Why Jenny Craig couldn't last in the Ozempic Age

The way that companies talk (or don't) about losing weight has changed in the last 30 years

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 6, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Jenny Craig (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jenny Craig (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In 1990, Jenny Craig herself appeared in a commercial for her then-new eponymous diet plan. She sits in a dark purple blouse against a bright, hazy background and smiles warmly as she says, "I think everybody — everybody wants to lose weight quickly and easily." 

She goes on to tease the benefits of the program, albeit a little vaguely. 

"You have to have that one-on-one support, and also the group support," she said. "And the lifestyle classes are very important … When we feel like we've been really successful, it's when clients tell us, 'I can't remember eating any other way.'" 

As a child of the 90s, these commercials were a part of my daily media consumption, as were ads for products like SlimFast and Special K, as well as competing weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers and Atkins. 

But now, nearly 33 years later, the company has said it will close "due to its inability to secure additional financing," according to an email obtained by NBC News on Tuesday. 

Per the publication, the company operated about 500 company-owned and franchised stores in the United States and Canada; currently, it employs more than 1,000 people, ranging from corporate staff to hourly center employees. Two of those corporate employees told NBC they anticipate the company will file for bankruptcy by the end of the week. 

This isn't due to a sudden cultural lack of interest in weight loss. According to a 2023 survey commissioned by Nutrisystem (who, let's be real, obviously have a vested interest in the topic), of the Americans who have tried to lose weight at any point in their life, 95% have tried to lose weight within the last five years. Forty-four percent of those who responded actually gained 21 pounds or more during that period of time. 

Numbers from the Center for Disease Control are a little less recent or drastic, but still show that between 2013 and 2016, nearly half — 49.1% — of adults had tried to lose weight over the last twelve months. Some of these individuals may have been seeking to lose weight under a doctor's guidance for a specific health issue, but there is a large, large percentage who try for other reasons. 

Ignoring for a just moment the toxicity of diet culture and the insidious ways in which its tentacles touch everything from pharmaceuticals to social media marketing (believe me, we'll get back to it), the audience for weight-loss programs is obviously still there. So, why couldn't Jenny Craig and its promise to "make weight loss easier with great-tasting food, unparalleled support and the latest science-backed strategies" hack it in a new decade of dieting?

In large part, I believe it's because the way that we talk about weight loss has changed steadily over the last 30 years. Terms like "body positivity" and "body neutrality" have entered the cultural lexicon and done a world of good in terms of educating the broader public about the ways that true, measurable health is possible at any size. This movement, of course, has seen some pretty vile pushback, especially directed at the celebrities, like Lizzo and Ashley Graham, who tout its messages. 

For all the work we've done as a society towards recognizing that fatness isn't a moral failing, in a display of tremendous, collective dissonance, we still view thinness as a moral good. 

However, for all the work we've done as a society towards recognizing that fatness isn't a moral failing, in a display of tremendous, collective dissonance, we still view thinness as a moral good. Even if it's not stated — and it often is — it's apparent everywhere around us, from Tinder profiles looking for "exclusively athletic" partners, to the television trope of the fat best friend, to movies like "Brittany Runs a Marathon." 

Put another way, right now, there are a lot of Americans whose dirty secret is that they still want to lose weight; they just don't necessarily want to admit it. That's where Jenny Craig's program as it currently exists was no longer sustainable — and where more modern, predatory companies can swoop in with surface-level messaging that satisfies that joint desire despite actually selling many of the same core beliefs.

Jenny Craig is a hybrid weight loss program that, depending on the package you purchase, combines in-person or online consultations and weigh-ins with a menu of nearly 100 frozen, pre-packaged meals that are delivered to customers' homes. From the jump, it's clear that the program is a real commitment. Customers are discouraged from cooking at home until they are at least halfway to their weight loss goal. Then they are allowed to cook a few meals at home. Once customers reach their target weight, they spend four weeks transitioning to home-cooked meals.

While some users experienced success on Jenny Craig, the program was riddled with problems, too. According to a 2023 report from Forbes, the meal plan most recently ranged in cost from $97.93 to $203 per week, which meant that some users were essentially making another rent payment to afford the plan, which doesn't account for groceries needed by the rest of the household. 

Additionally, most of the plans themselves came in at or around 1200 calories which, as reporter Scaachi Koul wrote in 2021, "according to most nutritionists or food experts, is a restrictive, unsustainable, likely unhealthy diet for any adult woman." Jamie Nadeau, a nutritionist, told Buzzfeed News that level of calorie restriction is actually only enough daily nutrition if you're an "80-ish pound dog or a toddler." 

As Koul writes, most regimented diet programs, like Weight Watchers, are similarly based on a 1,200 calorie intake, just hidden behind a "point" system so it doesn't feel like calorie counting. However, even Weight Watchers has rebranded to deemphasize the "weight" in their name; now, the company just goes by WW. 

Similarly, as of August 2022, the creators of the South Beach Diet, another original competitor of Jenny Craig's, announced the company was "taking a break" from its home delivery of frozen diet meals and a la carte foods, and instead the company recommends people visit its blog site, The Palm. So, what comes in place of these diet industry veterans as they reinvent themselves? 

You end up with programs like Noom. In the original marketing for the app, potential customers were told that they would learn to "stop dieting" because the program was instead focused on cultivating daily behavior changes for long-term weight loss. Users are provided with articles and quizzes each day to test their new knowledge. 

As someone who has struggled with disordered eating since I was a pre-teen, I found myself sucked into this specific promise of Noom for a period of time, too

I had several friends who all started Noom together to "retrain their brains" in terms of how they thought about food. It wasn't about trying to lose weight or kick off another crash diet. This was about mending the relationship between your mind and body; and while companies talking about losing weight is now viewed as inappropriate, or at least kind of gauche, talking about addressing customers' mental health is totally in. (By way of disclosure, as someone who has struggled with disordered eating since I was a pre-teen, I found myself sucked into this specific promise of Noom for a period of time, too.) 

But, as many health professionals quickly pointed out, Noom is still a diet. For all it's talk about being different from the other programs out there, it just hides calorie-counting behind a new $70-per-month labeling system. Instead of points, it's color-coded: There are orange, yellow and green foods. Green foods are the least calorie-dense, while orange foods contain the most. 

Again, many people have reported success using it, but health professionals say that for some of their clients, the "psychological lessons" that Noom purports to teach aren't the ultimate takeaway. 

"I have had several clients transition to me from Noom due to the extreme diet culture it can promote and the extremely low caloric intake, which can promote a restrict-binge cycle," Crystal Scott, a registered dietician and nutritionist, told Women's Health in April. "The color-coded foods can [trigger] an unhealthy relationship with food."

Then, found in the slightly shadier — but higher dollar — corner of the diet industry, are weight loss drugs like Ozempic. 

As Salon Senior Writer Nicole Karlis reported in March, Ozempic is typically marketed as a diabetes drug and is formally known as semaglutide. Semaglutide can help with obesity and diabetes because it works on GLP-1 receptors, which control blood sugar. Dr. Ahmet Ergin, founder and entrepreneur of SugarMD, told Salon that Ozempic works as a "gastrointestinal hormone mimicker," by creating the hormones that signal appetite or fullness." 

Several celebrities, including Elon Musk, have credited the drug for their weight loss — but even those who have, speak about it with an almost dismissive wave of a hand. "Everyone is on Ozempic," comedian Chelsea Handler said in January. "My anti-aging doctor just hands it out to anybody." As Karlis reported, in recounting her own experience with the drug, Handler claimed she "didn't even know" she was on it.

"Everyone is on Ozempic."

Handler's description of getting on Ozempic reinforces two big ideas: The first is that a lot of the celebrities that everyday Americans look to as having the ideal body type actually maintain that figure by using medication. The second point is that those celebrities want to keep that part of their fitness and nutrition regime a secret because, again, thinness is viewed as a moral good, though one that we have been relentlessly culturally conditioned to believe should be the natural default. 

Why? So that companies can continue to prey on the insecurities that come with having a body that you're consistently told is not ideal. 

Leadership at Jenny Craig has thus far been quiet on what plans the company has, if any, to rebrand or relaunch. They did however tell employees in an email that it "is embarking on the next phase of our business to evolve with the changing landscape of today's consumers. Like many other companies, we're currently transitioning from a brick-and-mortar retail business to a customer-friendly, e-commerce driven model. We will have more details to share in the coming weeks as our plans are solidified."

Personally, I think that it's just a matter of time before Jenny Craig is back — though I anticipate that the phrase "diet" will be scrubbed from their messaging when it returns.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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