Top 5 Diets to Watch in 2012
The hottest diets of the New Year promote a back-to-basics approach to eating and weight loss, and are (mostly) fad-free
By: Jessica Cassity
The Future of Dieting
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
If 2011 was the year of ridiculous diets—remember the daily hormone injections and 500 calories a day of the HCG diet?—then 2012 looks like a return to sensible eating (Search: What is the HCG diet?). The weight loss programs debuting or being revised for this year focus primarily on whole foods and moderate restriction. Whether you want meals prepared for you, a built-in support system, or a plan that promises to reduce risk from a number of health concerns, you’re bound to find something that meets your needs.
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Science-Based Slim-DownsThe benefits of weight loss go well beyond fitting back into skinny jeans. That’s why a number of big-name researchers, hospitals, and health organizations have launched their own diets to help strengthen the fight against a number of health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. (Video: Cook your way to a healthier heart) These lab-tested plans have been around for a while, but recent book releases and favorable reviews in a list of top diets by US News and World Report have renewed public interest in them.
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What It Is: Originally created as a meal plan to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, the DASH diet can help you lose weight and improve other health factors too, like your risk of diabetes or certain cancers.
How It Works: You’ll cut salt intake and eat mostly whole foods, which will lower blood pressure levels and reduce risk of heart disease and even kidney stones. The most recent iteration of this program, The DASH Diet Action Plan: Proven to Lower Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Without Medication (Marla Heller, $15.63), features a 28-day diet plan complete with recipes.
What You’ll Eat: Between 1,200 and 2,000 calories a day, depending on your weight loss goals. Expect lots of veggies, fruits, protein, and whole grains but very little sodium. Sample meals might include a sandwich with soup and veggies on the side, or a large salad topped with chicken, followed by a frozen yogurt sundae.
Bottom Line: The main focus of this plan is improving cholesterol and blood pressure levels; weight loss is secondary, although it should occur for most people, particularly if you follow one of the reduced-calorie plans. Because this book includes 4-weeks’ worth of recipes it’s best suited for people who have the time to cook and are interested in trying completely new meals.
Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Diet
What It Is: This diet plan, which was crafted by the National Institutes of Health, is the gold standard for the American Heart Association. By lowering fat and cholesterol consumption and increasing fiber intake you’ll improve your heart health and lose weight, too.
How It Works: The three-part program is designed to help lower blood cholesterol levels through diet, exercise, and weight management. The 81-page plan is free to download online. The booklet contains information about managing cholesterol and heart risk, in addition to healthy eating guidelines and several meal plan recommendations, although recipes are not included. The plan also suggests 30 minutes of exercise most days.
What You’ll Eat: Between 1,200 and 2,500 calories a day, depending on your sex and your weight loss goals. You’ll be eating a lot less fat, particularly saturated fat, which is limited to 7% of daily calories. But you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of fruits, veggies, nonfat or low-fat dairy, fish, and skinless chicken.
Bottom Line: The plan can be tailored not only to help improve cholesterol scores but also aid in weight loss, depending on your needs. Recipes and shopping lists are primarily up to you, so this plan might be a good fit for an experienced cook who wants to modify favorite meals.
Mayo Clinic Diet
What It Is: This phase-based plan is part diet, part lifestyle changes, all geared to accelerate weight loss. In phase 1 of the plan you spend 2 weeks stringently monitoring what you eat and learning new health habits. By the third week the rules ease up, making the program easier to maintain long-term, but still effective for aiding weight loss.
How It Works: For the complete guide, pick up The Mayo Clinic Diet: Eat Well, Enjoy Life, Lose Weight (by the weight loss experts of the Mayo Clinic, $14.63). Some recipes are included in the book, but if you want a true meal plan pick up the Fix-It and Enjoy-It Healthy Cookbook. Regular exercise—from walking for fitness to walking around the grocery store—is encouraged, as is eliminating bad habits such as eating in front of the TV.
What You’ll Eat: Between 1,200 to 1,800 calories, depending on your sex and weight. You’ll fill your plate with lots of fruits and veggies, plus a moderate amount of carbs, fiber, and protein. This diet focuses on moderation more than absolute restriction.
Bottom Line: This program focuses on food as well as lifestyle, which can help make the results stick. After 2 weeks of intense dieting you’ll be guided to make your own sensible choices, which should add up to a loss of 1 to 2 pounds each week.
Commercial Weight Loss ProgramsIf weight loss is your primary goal, enrolling in a well-known diet plan may be right for you. These long-term programs, which often highlight celebrity success stories in their marketing campaigns, focus on dropping pounds through calorie restriction and portion control.
What It Is: Since introducing its Points system 14 years ago, Weight Watchers has been teaching men and women to eat healthier foods and smaller portion sizes. Members have access to online benefits, including recipes, workouts, and tracking tools, plus optional meetings. The emphasis is steady weight loss without rigid restriction. It’s the plan that worked for entertainer and Weight Watchers spokesperson Jennifer Hudson.
How It Works: Enroll in the program (weightwatchers.com, starts at $18.95 a month, plus a joining fee of $29.95), then decide if you’d prefer to follow the plan online only or with the added support of in-person meetings. The company does sell its own food, but most people who follow the plan prepare their own meals. Regular exercise is encouraged and tracked along with your food intake.
What You’ll Eat: In 2010, Weight Watchers revamped its Points system to calculate your points based on macronutrients such as protein and carbohydrates instead of just calories, fat, and fiber. Each person is assigned a personal PointsPlus goal based on factors such as weight and activity level. More than 40,000 food values are detailed online, which makes it easy to weigh the cost of your favorite meals and snacks. Veggies and fruits are worth zero points, so plan to eat plenty of those. Lean proteins, fiber, and whole grains are also encouraged, although no food is off-limits.
Bottom Line: This plan is best for those who like to be in charge of the foods they eat and are comfortable being online. The accountability of this program (you’re asked to keep an online log) appears to keep dieters on track according to scientific studies, which found that Weight Watchers participants were effective at keeping off the weight they’d lost.
Jenny (formerly Jenny Craig)
What It Is: This program received a face-lift just in time for the 2012 diet season. While the name and the spokesperson are new (Mariah Carey recently lost her baby weight on the plan), the tenets of the program remain the same. The eating plan is based on low-fat, low-cal packaged foods. After you register you’ll have one-on-one counseling sessions to review your progress, as well as access to online tools that will help you manage the plan. If you’d like more support, it’s available for a fee.
How It Works: There are three options in this plan, which vary depending on how much you want to lose and how intensely you would like to commit. At a base level you receive standard coaching; at the most stringent level you’re offered cash incentives for meeting goals and will be outfitted with an accelerometer, which measures your physical activity. When you factor in food costs, the tab may add up to around $400 a month. (For more info, see jennycraig.com.)
What You’ll Eat: Between 1,200 and 2,300 calories a day. At the start of the plan you’ll rely solely on Jenny foods—which include offerings like chicken Marsala and pizza—plus fruits and veggies. As you near your goal weight you’ll slowly add home-cooked meals (following Jenny recipes) back into your plan.
Bottom Line: If weight loss is your goal but you don’t want to have to fuss over new recipes or track calories or portions, this plan might be for you. The prepackaged foods make this a particularly good choice for a person who doesn’t cook much, or tends to eat on the run. The high cost may be prohibitive for some people.
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Gluten-Free and Wheat-Free DietsExperts estimate about 10% of the population has a gluten sensitivity, and approximately 1% has celiac disease, so it’s no surprise that an increasing number of gluten- or wheat-free foods and cookbooks have burst onto the scene. But what has been unexpected is the degree of nonafflicted individuals who adopt this diet in the pursuit of weight loss, thanks to the reduced amount of carbs in many gluten-free meals.
What It Is: Eating plans in the gluten-free category can vary greatly, but the one thing they have in common is the elimination of wheat, barley, rye, and some oats. Most books dedicated to this subject, such as Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s Deliciously G-Free ($19), primarily highlight ways to make your diet gluten-free, incorporating gluten-free recipes and listing foods to eliminate. Other programs, such as the Wheat Belly Diet by William Davis, MD, ($16.97), eliminate wheat specifically to spur weight loss. (A wheat-free plan is not necessarily a gluten-free plan.)
How It Works: When people with celiac disease consume gluten, a protein found in grains, their immune system responds by causing damage to the structures in the small intestine that absorb nutrients, and they experience side effects such as digestive upset and bloating. The gluten-free diet eliminates grains containing this protein to help manage celiac disease; it’s a medically prescribed diet, not a weight loss plan. There is no standard manual for this eating style. Simply choose a recipe book that looks tasty and easy to follow.
The Wheat Belly Diet is based on the idea that compounds found in wheat are responsible for appetite stimulation, exaggerated rises in blood sugar, and the release of endorphin-like chemicals that get the brain hooked on carbs. Davis, in his book, also contends that increased wheat consumption can be linked to higher incidences of celiac disease, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and schizophrenia. Those who follow these diets may lose some weight thanks to a reduced carbohydrate intake from bread products, but only if calories are controlled.
What You’ll Eat: Gluten-free foods that replace traditional grains and grain products with starches such as rice, potatoes, and corn. If you would like to spur weight loss, you’ll need to watch portion sizes and be sure to include lots of fruits and veggies in addition to fiber and lean protein. However, Davis believes that starchy gluten-free foods hike blood sugar, triggering a glucose-insulin response that packs on pounds. He advocates cutting out all wheat and limiting other grains and carbohydrates, with the exception of some nonwheat carbohydrates, such as quinoa and millet, as well as nongrain carbs such as fruit.
Bottom Line: Those with gluten sensitivities will benefit by eliminating the protein from their diet, but for people simply looking to lose weight, there may not be a clear benefit. Limiting carbs will likely spur weight loss, but a plan that eliminates a food group may not be sustainable over time. You’ll also need to make sure that the calories you consume on this diet are less than the calories you regularly eat.
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Back to the Land DietsSome health professionals suggest we should look back, rather than forward, to get our bodies into peak physical form. The principle of this style of eating—often called Paleo—is to consume only what was available to our ancestors. This means cutting out food that comes in a cellophane wrapper, and often grains or dairy.
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What It Is: A few diets fall under this category, but the general approach is defined by a handful of simple rules: No processed foods, no cereal grains, no legumes, no dairy, and no starchy vegetables. These plans aren’t typically set up as a weight loss programs per se, but because they eliminate excess carbohydrates, many followers—particularly those who have weight to lose—often do drop pounds on the diets.
How It Works: Paleo proponents believe that our bodies are genetically adapted to best function on the same foods our prehistoric ancestors ate. For an overview and “beginner’s guide,” to the Paleo Diet, check out The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young by Loren Cordain ($16.71). For recipes to try at home, consider The Primal Blueprint Cookbook: Primal, Low Carb, Paleo, Grain-Free, Dairy-Free and Gluten-Free (by Mark Sisson, $16.31).
What You’ll Eat: No calorie limits. The calorie count on this plan is largely up to you, so if you want to lose weight make sure your daily intake totals less than your traditional diet. On this plan you’ll have an open pass to meats and veggies, plus some fruits and nuts. Meals might include a steak or fish with a side salad. Critics of the plan question the elimination of grains, legumes, and dairy, as those foods all offer nutritional benefits and are not typically the worst culprits of weight gain in the American diet. For a slightly less stringent approach, you may be interested in The Hunter/Farmer Diet Solution (April 2012) by Mark Liponis, MD, of Canyon Ranch ($13.57), which allows grains.
Bottom Line: If you liked the Atkins Diet, a Paleo-style plan might be for you. You’ll consume a similar amount of protein, but more fruits and veggies. Because of the focus on eating meats, you may see your grocery bill go up.
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“Real Food” DietsSome diets rely on either restricting or focusing on a certain type of food, while others call for drastic calorie reductions. The diets in this category don’t recommend any extremes, simply moderate consumption of unprocessed foods (Search: How do I cut out processed foods?
What It Is: These plans focus on whole foods, particularly veggies and fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains. This type of eating may help improve health factors, such as weight and risk of disease. According to The Happiness Diet (Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey, MD, $19.49), it may also boost your mood—particularly if you consume omega-3s, which have been shown to affect on mental health.
How It Works: Step one is avoiding heavily processed foods. If you’d like to lose weight, you’ll want to pick up a book with a meal plan, like The Happiness Diet or Skinny Chicks Eat Real Food (Christine Avanti, CN, $26.99). The Happiness Diet doesn’t have a set number of calories—instead the focus is on making sure that the calories you eat are from healthful sources, such as spinach, not sugar. Avanti’s book suggests keeping your calorie intake between 1,500 and 2,000 calories, though she notes that if you stick with “real” foods, you shouldn’t need to count calories.
What You’ll Eat: Foods that don’t come in a cellophane wrapper. Think salads, fish, and whole grain pastas.
Bottom Line: If you’re easing into dieting, this type of program is a good place to start. The emphasis is on restricting processed foods—such as sodas, chips, and cookies—without closely tracking calories that come from whole foods. Adopting this commonsense approach may make sticking with another, more stringent plan, easier in the future.
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