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The South Beach Diet: A healthier alternative

The South Beach Diet also is divided into phases. Though its first two-week phase is similarly carb-restrictive, later phases start to incorporate more "good" carbs, such as whole-grain breads and pastas. The emphasis throughout the diet is on healthy sources of protein (lean meats, reduced-fat cheeses, low-fat dairy) and fats (nuts and fish) to create a lifestyle approach you can maintain over the long term.

Overall, our experts say, it’s a more well-rounded way to go. "South Beach is a wonderful approach for people because it is a heart-healthy Atkins," Fernstrom says.

Bottom line? Low-carb diets work for weight loss, but skip the induction phase. Don’t cut carbs below 100 grams per day, and avoid saturated fats.

Weight Watchers

Although Weight Watchers has evolved over the years, its core message is the same: Live a healthy lifestyle and you’ll lose weight. You can eat whatever you want, but each food is assigned points, and you’re limited to a certain number of points each day, based on your weight.

For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, you can eat between 22 and 27 points a day. Points are calculated based on the fat, calories, and fiber in each type of food. Eat an English muffin, and you’ve used up just two points. A large slice of veggie pizza will set you back six points.

Essentially Weight Watchers is nothing more than your basic low-fat diet, meaning lots of low-fat protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables, but it does offer one benefit.

Weight Watchers provides group support

"To me the big advantage of Weight Watchers is the social support network," says Donald K. Layman, PhD, professor emeritus of nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During group meetings members share their successes and encourage one another.

But the meetings can be a detriment if you have a demanding schedule, says Fernstrom, although you can choose to do Weight Watchers completely online. Another downside to Weight Watchers: Points don’t discriminate. It’s up to you to decide between the scoop of ice cream and baked chicken breast with four points each.

Bottom line? Weight Watchers is a healthy long-term plan if you can stick with it and watch your calories. If you don’t like counting points, the diet also offers a more flexible point-free plan, which eliminates the counting and instead focuses on foods that fill you up quickly (such as brown rice, lean meats, and avocados).

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