Hundreds of new diet books hit the shelves each year promising -- at last! -- the real secret to losing weight and keeping it off. And each year, more and more Americans join the ranks of the overweight and obese.
Why don't diets work? Recent studies show that many popular diets, even radically different diets, actually do help people lose weight -- for a while. Whether they follow a low-fat/high-carbohydrate regimen or a low-carb/high-protein one, most people shed pounds for about the first six months. Then the weight creeps back.
By the end of a year, many people are right back where they started from.
Why Fad Diets Fail
One reason fad diets fail is that they are hard to stick with. Dieters end up having to say no to too many foods they like. Another problem is that many popular diets are nutritionally unbalanced.
"If a diet is too low in carbohydrates, you can end up deficient in fiber and B vitamins," says Connie M. Weaver, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Purdue University who has played a key role in shaping federal nutrition guidelines. "If it's too low in fat, you won't get enough fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids."
Nutritional deficiencies pose health dangers. And they may also be one reason many people overeat. If a diet doesn't contain all the nutrients the body needs, some researchers speculate, people go on eating -- and overeating -- until they get them.
What's a dieter to do? The real secret to safe, effective, and nutritionally sensible way to lose weight, more and more experts say, can be found in the familiar but often overlooked USDA diet pyramid.
The Power of the Pyramid
The food pyramid, which made its debut in 1992, offers a visual distillation of the best consensus on nutrition advice for the general public. Sure, there have been controversies over the years. And the pyramid has changed to reflect evolving nutrition science.
"But many nutritionists agree that the official food pyramid represents the most scientifically sound approach to eating for good health," says Susan Krebs-Smith, PhD, chief of the risk factor monitoring and methods branch at the National Cancer Institute, who recently reviewed MyPyramid's advice.
The latest online version of the pyramid -- MyPyramid.gov -- is both interactive and customizable in two easy steps.
Step 1: Visitors to the web site can register and then fill in their own vital statistics -- height, weight, sex, and average physical activity level.
- Step 2: The program then creates a personalized eating plan based on the precise number of calories required to maintain a healthy weight.
"For the first time, the pyramid links calorie expenditure with calorie consumption," says Weaver.
That's a crucial change. By following the pyramid, you can create an eating plan based on the foods you like, along with a sensible way to gradually shed unwanted pounds.
Creating a Customized Eating Plan
Meet Jeanette Doe, a hypothetical dieter. She's 35, 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighs 140 pounds and, like most Americans, she spends fewer than 30 minutes exercising a day.
Logging onto MyPyramid.gov and clicking on "MyPyramid Plan," Jeanette enters her vital statistics. The program calculates that she needs about 2,000 calories a day to meet her current energy needs.
To make sure those calories include the nutrition she needs, the program also calculates the ideal serving amounts from the five major food groups. In Jeanette's case: 6 ounces of grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of milk, and 5.5 ounces of meat or beans.
To translate those amounts into a satisfying menu, Jeanette can click on "MyPyramid Menu Planner" and enter particular foods she likes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
With each entry, an online graphic shows how the item meets the recommended servings in each category. The program also keeps track of her calories. If MyPyramid indicates that her day's menu falls short on vegetable servings, she can add a side salad at lunch or another serving of vegetables at dinner. If it shows her overstepping her recommended calorie count, she can look for places to cut back.
As an alternative for meal planning, MyPyramid also offers a week's worth of sample menus that total 2,000 calories a day and meet all the recommended amounts of grains, fruits, vegetables, plant oils, and other categories.
Using the Pyramid to Lose Weight
MyPyramid is designed to create an eating plan that balances calories in and calories out -- a plan that will maintain your current weight. To lose weight, you can tweak that plan in several ways, experts say.
- Cut back slightly on serving sizes. If your MyPyramid plan includes a 6-ounce glass of orange juice, for example, cut back to half a glass and you'll save 52 calories a day.
- Don't spend all your discretionary calories. MyPyramid allocates a certain number of "discretionary calories" for sweets and treats. That's important, since diets that force people to say no to treats usually don't work. But you don't have to use all your discretionary calories. Skipping a treat now and then will further reduce your caloric intake.
- Establish a sensible "first step" weight goal. Let's say you currently weight 185 pounds. Instead of entering your actual weight in MyPyramid, enter a sensible goal you'd like to reach on your way to a healthy weight -- 175 pounds for example. The program will automatically recalculate your eating plan, reducing its calorie content. Once you've reached your goal, you can enter a new goal. It's always wise, if you plan to lose a significant amount of weight, to talk to your doctor first.
- Be more active. Physical activity burns calories. Your body burns roughly twice as many calories during a brisk walk as it does sitting on a sofa. If you follow the pyramid eating plan but burn an additional 500 calories in exercise, chances are you'll slowly lose weight. By exercising more, you can eat more -- a trade-off many dieters are happy to make.
Healthy Weight Loss You Can Live With
The secret behind the Pyramid Diet isn't revolutionary. Indeed, it's based on what researchers have long agreed is the only way to lose weight: consume fewer calories than you expend.
And it still requires commitment and concentration. "Even with MyPyramid you still have to be careful to watch portion sizes and make sure foods don't contain added sugar or fats," says Krebs-Smith. "When the program recommends 3 cups of milk, for instance, that's based on skim milk. Half of the recommended servings of grains are meant to be whole grains."
Following the Pyramid diet, in other words, will require most people to make changes in the way they eat. But unlike many fad diets, they are all changes for the better.