This article is from the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of The Wellness Advisor® magazine.
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Trying to find the best diet to fit your health and nutritional needs can be overwhelming! Whether you want to lose weight, manage your diabetes or simply follow a healthier eating plan, there are literally thousands of choices.
Here’s the good news: some of this country’s leading healthcare professionals have helped to create a diet toolbox, giving you a concise evaluation of 25 of the most common diet plans. But there’s a catch: you’ve still got to put forth some effort if the plan you select is going to work for you long term.
The Diet Review Task Force
I was recently asked by U.S. News & World Report to participate in an expert panel comprised of 27 physicians, psychologists, dietitians, researchers and other healthcare professionals. Our task was to evaluate 25 of the most popular diets. We reviewed and scored everything from macrobiotic and vegan diets to commercial plans associated with brand name products such as Slim Fast™, NutriSystem® and Weight Watchers™.
We were asked to rank each eating plan on a scale of one to five, and to offer our comments. The magazine editor then averaged our rankings. In January 2012, the magazine published a list of the best diets in several categories, including best heart-healthy diets, best diets for weight loss and even easiest diets to follow. Overall, I was pleased with the results.
My Evaluation Criteria
As I was going through this process, I was looking for scientific evidence that the diet had been studied with people in the group it was targeting (i.e. heart disease, weight loss, diabetes). If there were studies, what did they show? Did the diet work short term? Long term? Even if the diet looked great on paper, if it didn’t have the scientific evidence to back it up, I didn’t rank it well. I don’t know if the others used similar criteria, but because they were all leaders in their areas of expertise, I suspect that they were just as focused on these details.
Which Diets Came Out on Top?
The magazine’s report gives you quite a bit of information about each eating plan, and overall is a wonderful resource because it pulls together all of the information into one place.
When the scores were tallied, the best overall diet was the government-endorsed Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. That pleases me because there has been a lot of research done on DASH. It is based on lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and a moderate amount of fat.
The next best was the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC), a plan created by the National Institutes of Health. It also is a good, solid eating plan designed to help you reduce your overall risk of cardiovascular disease.
Looking at which plans emerged on top, the message is clear: if you want to protect your health, you need to follow the U.S.D.A.’s My Plate guidelines: fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, ¼ with whole grains, and the remainder with ¼ protein. Add ¼ serving of dairy to finish off your meal. All of the researchers and experts agreed that if you’re going to be healthy, this is the way to go.
The Biggest Loser® diet ranked best in the diabetes category, earning 3.6 out of 5. This is a great plan, and of course it stresses exercise. My concern is whether there is enough evidence to show that it works in the real world as well as it does on TV. Without being in an isolated setting, with personal trainers, intensive lifestyle management and no distractions, can people follow this plan successfully long term?
In the weight loss category, Weight Watchers™ ranked highest. If a commercial weight loss company is going to be credible and believable, they need to put their plan to the test and demonstrate that it works. Have they gone back to their participants and determined how well they have maintained their weight loss long term? Have they tested their plan against any other weight loss diet? I commend Weight Watchers™ because they have conducted and published research on the effectiveness of their program. The studies show that it promotes moderate but significant weight loss when compared to other low calorie diets.
Customizing Your Diet—and Your Adjusting Expectations
Both the DASH and TLC diets can be crafted into excellent weight loss plans. A good dietitian can customize either plan for you, based on the calories you need to make it work. But no matter what plan you ultimately choose—particularly in the weight loss category—you should expect to rebound some from your initial weight loss. The question is: by how much? It’s easier to lose than to maintain.
What can you do to help yourself maintain your weight loss? We now know that there are hormones you may be fighting to keep off the weight. Does that mean you should just give up? Absolutely not! You must be persistent. You’ve got to think about your plan every day. What are you going to eat? Have you done your exercise? This is why some people get tired and rebound. If you don’t catch it early, the weight will creep back on.
Here are some tips for preventing that from happening.
- If you are seeing a physician, discuss your plan with him or her. In particular, make sure your doctor is comfortable with the physical activity portion of your plan.
- Find a plan that will work for you. If it’s too far from what you would normally do, you may stick with it for a day or even a few months, but you’ll have trouble maintaining it.
- Look for plans with recipes that are easy to follow. There should be a way for you to learn how to cook some of these foods because you might never have eaten them before. And of course the recipes have to taste good or you won’t follow the plan.
- Find a plan that offers tasty alternatives. For example, if you have a sweet tooth, what does it offer you?
- Discuss the plan with a registered dietitian. Most of these plans can be tweaked to address your specific health concerns, and help you find ways to stick with it.
Seek the support of others. There’s a good reason why weight loss groups are successful.
Remember that none of these diets are magic bullets. You’ve got to be focused and committed to making it work. Your weight will go up and down as you follow any of these plans. But if you stay positive, and keep after it, you will gradually massage your lifestyle so that you can become a healthier, happier person.
Slim Fast™, NutriSystem® and Weight Watchers™ are trademarks of their respective owners.