It's time to turn over a new leaf and resolve to get your waistline under control -- again. Will it be The South Beach Diet, Lose 21 Pounds in 21 Days, Sonoma, Atkins, The WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, or one of the gazillion other diet options?
With so many to choose from, it's not easy to figure out which diet will be the best one that works for you. To help the 65% of adults who are overweight, we asked the experts for tips to help you find a weight loss diet that is both healthy and effective.
The Best Diet That Works for You: The One You Can Stick To
All the experts agree on one thing: The best weight loss plan is one you can keep up.
"It doesn't matter how scientifically sound the program is (and many are not), how fast they work (you will regain as fast as you lost), or even how many people have tried it before. What matters is whether you can do what they say forever -- not whether you should, but whether you can." says Michelle May, MD, author of Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don't Work.
And of course, not all diet plans and programs are scientifically sound.
"Just because it is on the bookshelf, or the name is on a door, it does not mean it is a healthy, well-rounded program," says Judy Rodriguez, PhD, RD, author of The Diet Selector.
Still, it seems that the diets everyone wants are those promising the quickest, most painless results -- which, unfortunately, are usually not sustainable. Weight that is lost rapidly is usually a mixture of water, muscle, and a little fat instead of mainly fat. What's worse, losing is usually followed by gaining.
"Most people go on and off fad diets and fall into the yo-yo syndrome of dropping weight followed by gaining weight," says Rodriquez, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Florida. "The consequence is, you lower your metabolism and end up at a heavier weight than when you started."
The simple (if boring) truth is that losing weight is a simple formula: Calories in minus calories out equals weight loss, gain, or maintenance. Neither potions, detox rituals, nor supplements can change that formula.
"In order to lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories and be more active. Cleanses, creams and supplements are just gimmicks and not going to help in the long run," says Tara Gidus, MS, RD, the "Diet Diva" on the nationally broadcast morning TV show The Daily Buzz.
Just how do you know if a diet is healthy and sustainable? Experts say a sound weight loss diet plan should:
- Include exercise
- Allow a variety of foods from all the food groups
- Be created by a credentialed professional
- Promote slow and steady weight loss
- Include portion control
- Allow snacks between meals
- Not rely heavily on supplements
- Include small portions of your favorite foods and beverages
- Be based on science
- Include a maintenance plan
- Recommend drinking plenty of water
The Perfect Weight Loss Diet for You
Once you know how to determine whether a weight loss diet is healthy, you'll need to narrow your choice down to one that suits your own lifestyle.
"Evaluate the tenets of the plan to be sure it matches the way you like to eat and exercise," says Gidus, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
It's also important to choose a diet plan that won't leave you feeling hungry. Look for plans that promote foods that are high in water and are fiber-rich, like soups, fruits, and vegetables. These foods fill you up and reduce food cravings to help you stick to your diet plan without feeling deprived.
"The dynamic duo of fiber and water have the ability to fill you up on fewer calories, and when combined with lean protein such as chicken, beans, and fish, can keep cravings at bay and leave you feeling energized for hours," says weight management consultant Dawn Jackson Blatner, MS, RD.
Here's a checklist to help you find the perfect diet for you:
1. Does It Match My Eating Style?
If the plan encourages six meals daily and you struggle to eat two, chances are you won't last on the diet, no matter how healthy it is. Look for a diet that matches the way you like to eat, and ask yourself:
- Can this diet accommodate my travel or dining-out patterns?
- Does it have a family-friendly approach that everyone in the household can follow?
- Does it require special preparation and cooking?
- Can I stick to the timing and/or recommended number of meals/snacks?
2. Does It Match My Exercise Level?
Some plans encourage lots of exercise; others simply get you moving. If you're a sedentary person, plans that include hours at the gym might sound good -- but, in reality, won't last long. Select a program that has an exercise component you can do on a regular basis, and advance slowly. Find a plan that encourages physical activity that you enjoy and is doable, whether that's dancing, gardening, walking, or just cleaning the house.
"Exercise does not have to be structured [or] require special equipment or memberships," says Rodriguez. "It simply needs to be anything that increases whole-body movement."
3. Can I Live With It Forever?
"When considering any diet, ask yourself, 'Is this something I'd be willing to do every day for the rest of my life?' If not, don't bother, because as soon as you go back to what you were doing before, the weight will come back," says May.
4. Does It Include Foods I Like, Can Prepare, and Can Afford?
Are there foods or beverages you're asked to eat in combination or in quantities that are unrealistic for the long term? "Some plans require meal replacement drinks that may work for some people on the run, and others may prefer to eat food instead of drinking," says Gidus.
Plans that require unusual foods or hours in the kitchen may work for someone who has lots of time and money, but may not for you. Blatner suggests doing the 'two T' test: Make sure the recipes look tasty, and are time-saving.
5. How Quickly Will I Lose Weight?
One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, so you need to burn off lots of calories to reduce fat. Rapid weight loss is usually more fluid loss than fat loss.
"The higher weight losses that occur at the beginning of most diets are at least partially water," says May. "Weight loss can be particularly dramatic on very low-carb diets because your body gives up water when it's forced to utilize other fuel sources."
While you may want to lose weight quickly, the experts agree that slow and steady wins the race. Safe and effective weight loss averages 1-2 pounds per week, and the best way to achieve it is by burning about 500 calories per day through diet and exercise.
6. Does It Tackle My Bad Habits?
The best weight loss plan is one that doesn't make you feel like you are on a diet. Going on a "diet" can create an obsession with food, heighten cravings, and lead to a frustrated "throw in the towel because diets don't work" mentality.
Look for a plan that helps you recognize habits that can keep you from reaching a healthy weight.
"Is it sitting in front of the television munching mindlessly, drinking too many glasses of wine, eating while cooking, or maybe you finish your child's meal?" asks Rodriguez. "If so, look for a plan that will give you tips and ideas on how to break these habits."
"Whatever plan you choose, think progress, not perfection -- and aim to slowly improve your eating behaviors," adds Blatner. "You don't have to chuck all of your old ways and recipes -- incorporate the new plan into your lifestyle slowly and realistically."
7. Can I Still Have My Favorite Foods?
Some plans have long lists of "forbidden" foods and little room for indulgences. For some people, being denied certain foods can trigger cravings and binges. But others actually do better if they eliminate the "trigger" foods that touch off eating binges.
If you can't bear to live without a glass of wine with dinner, or an occasional dessert, you'll need to find a plan that allows small portions of these favorites. But if you're the type who can't stop with one glass or a bite or two of dessert, the stricter plans may be exactly what you need.
Most people can achieve success with sensible splurging, says Blatner. "If a plan restricts comfort or junk foods, it might very well lead to a belly-busting binge," she says. "Make sure the plan has healthy substitutes for crunchy chips cravings as well as choices to satisfy a sugary sweet tooth."
8. Does It Call for Small, Gradual Changes?
Some programs require significant changes and others promote a "baby step concept" -- smaller, more gradual changes. Change is difficult and the more you have to change, the harder it will be. Look for a plan that slowly changes your eating and exercise habits unless you're ready for a real challenge.
"A sensible plan encourages you to evaluate your eating habits and work on a few unhealthy habits, and once you accomplish these changes, pick a few more that you can live with," says Rodriguez.
9. Does It Call for Supplements, Cleanses, or Detox Formulas?
Healthy weight loss plans don't need to be supplemented beyond a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement for nutritional "insurance."
"There is no reason why all or most of the nutrients needed for good health cannot be obtained through food on the diet plan," says Gidus. She is leery of any diet plans that require the extra expense of cleanses, special drinks, pills, or portions -- especially if the author is profiting from their sale.
10. Do I Want a Structured Plan or One That Is More Flexible?
Some people prefer a diet plan that calls for specific foods and portion sizes to help them stay on track. Others like the flexibility of making their own food choices. As long as the diet plan includes a variety of healthy food -- fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein -- either type can work.
Just make sure the diet plan allows you enough food and calories that hunger won't undermine your efforts to lose weight.
"When calories get below 1,200 for women or 1,500 for men, it can make you light-headed, irritable, and quite miserable because your body needs these minimum amounts to function well," says Gidus.
The truth is that while they can be helpful to some people, you don't really need a diet book or program to be successful at weight loss. You can do it on your own -- but you may want to consult a registered dietitian to help you come up with a plan customized to your needs.
"Go see a registered dietitian with a three-day diary of what you typically eat, and she can create an individualized plan that meets your lifestyle and nutritional needs," says Gidus.