Health & Fitness

Health Magazine studied 22 of the best-known, most widely touted, "diets", and evaluated them in a TimeLife book called "The Diet Advisor: The Complete Guide to Choosing the Right Diet for You". My local Barnes & Noble bookstore closed it out at $5, so I condensed it here to help persuade you to buy it and check out that diet you've been considering or your overall eating plan in general. Tighten your seatbelt; this crams about 160 pages of diet reviews into one page. For details, buy the book. It's exceptionally well organized and presented. You can easily research one diet, compare many of them, learn how to evaluate any diet not addressed here, and/or just read this book (or the last three years of this column) and forget the lesser 3/4 of these 26 diet books.

It begins by discussing the basics of sound eating and the fallacies of the different types of bad diets, as you've read previously in this column. Remember: each thumbnail book/diet sketch here began as eight pages in The Diet Advisor, so the book will greatly add to your evaluation of any of these diets. Many of these diet books are available in discount racks, and I've grouped them into four categories of my choosing (the order within each category is not significant) based on The Diet Advisor's assessments. The books indicated with the * are not in The Diet Advisor; they were very briefly reviewed in Health Magazine's January/February 2002 issue.

Category I: Excellent, sound, healthy, pleasurable dining.

Any of these approaches will taste great, make you healthier, and help you manage your weight permanently ... if you don't eat too many calories. These are not crash/fad diets; they represent the right way to dine for the rest of your extended life, whether you're 8 or 80. Of course, either age extreme may require some adjustments.

  • Low-Fat Lies; Vigilante and Flynn: Explains why low-fat diets and, worse yet, low-carbohydrate diets are hazardous to our health. Recommends eating plenty of the right foods - and there are plenty of them. It may be the most sensible way on the planet to eat, for both healthy people and heart disease patients. May not be rigorous enough for accountants who actually enjoy rigid diets.
  • Weight Watchers' 1-2-3 Success (Plan): Sound approach to healthy eating, good food, exercise, and peer group moral support. Eating and exercising with a calculator and group willpower. Costs time and money and lots of calculations. Even without buying their food (there's no reason to), it runs $600+ each year in fees. So how much is your health -- maybe your life -- worth?
  • Dieting with the Duchess; Sarah, Duchess of York: Surprisingly and impressively sound celebrity twist on the Weight Watchers' 1-2-3 Success (Plan). Bolsters the already sound WW1-2-3 plan with extra emotional support, reduces its demanding rigor, and adds a personal touch.
  • Volumetrics; Rolls: Very sound slant on eating. Don't count calories; just fill up on healthy, tasty, low-calorie-density foods ... and exercise. No starving yourself, no nutritional deficiencies, no butts ... er, ... buts.
  • * Get a Real Food Life: Whiteson: Buy the book for its excellent, sound, educational, easy-to-read, stand-alone approach to pleasurable and healthy eating, or buy it for its optional, rigorous, bookkeeping-intensive but clearly-presented 8-week permanent diet makeover. Either approach will improve your health and habits. It denies us our cravings, but we'll soon forget them.
  • Eating Well for Optimum Health; Andrew Weil: Solid nutritional science, a variety of good food, exercise ... and some spiritual advice you can take or leave. Focuses on a healthy eating lifestyle and philosophy, and leaves losing weight (by calorie control) up to you.
[Strictly FYI, from a brief newspaper article on "The Peanut Butter Diet": It's not a diet; it's just solid, healthy eating with a healthy gimmick, as long as you don't overdose on you-know-what (a healthy but calorie-dense unsaturated fat). Its trans (hydrogenated) fat content is miniscule.] Category II: Prescription diets for heart patients.

Extreme, challenging prescription diets for highly motivated and deadly serious heart disease patients, these probably restrict fat too much for even them, often leading to elevated triglycerides, lowered HDL (good) cholesterol, and impaired nutrition absorption. Updated science says substituting more monounsaturated fats (olive and canola oil, nuts, etc.) for some of the carbs in these diets will help most heart patients even more and provide a good lifetime diet for other highly motivated dieters. These diets as presented are hard to stick with, and should literally be used only with your cardiologist's prescription (and only if s/he also has read "Low-Fat Lies" above).

  • Eat More, Weight Less; Dean Ornish: See last paragraph.
  • The 20/30 Fat and Fiber Diet Plan; Mirkin: Promotes high fiber intake and hard play, but far too restrictive on fat.
  • The Pritikin Principle: Pritikin: Eat foods based on their number of calories per ounce - basically low-fat, high-carb -- and get a little light exercise. Sounds like the Volumetrics principle, but restricts fat much more.
  • Choose to Lose; Goor: A little less severe and allows a little more (but probably not enough) fat, but is based on unsupported claims which contradict most research.
Category III: Good middle-of-the-road approaches, with flaws.
  • The Diet Cure; Ross: Good, healthy food, but too many supplements. Most people will gain weight even on this healthy diet simply because it pushes at least 500 excess daily calories. The simple cure for The Diet Cure? Eat less of it or play harder and skip most of the pills.
  • * Sound Mind, Sound Body; Kirsch: No diet here; primarily an exercise book, plus some mostly sound eating advice and great-sounding fresh food recipes. But eating meat transfers the individual animal's karma to us? Come on!
  • Dr. Bob Arnot's Revolutionary Weight Control Program: There's a fairly healthy, low-fat, high-fiber, high-exercise plan in there somewhere, even if limited. Old stuff, unscientific at best, and requires a complete and daunting diet overhaul, obsessive planning, and eating by a busy alarm clock. You'd better eat alone to accommodate the rigor and have very healthy liver and kidneys (he wisely advises tests to preclude damage) to handle the high protein.
Category IV: Low-Carbohydrate Bad Science (LCBS). The global medical community overwhelmingly considers the many low-carb, high-protein and/or high-fat diets (if you eat fewer carbs, you have to eat more protein or fat because there's nothing else to eat) to be high-risk diets based on many false, harmful claims. The low-carb high-protein version promotes dehydration, constipation, low blood pressure, heart attacks, fatigue, bad breath, muscle and calcium loss, and may promote osteoporosis and Alzheimer's disease and exacerbate liver and kidney disease. Low-carb, high-fat diets are even worse, further increasing the risks of cardiovascular disease and malnutrition. It's all LCBS (my phrase, not the professionals', but it reflects their tens of thousands of pages of research and reports succinctly).

The greatest fallacy of the LCBS hype is its underlying false premise that most of us are insulin resistant and must therefore avoid high-glycemic-index carbohydrates, which can raise blood sugar in insulin resistant people. (Obesity, not sugar, causes most insulin resistance, and only excess calorie intake causes obesity.) I've grouped these diets here at the bottom of this list... in every respect. If you find your diet here, beware; this can be dangerous ground.

  • The Zone; Sears: The cave man diet - lean meat, nuts, fruits, vegetables - balanced to a decimal point with scales and calculators. Fairly healthy basis, recommends exercise, and will shed weight (only because it's low-calorie). But it includes significant medical risks, and is obsessed with schedules and decimal points. Reduces food to a prescription medicine rather than the healthy joy it should be. Borderline LCBS.
  • Sugar Busters!; Steward (he's a businessman, folks, not a nutritionist), Good basics, but too much protein, saturated fat, and "carbophobia". Will lose weight (until you tire of it or get sick from it) because it's low in calories. Classic, paranoid, unscientific, nutritionally impaired LCBS.
  • The Schwarzbein Principle; Schwarzbein: LCBS plus supplements and exercise.
  • Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Food: LCBS, food-combining, high sat-fat ... it's Schwarzbein gone amuck. Somers is a TV STAR, not a nutritionist. She looks mahvellous, but her diet will harm her health. Among the worst of the lot.
  • Fit for Life: Diamond: Graze by the clock; an apple at 11:30, peanut butter with Mandarin oranges at 4:15, etc. Requires bales of fresh produce, and its credibility ranks right up there with astrology and biorythms. No breakfast? Toxins? Food combining? Total LCBS.
  • The Body Code; Cooper: Eat according to your "body type" (don't ask). Contains some good foods, requires addiction to exercise (not necessarily a bad thing), denies many favorite foods. Could produce dangerous dietary deficiencies even with its dependence on supplements.
  • Stop Your Cravings; Workman: The body type diet warmed over.
  • Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution: Cut carbs, eat sat-fat. Quick early weight loss, but downright dangerous in the long term. Harmful foods, false scares.
  • The Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program; Heller: Recommends less sugary junk food and more vegetables, but still classic LCBS. It's just not true. Allows too much dangerous sat-fats and total calories, and its most challenging deprivation requirements are based on its poorest BS.
  • The 5-Day Miracle Diet; Puhn: Nibble very specific foods by a rigorous clock 16 hours a day. Promotes exercise, but its entire premise is that most of us are hypoglycemic (i.e., have chronic low blood sugar), which is in fact a rare disorder not caused by diet. Substitutes celebrity anecdotes and LCBS for research and facts. Dangerously restrictive, and it's a lifetime diet; the "5 days" is just to establish "good blood sugar".
  • Protein Power; Eades: Classic LCBS, based on false, unsupported premises. Its weight loss comes at the expense of your health and your free time, the latter because it requires rigid, rigorous carb-counting and extensive lab tests.
  • * The Paleo Diet; Cordain: This sham (just quoting Health magazine) advises us to skip dairy, cereals, and legumes because cavemen's diet protected them from everything from cancer to tooth decay, and cavemen didn't have cows, Kellogg's, or Green Giant. Of course, they died by their mid-20s. [The book's front-cover endorsement is from the authors of "Protein Power" ... a red flag.]
  • The Scarsdale Diet; Tarnower: Lose a pound a day on classic, harmful, dangerous, restrictive, obsessive, excessive LCBS and extreme food deprivation.
Do you see the trend here?
  1. Good = whole grains, vegetables, fruits, some dairy, a little lean meat, monounsaturated fats, fiber, fluids, exercise ... the basics.
  2. Bad = LCBS, inflated promises, sat and trans fats.

Once again:

  • "Carbophobia" is a kernel of truth blown all out of rational and scientific proportion.
  • Habits and cravings do not equate to addiction.
  • Insulin resistance is the result, not the cause, of obesity, and is not rampant.
  • Weight loss/gain is all about calories in minus calories out.
  • The average American's primary path to better health is eating fewer calories and exercising more.
There are STILL no safe, long-term-effective, canned shortcuts to health or losing weight! The bottom line remains unchanged: learn to enjoy healthy food, eat plenty of it, virtually eliminate saturated fat and trans fats and similar junk food, exercise, and get more sleep and water. The simplest approach for many is to stop cold turkey on bringing sat-fat and junk food into our homes. Just stop buying -- and soon you'll no longer miss -- bacon, ice cream, butter/margarine, whole milk, burgers, cheese, and processed crap like cookies and chips and donuts. The amount of those I've eaten in the last 15 years would fit in one mixing bowl ... and I eat like a horse afire. We should die from age and genes, not junk food, and eating our fill of healthy food and burning it off at hard play is a great way to do that. If you prefer donuts to a longer life, perhaps it's your life that needs improving.

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