Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, so it’s not surprising that the popularity of fad diets and weight-loss supplements is increasing along with our waistlines. Although I’ve long advocated eating less and exercising more as the healthiest way to shed pounds, I recognize that this solution may not be so simple for some. After all, being overweight can have numerous causes, from genetic predisposition and food addiction to a societal preference for fast food and enormous portions. A lack of physical activity related to a love of automobiles, computers, and television, plus communities that are ill-planned for walking and cycling, also contribute to the nation’s big weight problems.
Interestingly, people looking for a quick fix to lose pounds often shun exercise and commonsense nutrition in favor of complex diets that may be difficult to follow but promise incredible results. I think that’s unfortunate, since research suggests that losing just 10 percent of your weight (20 pounds if you weigh 200, for example) can have significant positive effects on your risk of heart problems, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers.
The Lowdown on Five Popular Diets
Here, I’ll offer my opinion of five popular diets that you’ve likely heard about or may have even tried. Remember, the keys to losing weight and keeping it off are finding a healthy diet you can stick with, getting plenty of regular exercise, controlling portions and emotional eating, and setting realistic goals for yourself.
The Atkins Diet.
Weight-loss plans that are high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates have come and gone over the years, but the diet program advocated by the late cardiologist Robert Atkins, MD, is still the most popular—and controversial—of the bunch. In his best-selling books, Dr. Atkins claimed that eating foods like red meat, cheese, butter, and cream will kick-start your metabolism. More specifically, the Atkins diet is based on the idea that eating fewer carbs decreases circulating levels of the hormone insulin and triggers a state called ketosis, in which your body burns fat, rather than carbs, as fuel. The plan’s strict two-week beginning phase permits only 20 grams of carbs each day. In the subsequent three phases, you gradually add foods back to your diet, although you risk putting the weight back on. Recently, a bevy of low-carb products, from bread to beer, have appeared on the market to help make such diets easier to stick with. And there are even Atkins-friendly restaurants.
What I like. Like most diets, Atkins can lead to weight loss, at least in the short term. In a 12-month study reported at a November 2003 meeting of the American Heart Association, people on Atkins lost about the same amount of weight as those on Weight Watchers, the Zone, and the very-low-fat diet advocated by Dean Ornish, MD, without any ill health effects. Other research has found that people who followed Atkins for a year had greater increases in HDL (“good”) cholesterol or greater decreases in unhealthy triglycerides than those on a low-fat diet, possibly because they ate fewer refined carbs. Refined carbohydrates appear to increase production of triglycerides and lower production of HDL cholesterol in many people.
What I don’t like. Even though the Atkins diet has been shown to help people lose weight, there are currently no clinical studies lasting longer than one year showing that it’s safe and effective at keeping weight off. I’m concerned that this diet doesn’t sufficiently differentiate between “bad” carbs (like white flour and sugar and products made from them) and “good” carbs (beans, sweet potatoes, whole grains). Nor does the plan emphasize the difference between unhealthy saturated and trans fats and healthier monounsaturated fats, or between animal protein and vegetable protein like beans and soy products.
My bottom line. Overall, I think the Atkins diet provides too much unhealthy fat and animal protein and not enough healthy carbs or produce, foods that are good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protective plant chemicals. I’m concerned that excessive intake of protein may also harm the kidneys and liver over time, and I don’t recommend it.
Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Solution.
Psychologist Phil McGraw, PhD, who typically specializes in relationship issues on his TV talk show, recently entered the weight-loss market with his best-selling book The Ultimate Weight Solution (Free Press, 2003). Dr. Phil’s diet program aims to give readers tools to help change their behaviors and relationship with food. To stem overeating, he also recommends eating what he calls “high-response cost foods,” which can’t be eaten quickly and are generally high in fiber, and foods with high nutritional yields and few calories. Dr. Phil lends his name to a line of vitamins and other nutritional supplements, bars, and shakes called “Shape Up!,” intended for use with his plan.
What I like. I agree with Dr. Phil that many people have emotional reasons for eating and would do well to learn healthier ways of dealing with food. Among his keys to weight loss are recognizing and coping with self-defeating feelings, curbing emotional eating, exercising more, and learning how to choose healthy foods.
What I don’t like. Selling supplements and other products may undercut Dr. Phil’s message that lasting weight loss is based primarily on behavioral control and change.
My bottom line. Dr. Phil’s behavioral advice is worth listening to—but I’d skip his supplements, shakes, and bars.
Fat Flush Plan.
Outlined in her book The Fat Flush Diet Plan (McGraw-Hill, 2002), nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman’s weight-loss program claims to detoxify the liver, boost metabolism, and “flush out” pockets of stubborn fat. This is a strict diet plan that doesn’t permit white flour or sugar, vegetable shortening, artificial sweeteners, or caffeine. Instead, Gittleman recommends consuming plenty of protein, spices like ginger and cayenne (which she claims boost metabolism), and water. The first two weeks limit followers to 1,200 calories a day, with no grains or starchy vegetables; phase two allows 1,500 calories; and phase three lets you add back some carbs and dairy as long as you maintain your weight loss. Gittleman also sells an accompanying Fat Flush Kit, which includes various supplements, “fat-burning” formulas, and other weight-loss products.
What I like. Gittleman correctly advises that you limit your intake of white flour and sugar, and vegetable shortening. In addition, the spices that she suggests may slightly increase the body’s metabolism.
What I don’t like. I find the notion that any diet can “flush out” pockets of fat ridiculous. Plus, many of the herbs and supplements that she recommends—such as black currant oil, L-carnitine, and flax oil—have not been shown to trigger weight loss.
My bottom line. Some of Gittleman’s advice can be incorporated into a generally healthy diet, but I wouldn’t expect it to eliminate large areas of body fat.
South Beach Diet.
Developed by Florida cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, this diet distinguishes between “good” (complex) and “bad” (refined) carbs and relies on the glycemic index, a measure of how quickly a food’s carbohydrates are turned into blood sugar. Detailed in Dr. Agatston’s book The South Beach Diet (Rodale, 2003), the plan also differentiates between “good” and “bad” fats, and encourages followers to choose monounsaturated and omega-3 fats over less-healthy options. The diet works in three phases, the first of which—two weeks with few carbs—is the strictest but claims to help you lose at least 8 pounds. Phase two allows you to reintroduce some previously “off-limit” foods, while phase three is less restrictive and is meant to be a lifetime eating plan that maintains weight loss.
What I like. The South Beach diet is a much healthier version of the low-carb diet. I like its reliance on the glycemic index, which I’ve long recommended as a tool for evaluating carbohydrate-rich foods, and that it recommends heart-healthy omega-3 and monounsaturated fats.
What I don’t like. Like most of the diets mentioned here, South Beach doesn’t put enough emphasis on the role of exercise to help lose weight and keep it off.
My bottom line. If you want to lose pounds, I think the South Beach diet is worth a try. Adding at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) on most days of the week should help you maintain any weight loss.
In her diet books, actress Suzanne Somers promotes “Somersizing” as an eating plan. She advocates eliminating white flour and sugar, eating fruits alone on an empty stomach, eating protein and fats with vegetables, and eating carbs with veggies but not fat. Somers claims that eating foods in the right combinations can help change your metabolism and “melt away pounds” without skipping meals.
What I like. I agree with Somers’ advice to cut back on white flour and sugar.
What I don’t like. There’s no good scientific evidence to back her assertion that eating different mixes of food—essentially, food combining—will help shed pounds.
My bottom line. When you take away the advice on food combining, what’s left of the “Somersizing” plan is essentially a version of the Atkins diet, and I don’t recommend it.