Weighing diets against each other

The way to lose weight is pretty simple: Eat less and exercise more. So why are there so many diet books and plans?

Most of these plans have a gimmick. Many have catchy names — “Intuitive Eating,” “Good Mood Diet,” “Fit for Life,” “The New Sugar Busters!” — but choosing or rejecting a diet based on its name isn’t the best path to fitness.

One of the better aids is a book called “The Diet Selector: From Atkins to The Zone, More Than 50 Ways To Help You Find the Best Diet for You” by Judith C. Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a clinical dietitian and professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., enlisted colleagues in her department to evaluate 50 weight-loss diets and 25 disease management or healthful eating plans.

The author and her team used criteria that double as questions a person should ask when choosing a diet plan. One key question is “Does it have a multi-component approach, related to foods, behavior and physical activity,” Rodriguez asked in a telephone interview. “The other piece is, does it fit your lifestyle and your (food) likes and dislikes?”

While most of the diets rated in the book are weight-loss diets, Rodriguez felt strongly about including plans that promote good health. “If you follow a health program, you almost don’t need a weight-loss diet,” she says. She also recognized that “there are people who have special needs outside of weight loss. I thought it was important for them to have a sense of what the diets are and what elements they should be looking for.”

“The Diet Selector” is easy to use. Each plan merits two pages, including a brief history and description of how the diet works, pros and cons, and a sample menu. Rodriguez also rates each diet on the strength of its long-term plan, flexibility, cost, family-friendly aspects and whether the plan is rooted in science.

The introductory chapters clearly outline how to use the book and also take a practical look at what to expect from a diet.

The book presents the facts rather than recommending one diet over another, although Rodriguez has her favorites. “There are some diets that I thought had healthier approaches, such as the French Woman’s Diet, which doesn’t talk about dieting but about behavior and lifestyle values,” she says. “The Mayo (Clinic Healthy Weight Program) diet is another one.” She also singled out D.A.S.H. (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet because they are eating plans for life.

She prefers plans that aren’t restrictive, although she acknowledges that “some people really like a rigid ‘tell me what to do’ ” approach.
In choosing a diet, Rodriguez advises looking at the big picture — a plan that melds changes in eating, behavior and activity.

Even those who don’t plan to embark on a diet or health program such as those outlined in the book can still make small changes that will make a difference, the dietitian says.

“Try a few small things and forego the big dramatic changes,” she says. “Figure on two or three things you can do every day — replace soda with water; park a little farther (from a destination) and maybe cut back on dessert in the evening. These are things you can easily do for the rest of your life.”

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