The Best Diets for Men

Atkins vs. Ornish, South Beach Diet vs. the Zone: Which weight loss plan really works?

From the WebMD Archives

After four years of following one diet plan after another and watching his weight yo-yo up and down, Marv Leicher finally discovered the secret formula for losing weight and keeping it off successfully.

And he’s not sharing it with anyone.

"I wasted enough of my own time following somebody else’s idea of the perfect diet plan," says Leicher, 42, an insurance claims adjuster in Iowa. "I don’t want some poor fool following my advice and then wondering why it’s not working for him. The real secret is that there is no one perfect diet. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else."

From One Diet Plan to the Next

Leicher began by following a low-fat diet. For a few months, the pounds dropped away. He bought a new set of pants with a slimmer waist. But before long, the numbers on the bathroom scale started climbing again. Frustrated, Leicher took a friend’s advice and started following the Atkins high-protein/low-carb diet. He started losing weight within the first week. After four months, he was back to wearing his new lean and mean wardrobe.

"I really thought, OK, this is it. I’m home free."

Then came the holidays -- office parties, family dinners -- and when they were over, Leicher had regained 10 pounds and was on his way back to being overweight.

"That’s when I said to myself, 'Wait a minute. I’m a capable guy. This isn’t rocket science. I should be able to figure this out.'"

So Leicher sat down and made a list of the parts of diets that seemed to work for him. He went through all the rest of the advice that he’d heard -- eat breakfast, don’t eat breakfast; choose healthy snacks, avoid snacks -- and added the tips that seemed to help. "I ended up with six rules. Frankly, I’d be embarrassed to show them to anyone else. But they were changes I knew I could make without feeling like I was doing penance for some past sins."

Within three months, he was back down to his college weight. This time, though, he stayed there. "It’s been almost a year, and I don’t even really think of myself as being on a diet. This is just the way I eat."

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How Popular Diet Plans Score

What works? What doesn’t? With some 38,000 diet books in print and 2,500 new ones hitting the shelves every year -- not to mention magazines trumpeting the ultimate new fad diet in every monthly issue -- there’s plenty to choose from. Lately, even researchers have gotten into the act. The National Institutes of Health and university medical centers around the nation have spent many years and millions of dollars to test the Atkins diet versus the South Beach, the American Heart Association diet versus the Zone.

Along the way, there have been genuine surprises. The low-fat diet, widely endorsed by many official groups, hasn’t turned out to be as safe or effective as most experts thought. Some people do manage to lose weight on low-fat diets, but usually weight loss is fairly slow -- only a pound or two a month. And while levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) fall, studies show that levels of good cholesterol also drop. Many people on low fat diets also see a rise in triglycerides, an independent risk factor for heart disease.

To almost everyone’s surprise, low-carb/high-protein diets -- Atkin’s is the model -- have proved much safer and more effective than expected. Here was a diet that featured eggs and bacon and warned people away from bread. Yet study after study has shown that for people who are overweight or obese, high-protein/low-carb diets have real advantages.

"These diets push most of the numbers in the right direction," says Ronald Krauss, MD, a senior researcher at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. "Body weight and body fat go down, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol drop, while at the same time good cholesterol levels remain up. Low-carb diets also improve insulin sensitivity even without weight loss, so they offer better protection against diabetes."

The best news for dieters is that high-protein/low-carb dieters also shed pounds faster, on average, than low-fat dieters. In the latest of a string of studies that have pitted one popular diet against another, researchers at Stanford put the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diet to the test. After 12 months, volunteers on the Atkins diet had lost more weight -- twice as much -- as people on any of the other diets.

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But if you are looking to dramatically change your shape, the numbers weren’t all that encouraging. The average weight loss was a scant 10.3 pounds.

In a slew of recent head-to-head studies of popular diets, in fact, the Atkins diet has pulled ahead in the first few months, resulting in more and faster weight loss. Many experts have come around to accept the notion that protein-rich foods may be more satiating than carb-rich foods.

Unfortunately, the Atkins lead typically evaporates by the end of a year. In a 2006 British study that compared four popular weight loss plans, for example, volunteers lost weight faster on the high-protein/low-carb plan. But after a year, all four diets had resulted in about the same weight loss, about 13 pounds. What’s more, several studies comparing diets have seen very high drop-out rates. Even with scientists looking over their shoulders, it turns out people have trouble sticking with most diets.

The Best Diet Plan

Disheartening? Sure. But lurking behind the generally glum news about fad diets and popular weight loss programs are individual success stories -- and important information for anyone looking to lose weight.

"If you look at all these studies, you find that on almost any diet, some people do very well and others don’t lose any weight at all," says Janet King, PhD, professor of nutrition at the University of California, Berkeley. High-protein diets may have an initial advantage in jump-starting weight loss. But all weight loss plans have one thing in common: They restrict certain kinds of foods and thus limit calories. "Most diets work in the short-term, and the reason is they simplify decisions about what you’re going to eat," says King. "They take variety out of the diet. Some restrict carbohydrates. Some restrict fat. But the end result is that they offer a way to eat fewer calories."

The reason some people succeed is also simple: motivation. "What really matters is compliance, which is another way of saying someone is motivated enough to stick with a diet," King says.

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The best diet plan, in other words, is the one that you’re most likely to be able to follow for the long haul. And that’s likely to be different for different people. Men who are basically vegetarians are going to have a tough time following the Atkins diet. Steak-and-eggs men aren’t going to stick with a low-fat, mostly veggie diet plan for long.

Kathleen M. Vohs, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, believes choosing a regimen that most closely matches the way you like to eat is crucial. She offers a provocative reason. "Studies show that self-control is a limited resource," says Vohs. "People may have an easy time giving something up the first time. But when people are repeatedly asked to exhibit self-control, that ability begins to erode."

It’s easier to eat a healthy meal for breakfast, in other words, than to stick with a diet plan once dinner rolls around, especially if it means saying no to foods you love. And by extension, it’s easier to stick with a diet that doesn’t eliminate most of the foods you love.

One Man’s Diet Plan

That’s a lesson Marv Leicher took to heart when he decided to abandon popular diets and fashion his own weight loss regimen. "Basically, I picked and chose from the strategies that seemed easiest for me to follow," he says. "It was no big deal to give up soft drinks and fruit drinks, so I did that religiously. No liquid calories. I’m not the kind of guy who can eat just half of what’s in front of him, so I gave up trying to divide portions. Instead, I decided, no desserts. At lunch, I used to go out with people from the office. Now I bring a cup of yogurt and some trail mix, and if the weather’s good I take a half hour walk and eat a quick lunch. Little stuff like that."

Little stuff. But for Leicher, it adds up to big results. Over the past year, he’s lost 30 pounds. Best of all, he’s keeping them off.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 16, 2009

Sources

SOURCES: Ronald Krauss, MD, senior researcher, Children’s Hospital, Oakland, Research Institute. Gardner et al. Journal of the American Medical Association, March 7, 2007. Truby et al. British Medical Journal, June 17, 2006. Dansinger et al. JAMA, Jan 5, 2005. Janet King, PhD, professor of nutrition, University of California, Berkeley. Kathleen M. Vohs, PhD, assistant professor of marketing, University of Minnesota.

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