Diet Wars: Which Plan Is Best?

What fuels such fierce loyalty among different diet plans?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 27, 2003
5 min read

Whether you count calories, fat grams, carbs, or points, your choice of weight-loss programs is bound to spark debate at the dinner table and the water cooler.

With more than two-thirds of all American adults currently tipping the scales and carrying around a bit more weight than they should, it's no surprise that the popularity of commercial diet plans and weight- loss programs has soared in recent years. In fact, the government estimates that Americans spend an average of more than $30 billion each year on weight-loss products and services.

When there's that much money (and fat) at stake, weight-loss programs work hard to build customer loyalty and often prey on the weaknesses of disillusioned dieters searching for the next big thing that will help them finally win the battle of the bulge.

But what inspires the religious-like fervor found among avid followers of commercial diet plans, like Atkins, The South Beach Diet, Weight Watchers, and others? Is it possible for people with opposing diet strategies to coexist peacefully in the same household?

Experts say most people who diet have a long history of dieting failure because less than 5% of dieters are successful at keeping the weight off for five years or more. So for many people, choosing a new weight-loss program offers a way to conquer their fear of failure and triggers powerful emotions.

"If they make an emotional connection it creates a possibility to fight their history of defeatism and failure," says health psychologist Daniel Stettner, PhD, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. "It allows a person to not only make a commitment to the plan, but it also creates the bond for optimism and hope."

Once they've committed themselves to a diet plan, researchers say loyalty helps them stick with it.

"People feel committed and loyal to their diets because it helps them to stay on the diet. If they didn't have that loyalty and commitment, they would doubt what they're doing in the first place," says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, LMHC, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Dorfman says it takes such an enormous amount of energy to stick to any weight-loss program, and people can almost become violent in their defensiveness about their choice of diet, much like religious fanatics.

"I don't support the vehemence about dieting, but you almost have to be enthusiastic about what you're following, otherwise it's going to be incredibly difficult to stay on," Dorfman tells WebMD.

Experts say weight-loss programs constantly reinvent themselves to appeal to dieters' past failures and give them a new ray of hope. People are also drawn to diet plans and books that offer a new or novel approach to weight loss for the same reasons.

Some diets also appeal to dieters' weaknesses by allowing them to eat as much as they want of certain foods while eliminating other foods.

Stettner says the high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet is popular because a lot of people are meat eaters, and a lot people get into trouble by eating too many carbohydrates, such as pastas, cookies, and potato chips.

"They get an escape from a food they may be out of control with, [such as] carbohydrates, and then they get free rein with medical permission to eat foods that are frequently taboo in a diet," says Stettner. "It's kind of a 'have your cake and eat it too' attitude."

Dorfman says that for some people it's also easier to get into a routine with a weight-loss program that allows them to forget about a whole situation, whether it's eliminating dessert or eliminating carbs. But others are drawn to diet plans that allow them to pick from a broader variety of foods.

"It's a given that everybody is a nutrition expert and everyone has an opinion about dieting and what one should or should not do," says Stettner. "When a person chooses to go on some sort of modified food program, you're going to have to expect judgments."

But experts say once a person has made a commitment to a weight-loss program, there is often little others can do to sway their beliefs. Instead, it's usually best to agree to disagree on weight-loss programs unless the dieter's health is in danger.

For dieters looking to avoid an argument at the dinner table, Stettner offers the following tips:

  • Call ahead and alert the restaurant or your host of your dietary needs.
  • Don't criticize others' dietary habits, which will only give them the opportunity to do the same to you.
  • Tell your dining companions that you value spending time with them, but your diet isn't up for debate.
  • Plan social outings that don't center on food.

For people following different diets within the same household, putting together a family meal can be a real struggle.

"For dinner, he had to get used to eating the way I eat. It's either eat what I make or cook yourself," says a 28-year-old, low-carb diet follower and physical therapist from Long Island, who didn't wish to use her name.

She says her husband sometimes feels guilty eating cereal, pretzels, and other snacks at home, but he keeps his carbs in a separate "carb cabinet" so she doesn't have to look at them.

Dorfman says strategies like a carb cabinet can help, but there also has to be a middle ground in any dieting family.

"You want to support your spouse or partner in anything that they're doing, so if they're on a high-protein diet, don't bring cookies in the house, go eat them outside the home," says Dorfman.

But she says there also has to be some flexibility on the high-protein diet side. For example, side dishes can be eaten by the partner on the other diet, and the meat or fish portion can be prepared at the same time to make everybody happy.

Stettner agrees, and says it's more important to communicate about dieting issues and recognize the common bonds that unite dieters -- no matter what their weight-loss strategy.

"It's more than just a diet plan, it's about being a healthier person," says Stettner.