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First Place Goes to Ornish Diet continued...

What makes Ornish happiest is that Ma and colleagues focus on heart-disease prevention as the major reason for losing weight.

"There have been all these confusing studies that say people lost more weight on different diets. But more important is what happens to underlying heart disease," Ornish says. "This study is very consistent with our real findings. It is not just theoretical. Our diet doesn't just reduce risk factors, it reduces actual heart disease."

The Ma study gets a much worse review from South Beach Diet author Arthur Agatston, MD. Agatston, a cardiologist, is associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami and serves on the board of directors of the American Dietetic Association Foundation.

"It's pretty shoddy stuff," Agatston tells WebMD. "It is discouraging to say they base the paper on these principles of a heart-healthy diet that we were the first to emphasize in a popular book."

Agatston says there are thousands of South Beach Diet recipes and meal plans, and that it's unfair for Ma and colleagues to rate his entire diet on the basis of a single week's menu.

But what really irritates him, he says, is that the researchers give him a low ranking even though he stresses the same principles they do.

"To their credit, they do lay out good dietary principles for heart health -- but we were the first popular book to do that," Agatston says. "I am a cardiologist. For some nutritionists to plug something into a computer and say we are not heart healthy is a little bit silly. If they read my book, I am sure they'd agree."

Healthy Diet vs. Weight Loss Diet

Agatston, Ornish, and Ma all agree that the whole point of losing weight is to improve your health.

"It is not just about losing weight. The idea is to lose weight in a way that is helpful, not harmful," Ornish says. "If all you want to do is to lose weight, you can do it by smoking cigarettes or by going on amphetamines."

Ma says the point of the study is not to tell people to avoid any diet. Instead, he says people who want to lose weight should find a diet that works for them -- and then work with a nutritionist to gradually make heart-healthy changes.

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