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August 31, 2013 at 4:18 PMComments: 1 Faves: 0

Atkin's, South Beach, Paleo... Doctor V's Review of the Most Popular Diets

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I'm on a diet. I finally hit that moment of reckoning where I knew something needed to be done. Call it a breakthrough. Call it a turning point.  Call me too cheap to buy a whole new wardrobe. Call me whatever. That was five weeks ago, and I finally hit the 10 pound mark on the scales today.  I'm proud of myself, but I'm not there yet. It's been hard work to be honest. So this week when I bought my healthy groceries, I got my pop culture fix in the cue of the grocery check-out. These magazines make weight loss look simple, like there's a secret within the pages of their mag. One read, "Seven pounds in seven days without exercise." I beg to differ. As a doctor, I've counseled scores of patients with their weight loss efforts, and I've seen plenty of diet trends.

What Makes a Good Diet?

In theory, it seems that the most important aspect of a "good" diet is one that successfully allows someone to lose weight. However, since most diets lead to a rebound of more weight gained than that lost, there must be factors that are more important than the numbers at the pinnacle of weight loss. Thus, overall sustainability and the creation of a new mindset for the long haul are essential for weight loss to be successful. In fact, the term diet, with the implication that it involves a program or a course, leads to the notion that there is a finite end to the change that is made, allowing for a return to the way things were. Any successful diet needs to incorporate a new and sustained way of life.

Following are some of the more popular diets over the last couple of decades.

The Atkins Diet

The Atkins Diet first hit the mainstream in 1972, but resurfaced with vigor in 2002. It's figurehead, Dr. Atkins, was a practicing cardiologist who drew upon previous literature suggesting that an extremely low carbohydrate diet would yield weight loss. Atkins taught in his best-selling book that fat takes more of the body's energy to metabolize than carbohydrates and offered a metabolic advantage. He further brought the notion of the glycemic index into the spotlight. 

In short, the glycemic index is a food's tendency to raise blood sugar levels, the speed at which it hits the blood, and the burden on the pancreas to produce insulin. Foods with a high glycemic index cause a quick raise and crash in blood sugar levels. This leads to a desire to raise the blood sugar levels or consume more carbs.

While participants in the Atkins programs lost weight and crushed the vicious cycle of consuming high glycemic index foods, there were issues. A life without carbs is just fine in the short run, but we do gain energy from carbohydrates, and Atkins dieters commonly felt fatigued. This fatigue led to a desire for carbs. Just walking by a bakery could bring on fits of carb withdrawal. Every person I have known to have found initial success with the Atkins diet eventually found their way back to carbs and "found" the weight they had lost.

The South Beach Diet

The South Beach Diet, also developed by a cardiologist, built upon the positive attributes of the Atkins diet, focusing more on long-term application. The diet is broken down into three phases in which phase one looks much like the Atkins Diet and then moves toward a prudent, life-long regimen in phase three. 

The program looks heavily at the glycemic index and calls for elimination and eventual moderation of high glycemic index foods in favor of low glycemic index forms of carbohydrates. Fats are also examined and placed into good and bad categories. Trans-fats are eliminated, and saturated fats are reduced, favoring unsaturated fat and omega-3-fatty acids.

It's hard to find anything wrong with The South Beach Diet. The book educates participants about nutrition as a means to "reset" the metabolism and move toward a life of eating prudently and wisely.

The Paleo Diet

Paleo Diet participants are called upon to find their inner caveman.  This diet supports food intake typical of what would have been consumed by humans during the prehistoric paleolithic period. The diet is rich in foods that can be hunted or gathered, such as meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, and nuts. Grains, legumes and heavily-cultivated foods are to be avoided as are processed foods and sugars. The diet advocates higher amounts or protein and lower amounts of carbohydrates. 

Man has quickly evolved from hunter-gatherer to a consumer of processed, grain-heavy, carb-rich foods, while our genetic makeup remains much the same. Still, there has been some criticism to The Paleo Diet in regards to the genetic-based claims. There is no way to accurately assess paleolithic genetics and determine the actual foods that were eaten. Still, it raises a consciousness about dietary proportions, food choice, and their glycemic index. Sticking to this diet despite the prevalence of the SAD standard of eating raises some challenges for "supermarket hunter-gatherers."

Body for Life

The Body for Life emerged from its namesake book written by fitness guru Bill Phillips. This way of eating calls for participants to eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day accompanied by a rigorous exercise routine. The diet dumbs down food planning by having participants make a meal out of a protein and a carb that is either the size of their open hand or their fist, balanced with a small amount of healthy fat. For example, a typical meal would consist of a hand-sized chicken breast and a fist-sized potato. Five to six meals per day are recommended, and shakes and bars can be used to supplement when prepared food is not available. 

The theory behind Body for Life is that the body's metabolism is kept in a constant cycle of input and output rather than huge excess that gets shunted to storage (fat). Body for Life makes scientific sense, especially when low glycemic index carbs are consumed and paired with exercise. This is a lifestyle, however, that requires a daily conscious effort. Bill Phillips is the first to admit this but maintains that those who live this lifestyle will look and feel so good that they will stick with it.

Weight Watchers

Weight Watchers is an undisputed #1 in the weight loss arena. Countless locales around the country offer participants a place to go and gain inspiration, knowledge, and accountability in their efforts. Weight Watchers encourages their members to account for calories on a weekly basis. Weight-based goals are set and distilled to a weekly allotment of points. Foods are given points based on carb, protein, fat, and fiber content, and these points are logged and accounted by participants. Weekly meetings and weigh-ins are aimed at keeping participants on track and addressing pitfalls and lauding success. Many have found success on Weight Watchers and have adapted the lifestyle long-term. The program supports eating in moderation and accounts for an individual's eating behaviors.

In Conclusion

Weight loss is an individual journey. To unlock success, the unique combination must be determined on an individual level. This may come though trial and error, as well as insight into self tendencies. I believe that achieving a healthy diet involves attention to the glycemic index, and the science around the above diets supports this belief. Still, in 21st century America, a diet devoid of all sugar isn't realistic. Don't focus on eating perfectly, but rather on eating smarter with consistency and sustainability.

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1 Comment

  • Diets are tough! I've never been on or tried any of these diets. I have however given up food. I remember back in high school my first food I gave up was potato chips.
    See it used to be when I got home from school I would put some chips in a bowl and then do my homework.
    That is the first time I noticed I was getting a little chunky! So I gave up the chips and walla! Within 2-3 weeks the weight fell off.
    Nowadays I think, I wish it was that easy. You see the older you get the harder it seems to loose the unwanted pounds.

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