Your neighbor lost 20 pounds by eating steak, eggs and even butter on Protein Power. A recent episode of Dateline touts the Mediterranean Diet as both heart-healthy and figure-friendly. Your sister swears by the fuzzy-bearded, organic-espousing Andrew Weil. And two of your friends say nothing has ever worked for them but Weight Watchers.
Choosing the right way to eat has seldom been more complicated. The New York Times Bestseller List's new "Advice" category has no less than six diet books on its paperback and hardcover listings, vying for coveted slots in between recent Oprah-appearing authors and other self-help gurus from Suze Orman (Nine Steps to Financial Freedom) to Spencer Johnson (The One Minute Manager and Who Moved My Cheese). Of these bestselling diet books, several recommend a high-protein diet while extolling the dangers of too many complex carbohydrates in the American diet. One says both protein and carbs are necessary but should not be eaten at the same time lest they ferment in the digestive tract. Yet another says protein and carbs should always be eaten together to constitute one meal, preferably taken six times a day in small amounts.
With so much advice out there, how do you know you're following the right plan or heeding a reasonably knowledgeable guru? What do you do if, like (ahem) this writer, you buy all the newest and most promising diet books, get motivated for a few days, but find the same, oh, 20 or 30 extra pounds following you around a few months later? The editors of Health magazine hope to clear up some of the confusion while offering some much-needed advice with their new book The Diet Advisor.
"Longtime readers of Health magazine have known that Health doesn't espouse any one diet for everyone," says John Poppy, editor in chief at Time Inc./Health Custom Publishing, which publishes Health. "That's because we're all individuals, and we all need to figure out how to manage the various aspects of our lives -- including weight -- in ways that work for us."
A special project of Health magazine in conjunction with Time/Life books, The Diet Advisor takes 22 of the most popular diets in America and breaks them down in terms of "The Promise," "The Method" and "The Diet as Lifestyle." For the first part of each write-up, you get the "pitch," more or less in the words of the diet book's author. What follows is an explanation of how it works, what some of the drawbacks are, and, most importantly, editorial commentary on whether this diet might be a good idea for you.
Although the book is arranged alphabetically by diet, most of the programs or books covered in The Diet Advisor fall under one of three or four dietary umbrellas. The biggest umbrella (or bandwagon, if you will) is the endorsing of high-protein, low-carb diets in such bestsellers as Protein Power, The Zone and Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution. While high-protein diets remain at an all-time high in popularity, The Diet Advisor, points out that the short-term gains aren't worth the long-term pitfalls. While people often lose weight by drastically cutting back on carbs, they run the risk of making their health problems worse. "Remember, carbs are your body's number one fuel," the book cautions, adding that healthy carbs like grains, fruits and even the milk and yogurt some diets warn against, are packed with vital nutrients.
"The problem with high-protein, low-carb diets is that you're often eliminating entire food groups," says Craig Hunt, a dietitian in private practice in Spokane. "I think it's really wise to look at what it is you're cutting out and to tailor your approach so that there's more room for balance. I don't like the idea of high-protein diets, to tell you the truth. I think excess protein can be really harmful."
The editors of The Diet Advisor aren't crazy about excess protein either, warning about potential damage to the liver and the kidneys and the ills of ketosis, a biochemical process that occurs in the absence of carbs. In fact, it was not only the less-than-healthy effects of high-protein, low-carb diets that led to the writing of The Diet Advisor, it was also the diets' unreasonable and didactic approaches.
"Looking at all the diets like The Zone, Protein Power, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Program, and so on, they really lay down the law, you know, eat no sugar, don't have any carbs and we thought, this is too rigid for the real world," says Poppy. "So what we did was collect the 22 most prominent, most popular attempted diets and analyzed them, reviewed them, and presented them with the pros and the cons, and then put them all in one place that would allow the reader to mix and match, if you will. Our hope is that with this book, people can kind of cherry pick; by leafing through the book, people can pick an aspect of one diet and maybe combine it with something from another diet. You can actually construct your own diet this way."
In this vein, The Diet Advisor is at its most useful, providing a good working basis of nutrition in the book's first section, "A Guide to Good Dieting." This chapter explains what carbs and proteins are, how calories work, how to understand food labels, the importance of shrinking vast American portion sizes and, of course, exercise, which is often a last-minute consideration in some of the most popular diet books.
"One of the biggest problems I see in those books is that exercise is often not addressed properly," says Vivienne Dutzar, clinical dietitian at Sacred Heart Medical Center. "We need to look at how we got into this mess; it's not that food suddenly got more calories overnight. Our lifestyle is also a big part of the problem."
A more moderate approach is what both The Diet Advisor and many nutritionists lean toward. Not only is a person more likely to stick with a more flexible program, it's often more nutritionally sound as well.
"It seems simple on the outside, but it's really complex at the same time," says Hunt. "I'm leery of the extreme approaches. Everyone is different, and there isn't one right diet that fits all people."
While the book does a nice job of giving the skinny on the 22 diets it did contain, I was surprised at some of the most popular books that didn't make it in, for instance Marilu Henner's Total Health Makeover, and Bill Phillips' Body for Life (both of which have spawned entire online communities) and Eat Right for Your Type, which prescribes different foods for different blood types. Poppy says that being an editor and not a diet expert, he couldn't offer any thoughts on those diets or why they didn't make it into the book. He did say that there were two teams putting the book together, a research team in Virginia and an editing team in San Francisco.
The book also considers the cost of following various programs, from Andrew Weil's emphasis on pricier organic food, to the cost of attending Weight Watchers meetings week to week. Ultimately, though, some programs are worth the extra cost.
"I don't want to recommend one diet over another," says Poppy, "but the one I believe to be the most sensible is Weight Watchers; it seems to work well for the ordinary person."
While The Diet Advisor is designed so that people can pick and choose a diet based on their own individual needs, it never hurts to call in the services of a professional.
"I think people are worried they're going to get slammed for their terrible eating habits," says Hunt. "It's not like that. What I like to do is look at what they're already doing well and try to change it as little as possible from what they're doing right."
And the most important truth about weight loss is probably the one that's hardest to swallow. It's all about changing our sedentary American habits and embracing an unfamiliar, but ultimately healthier new lifestyle.
"I really agree with the doctor/pediatrician William Dietz, who says we've got to start at the ground level and look at how we live our lives, how we live in cities and how we transport ourselves," says Dutzar. "There are a lot of really basic problems we need to address in order to really help people make lasting changes in their lives."