The Best Diet for You
What is the best diet to help you lose weight and improve heart health in the short-term?
a) a low-carbohydrate (carb), high-protein diet
b) a moderate-carb, high-protein diet
c) a moderate-fat diet
If you chose a, b, or c, you are right—sort of. The best answer is not there. It is "d"—the reduced-calorie diet that you will stick with. Why? Because according to a study presented at the American Heart Association (AHA) Scientific Session that compared four different diets, ranging from low-fat to high-protein, all the diets resulted in the same amount of weight loss after one year. A 2009 study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found similar results. The important factor is not the nutrients (like a low-fat or low-carb diet), but the caloric intake. According to these studies, if you reduce the number of calories that you consume, then you will lose weight, irrespective of what form those calories take.
Returning to the multiple-choice question, it says “short-term” because the AHA study also found that heart risk scores—which are based on findings from the Framingham Heart study and include total and LDL cholesterol levels—improved with all the diets. For long-term health, in addition to an eating plan that you can realistically follow on a daily basis, there are several factors that will help keep your weight within your ideal range and keep all your body systems healthy. These factors include regular exercise, relaxation techniques, not drinking too much, and above all, not smoking.
The truth is, most diet plans are built on the premise that reducing calorie intake leads to weight loss. That means that the diet that’s right for you is the one that limits the foods you are most likely to overeat, but still allows you to eat foods you enjoy.
To help you choose the eating plan that’s right for you, here is a brief explanation of four popular diet plans.
The Atkins’ Nutritional Approach
Atkins’ Nutritional Approach stresses dramatically reducing your intake of carbohydrates and replacing them with foods rich in protein and fat. The theory goes like this: “Your body burns carbohydrates and fat for energy. With Atkins’ unique approach, you limit carbs so your body burns fat.”
The Atkins’diet has four phases. During the induction phase, you eat no more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day, mostly from salad greens and other acceptable vegetables. This means no bread, pasta, rice, fruit, milk, yogurt, cereal, juice, cookies, sweets, or potatoes, among other foods. However, you can eat as much as you like from foods that are pure protein and fat, such as meats, eggs, oils, and butter. The induction phase lasts at least two weeks, and usually results in rapid weight loss.
During the next three phases (ongoing weight loss, pre-maintenance, and lifetime maintenance), you will slowly reintroduce carbs until your weight loss slows and, when you reach your goal, stops. Then, you will monitor your weight, and if you gain, you take away carbs again until you lose the weight again. This means that your calorie intake (and your weight) is moderated by adjusting your carbohydrate intake. Protein and fat are not restricted. You are also advised to take a multivitamin and drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day.
In 2003, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that people following the Atkins’ diet lost more weight than a control group after three and six months, but that both groups had lost approximately the same amount of weight after one year. Since then, studies have continued to show that compared to other diets, a low-carbohydrate diet leads to greater weight loss at six months, but similar amounts of weight loss at one year. A 2009 study looked at 13 different studies and concluded that after one year on a low-carbohydrate diet, dieters tend to lose as much weight—if not more—as dieters on a traditional high-carbohydrate diet.
The Atkins’ diet is rich in high-protein and high-fat foods, such as bacon, steak, and cheese. While this eating pattern has not been shown to be harmful when followed for one year, many nutrition experts worry that the high levels of saturated and trans fats in these foods will increase your risk for heart disease if you follow the diet for an extended period of time. Information about the long-term effects of low-carbohydrate diets is still being collected. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that after one year, an Atkins-type diet increased both good and bad cholesterol. However, a 2010 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that after two years, a low-carbohydrate diet improved cardiovascular disease risk factors more than a low-fat diet. There is concern that the high levels of protein can overload and damage the kidneys, which is especially dangerous for people with diabetes or kidney disease.
Weight Watchers PointsPlus
Weight Watchers PointsPlus program stresses better food choices and portion control for long-term weight loss. "Weight Watchers makes clear that they are not a diet, but rather an 'integrated approach that combines smarter eating, healthy habits, exercise, and a supportive environment.'”
On the PointsPlus program, you are allotted a daily POINTS range based on your body weight. Every food has a POINTS value and you can eat whatever foods you want, as long as you stay within your daily range. POINTS values are based on the amount of calories, fat, and fiber in a food. Some foods, such as fruit and vegetables, have zero points because they are so nutrient dense and contain so much fiber.
The PointsPlus program also emphasizes exercise. When you exercise, you earn Activity POINTS, which can be transferred into Food POINTS.
Weight Watchers recommends an average loss of 1-2 pounds a week for safe and sustained weight loss.
A 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people following the Weight Watchers program lost significantly more than those on a self-help, weight-loss program. At the end of one year, the people on the Weight Watchers program lost an average of 9.5 pounds, while the people in the self-help program lost an average of 2.9 pounds. After two years, the Weight Watchers group lost an average of 6.4 pounds and the self-help group lost an average of 0.4 pounds. Again, losing weight, followed by some weight gain, is typical. However, a net weight loss after two years—no matter how much—is desirable.
Overall, the Weight Watchers PointsPlus program is a healthful one. In addition to cutting the amount of calories you consume and encouraging you to exercise, the diet encourages taking a daily multivitamin, drinking lots of water, and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. It also takes effort to log all the food you eat and exercise that you do. Fortunately, computer-based programs make it easier to calculate the POINTS value of foods and log activities. And while the traditional version of the Weight Watchers program requires attendance at a weekly meeting, these days you can also choose an online-based program.
The South Beach Diet
The South Beach Diet, developed by cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, attempts to find a happy medium between low-carb and low-fat diets. It “teaches you to rely on the right carbs and the right fats—the good ones—and enables you to live quite happily without the bad carbs and bad fats.” Like many diet programs these days, South Beach claims it is not a diet, but rather “a way of life.”
The South Beach Diet has three phases. During the two weeks of Phase 1, breads, rice, potatoes, pasta, baked goods, and even fruit are restricted. You can eat enough meat, chicken, turkey, fish, vegetables, eggs, cheese, nuts, and salads with olive oil dressing to make you feel full. The goal of phase one is to eliminate cravings and kick-start weight loss.
Phase 2, which you will stay on until you reach your weight-loss goal, is less restrictive. You can add carbs back into your diet, but in moderation. The focus is on whole-grain carbs, but you can now splurge on refined carbs every once in a while.
After you have reached your weight-loss goal, you will enter into Phase 3, “the stage that lasts the rest of your life.” In this phase, you are encouraged to focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated and trans fats, and whole-grain carbs instead of refined ones.
Although exercise is not a main focus of this diet, Dr. Agatston recommends you take a brisk, 20-minute walk each day. Dr. Agatston claims that you will lose 8-13 pounds in Phase 1, and 1-2 pounds per week in Phase 2.
The South Beach Diet relies on Dr. Agatston’s own research. A randomized, clinical trial published in a 2004 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine compared the Modified Low Carbohydrate diet (South Beach Diet) with the National Cholesterol Education Program diet. Sixty participants were randomized and the study lasted for 12 weeks. Participants in the Modified Low Carbohydrate diet had significantly greater weight loss over 12 weeks. But since the study was small and, more importantly, since Dr. Agatston himself conducted the study, more research is needed to determine whether the South Beach Diet is effective.
A 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine compared the effectiveness of different types of diets and found that a diet similar in make-up to the South Beach Diet—it had a modest increase in protein content and a modest reduction in glycemic index—led to an improved diet adherence and weight-loss maintenance compared to other diets.
While the strengths of this diet focuses on healthful fats and whole grains, Phase 1 is extremely restrictive and may cause many enthusiastic dieters to give up. Also, the promise that you will lose 8-13 pounds during the first two weeks is questionable. Even if it were true, most health professionals recommend no more than a couple of pounds a week for safe, long-term weight loss.
So it seems that while there are many effective diets out there, the one that is best for you is the one that you will stick with. That means choosing from one of the nutritionally sound diets, such as those presented above, and then finding the diet that works best with your personality. For example, if you are a bread lover, the Atkins diet probably is not going to work for you, and if you do not like to be bothered with logging your food intake, than the Weight Watchers program probably is not your best fit. If you are feeling overwhelmed or confused by all the options out there, consider working with a registered dietitian. She can help you come up with a customized plan that is your best fit.
American Dietetic Association
American Heart Association
Canada's Food Guide
Dietitians of Canada
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Last reviewed April 2011 by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD
Last updated Updated: 6/23/2011
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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