the four rolls; top with cheese. If desired, place in a warm oven or under a broiler to melt the cheese before serving.

Nutrition information: 478 cal, 44 g pro, 38 g cho, 17 g fat

(Recipe from la-weightloss.com)

Tasting notes: Sandwich was a bit dry without mayonnaise or butter. Vegetables had no seasoning and were a bit bland. That said, not bad for dieting. Meat was flavorful and recipe was easy to follow.

Next time: I'll use sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper and fresh minced garlic instead of first five ingredients, omitting the onion powder and dried basil. I'll use a ½ teaspoon of sea salt when sautéing the vegetables. A wrap with a whole wheat tortilla might be good too, eliminating the super bready hoagie.

JENNY CRAIG

(jennycraig.com)

3740 S.W. Hall Blvd., Beaverton 97005

(503-646-5979)

Michele Burrer, center director of the Beaverton Jenny Craig, said that her customers use prepared Jenny Craig foods almost exclusively to start out. 'We are a food-based program, and our food is one of our strongest tools,' Burrer said. As each individual makes progress, she said, they learn how to cook for themselves, using Jenny Craig recipes. 'We provide them with the tools and strategies to cook on their own - and how to do it for the rest of their lives,' Burrer said.

Recipe: Brandy pear pork tenderloin

Ingredients

2 (¾-pound) pork tenderloins

½ cup brandy

2/3 cup finely chopped fresh pear

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh pear

2 tablespoons raisins, chopped

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

2 teapoons chopped crystallized ginger

Vegetable cooking spray

12 fresh pear slices (optional)

Directions: Trim fat from pork. Cut pork lengthwise to within ½ inch of outer edge of each tenderloin. Place in a shallow dish; pour brandy over tenderloins, and turn to coat. Cover and marinate in refrigerator at least 2 hours, turning occasionally.

Remove tenderloins from marinade. Place in a small saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer five minutes.

Combine chopped pear and next four ingredients; stir well. Spread half of mixture in center of each tenderloin to within ½ inch of sides. Bring sides of meat together, and secure at 2-inch intervals with string.

Place tenderloins on a rack in a roasting pan coated with cooking spray. If desired, insert meat thermometer into thickest part of tenderloin. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until meat thermometer registers 160 degrees, basting frequently with marinade. Let stand 10 minutes; slice into 18 pieces and arrange on a large serving platter. If desired, garnish with pear slices.

(Recipe from jennycraig.com)

Tasting notes: Pork was juicy and tender, yet had a distinct alcohol flavor and needed at least a bit of salt. Stuffing too suffered from lack of seasoning and seemed a misfit with the flavor of the meat. Recipe was confusing and unclear.

Next time: Marinate pork in 2 cups apple cider and 1 tablespoon Dijon or stone ground mustard, fairly low-calorie ingredients. Rub meat with ½ teaspoon sea salt and ½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper before baking. Sauté filling ingredients before stuffing tenderloin. Using fat-free olive oil spray, briefly sauté ½ a diced onion with pear, raisins, ginger and cider vinegar. Remove from heat and fold in almonds. Allow to cool before stuffing.

WEIGHT WATCHERS

(weightwatchers.com)

3205 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd., Suite 8, Beaverton 97005

(503-641-0160)

Recipe: Creamless creamy mushroom soup

Ingredients

Nonstick cooking spray

3 medium shallots, finely chopped

8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and the caps finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon dried thyme

½ teaspoon rubbed sage

½ teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 cups reduced-sodium vegetable broth

Instructions: Spray a large saucepan with nonstick spray and heat over medium heat. Add the shallots; cook, stirring often, until soft, about two minutes.

Add the mushrooms and garlic; cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms give off their liquid and it evaporates to a glaze, about five minutes.

Add the thyme, sage, salt and pepper; cook 30 seconds.

Pour in the broth; bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits on the pan's bottom with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat and simmer. Using the small holes of a box grater, grate a 5-ounce peeled baking or Russet potato into the soup after it has simmered 10 minutes. Stir constantly during the last 5 minutes of cooking to prevent sticking.

(Recipe from weightwatchers.com)

Tasting notes: Satisfying and tasty. Use of shallots is brilliant, adding a mellow sweetness. . Not super-rich, but good, fairly complex flavor considering ingredients.

Next time: I'll use leeks and shallots. A ½ cup of white wine added to mushrooms and allowed to reduce almost completely would make this a great soup, diet or no.

Conclusion: In the end, I found that Weight Watchers came closest to being able to give me recipes I could work with. Weight Watchers takes food seriously, nearly as seriously as a food professional. Ingredients lean toward utilizing the contents of a gourmet's kitchen: exotic spices, fresh herbs, and international flavors. Details are thought through, from the size of dice to the subtle flavors that distinguish shallots from onions.

Will I give it a go? We'll see. The testing continues in my kitchen. I do know where I'll start if I do.