US News report assesses the efficacy of various well-known plans
Rating diets never gets old. That’s because dieting never gets old. It’s no wonder then, that for the second year in a row, US News created a buzz with its recent listing of the top diets of 2012.
The rankings include 25 diets and are based on research done by the US News staff, as well as feedback from 22 health, nutrition and obesity experts. Each diet was scored on its ease of use, ability to realize long-and short-term results and its health and nutritional soundness and benefits.
Leading the pack is the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, followed closely by the TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyles Changes) diet. Both are designed not just to drop a few pounds, but to address health issues like high blood pressure, metabolic disorders and heart disease.
“These two diets are good for everyone,” said Marielle Ledoux, director of the Nutrition department at Universite de Montreal. “In fact, they’re not really diets but healthy eating plans.”
Indeed, both diets focus on portion control, eating lots of fruits and vegetables and reducing the intake of dietary fats, sodium and processed foods. And while these strategies are all worthy, the weight loss is considered secondary to the health benefits that come from improving your eating habits.
Applauded by health professionals, DASH and TLC lack the consumer appeal of diets that offer a quicker approach to losing unwanted pounds. But according to Pearl Nerenberg, a Montreal-based dietitian with her own private practice, get-thin-quick diets have their drawbacks, namely a loss of precious muscle mass.
“We spend our lifetime trying to build muscle so we’ll have enough to compensate for the loss of muscle associated with aging,” said Nerenberg. “We’re effectively dipping into our retirement fund of lean body mass whenever we go on those types of diets.”
Kristine Koski, director of McGill’s School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, agrees. “How you lose weight is as important as losing the weight itself,” she said. “You want to lose fat. Not bone and not muscle mass.”
Another nutritional red flag: diets that are too restrictive in terms of the types of foods they recommend.
“Everyone wants to be told to eat this and not that,” said Nerenberg. “But it’s not that simple.”
A good diet is robust in nutritional content, fulfilling your daily quota of vitamins and minerals. It should also keep hunger pangs at bay so that you aren’t constantly fighting the urge to raid the fridge. And it needs to be sustainable, which means it offers enough variety and flexibility that you can live with it over the long term.
That’s where diet rankings help. They clear up some of the confusion and uncertainty surrounding which diet to choose and help point you toward a diet that suits both your preferences and goals.
Nerenberg says dietitians can help tailor most diets, even fad diets, to meet your nutritional needs, so don’t assume that traditional diets are the only way to achieve your goals.
“You can have your diet and your health professional, too,” she said.
US News Top 5 diets
Endorsed by the American Heart Association, the main focus of the Dash is to lower blood pressure by reducing the amount of sodium in your diet. It’s high in fibre and protein, low to moderate in fat and rich in potassium, magnesium and calcium. There are DASH diet plans for 1,600, 2,600 and 3,000 daily calories and pre-established menus based on 2,000 calories and 2,300 or 1,500 mg of sodium a day. Recommends 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most, preferably all, days of the week.
“This diet is good for everyone,” said Ledoux. “It lets you eat everything but in smaller amounts, has lots of colour (in fruits and vegetables) and avoids foods high in sodium.”
A low-fat diet (less than 7 per cent of calories are from saturated fat) created by the National Institutes of Health, TLC regulates your daily intake of cholesterol (less than 200 mg daily) and total fat (25-35 per cent of your total calories). Foods are baked, broiled, grilled, steamed and poached. Sample menus are available for 2,500, 1,800, 1,600 and 1,200 calories. Recommends 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most, preferably all, days of the week.
“This is a good traditional diet that lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Nerenberg.
3. Weight Watchers
Weight Watchers assigns points to foods based on the amount of protein, fat, fibre, carbohydrates and calories. Using weight, gender, height and age as a baseline, individuals are allotted a daily number of points and can eat what they want, provided they don’t exceed their points. Fruits and vegetables have zero points and can be eaten in unlimited quantities. This commercial diet has lots of interactive tools that help dieters track their points, plan menus and make food choices. Monthly fees are required to participate in the program.
“This diet has been around for years and has improved tremendously,” said Koski. “But the thing that makes this diet different from the others is the built-in support and number of tools it offers.”
Based on the principle that people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea are slimmer and have less chronic disease than North Americans, this diet emulates their lifestyle by promoting heart-healthy fats like olive and canola oil. The diet favours fish, seafood, fruits, vegetables and whole grains and gives the okay to consume a small glass of wine daily. It discourages red meat, sweets, salt and saturated fat, like butter. The diet doesn’t have specific meal plans, but, if followed, helps you feel fuller on fewer calories. Regular exercise is encouraged but no clear guidelines are given.
“We’ve been hearing about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for years now,” said Ledoux. “It’s not too restrictive and we all like a glass of wine every now and then.”
5. Mayo Clinic
Designed by the renowned Mayo Clinic, the diet has two phases. The initial phase lasts two weeks and boasts a weight loss of 6-10 pounds based on a 1,200-calories-a-day diet (determined by subtracting 500 calories from your basal metabolic rate as calculated by age, gender and weight).
The next phase is designed to be followed for life and focuses on healthy food choices and portion control that will result in a weight loss of one or two pounds a week. Fruits and vegetables are allowed in unlimited quantities in both phases of the diet. Thirty minutes of exercise a day is recommended.
“You’ll lose weight with this diet, but 1,200-calorie diets are deficient in calcium, iron and Vitamin D,” said Koski.
“1,200 calories,” said Ledoux, “I would be starving.
“And it would be tough to exercise on so few calories.”
Our diet experts weigh in on two popular fad diets
Modelled after the diet of cavemen (Palaeolithic man), this diet is restricted to meat, vegetables, eggs, wild fruits, fish, nuts and seeds. Sugar, dairy products, legumes and grains (anything considered agricultural) are banned. High in protein and fat (39 per cent of daily calories) and low in carbohydrates (23 per cent of daily calories), it claims to prevent metabolic disorders, auto-immune diseases, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s.
All three nutritionists like the emphasis on fruits and vegetables and acknowledge reducing the amount of carbs in your diet isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It should be noted however that Paleo is another form of a low-carb diet, which boasts quick weight loss by reducing water weight and muscle mass — not fat. Glycogen stores (which fuel muscles) are also reduced, which can have a negative impact on energy levels and athletic performance.
As for the claims of improved health, the supporting science is slim and, according to Ledoux, with no dairy in the diet, it’s doubtful that it reduces the risk of osteoporosis. It’s also very restrictive in terms of food choices, which makes it tough to follow over the long haul.
Visalus 90-day challenge
Based on replacing meals with specially designed shakes, nutritional supplements and energy drinks, this diet is all over the Internet with its ads filling up Facebook news feeds.
It features lots of before-and-after photos that boast of the diet’s success and challenges individuals to try the product for 90 days and then send in their weight-loss success stories for a chance to win big money.
The trouble is there is no obvious nutritional information about what the shakes contain, which troubled all three of our experts.
The Transformation Kit of nutritional supplements retails for $249 and lasts 30 days. “You have no idea what you are drinking,” said Ledoux.
“I spent 45 minutes looking for some information about this product, but I couldn’t find it,” said Koski.