There's something to be said about going it alone with the guidance of a tome. One thing the sales figures for "The South Beach Diet" illustrate -- 9 million copies were sold in the first two years it was published -- is that many people turn to diet books to help them lose weight. And there are plenty of good and bad ones out there.
Dean Ornish's vegetarian \"Eat More, Weigh Less\" (*Est. $10 for the book) was originally developed in the 1980s to help prevent heart disease. He recommends eating less than 10 percent of your daily calories from fat, since the less fat and cholesterol your body needs to process, the lower your blood levels will be. His recipes focus on vegetables, fruits and legumes; most dairy, olives, nuts and processed foods are avoided. Ornish also advises getting at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise per day, in addition to stress-relieving activities like yoga. These are the hallmarks of his Reversal Diet that has been shown to actually reverse heart disease.
In the American Dietetic Association's review of popular weight-loss plans, "Eat More, Weigh Less" received the top score for dietary quality. Experts also like that it emphasizes exercise in addition to cutting fat and calories. It's based on sound nutritional principles and can certainly help you lose weight. But a diet is worthless if you can't stick with it for very long, and that's where experts fault the "Eat More, Weigh Less" plan. Dr. Robert Eckel of the American Heart Association tells WebMD.com, "Because it is so rigid and doesn't allow a lot of food choices for those used to the Western diet, not many people will stay on it for the long term."
We saw this complaint repeated on Amazon.com, where the Ornish book receives a 4-star rating (out of 5) from nearly 70 reviews. Some users say the plan helped them lose weight and improve their cardiovascular health, but others complain that the low-fat recipes don't taste very good and there's not enough variety. One user writes, "You are left to a spartan regimen of leaves and stems, sugary fruits, and piles and piles of sticky starches."
\"The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan\" (*Est. $5 for the book) hasn't been around as long as Ornish's approach -- the first book was copyrighted in 2000 -- but it gets top marks whenever it's profiled. Barbara Rolls, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences and biobehavioral health at Penn State University, formulated Volumetrics to help dieters shift from calorie-dense foods to less-caloric foods such as fruits, vegetables, soups and stews that fill you up. She shows images of high-density foods next to the more desirable low-density foods to help you visualize what you should eat. Her plan includes cooking strategies to reduce fat, and suggests that meals begin with a low-calorie soup or salad that takes the edge off your hunger and makes you feel fuller so you eat fewer calories overall. The program can be adjusted to accommodate vegetarians. A panel of nutrition and medical experts that reviewed 26 diet plans for U.S. News & World Report like this diet's emphasis on "smart, sustainable tweaks to your eating habits."
Volumetrics earns the highest overall score in an independent, expert evaluation of eight weight-loss plans. Professional reviewers say Volumetrics has a lower dropout rate than other programs because it's not overly restrictive and the recipes taste good, even if they take some time to make. Health magazine also recommends Volumetrics; Samantha Heller, RD, one expert on the panel, says the program is "based on sound nutrition principles and overall healthy choices." The book includes 150 recipes, and Health magazine testers were generally impressed with their quality and variety. However, they would have liked to see more challenging fitness guidelines beyond the 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity prescribed.
WebMD.com includes opinions from three nutritionists in its lengthy review of Volumetrics. They generally like the plan -- one calls it a "slam dunk" -- but say the emphasis on preparing your own meals may be a problem for time-challenged readers. Ultimately, the WebMD review concludes, "For people who dedicate themselves, Volumetrics could prove a sensible and satisfying way to lose weight."
About 100 Amazon.com reviewers are very pleased with the Volumetrics plan. Although a few criticize it for offering simple, commonsense advice -- one reader says the entire book could have been condensed into a single chapter -- others like that its approach is "evidence-based AND delicious." Some readers would prefer not to have to count calories, but others appreciate the tips on how to reduce calorie counts without giving up favorite foods. Most notably, Volumetrics draws expert kudos for not eliminating or restricting entire food groups, as is common practice in many book-based diet plans. It doesn't have the highly restrictive high-protein phase that draws both expert criticism and reader complaints for other diets, nor does it prescribe an intricate plan for short-term weight loss, then leave you floundering to keep the weight off once the diet's over.
We also found excellent reviews for Bob Greene's \"The Best Life Diet\" (*Est. $6 for the book), although this plan hasn't been studied in a clinical setting. Health magazine recommends the program, calling it a "sane, healthy approach to overall lifestyle changes." Daily calorie totals vary depending on your activity level and gender, and experts say "The Best Life Diet" isn't overly restrictive. Vegetarians will find a lot to like, including a number of veggie-friendly entrŽe recipes.
The health experts at WebMD.com say "The Best Life Diet" is "an easy-to-follow, no-gimmicks approach to a healthy diet and lifestyle." They like its focus on making lifestyle changes rather than short-term dieting, and the plan gets high marks for prescribing gradual changes rather than drastically slashing calories or eliminating entire food groups. Health magazine says it sets realistic expectations and emphasizes overall health in addition to weight loss. The diet's online component (*Est. $10 per month), which includes message boards and support groups, is another plus. Greene focuses less on calories and more on incorporating healthful foods, so Health magazine cautions that those who need strict guidelines might be disappointed.
"The Best Life Diet" gets a 4-star rating (out of 5) from nearly 150 reviews at Amazon.com, where readers appreciate the holistic approach to weight loss. "Bob Greene does a nice job of talking about more than just the diet portion of trying to lose weight," writes one. "It is not just about what you eat, but why." However, a number of reviewers are annoyed with Greene's frequent plugs for his website and Best Life-approved products, such as Yoplait yogurt.
\"Enter The Zone\" (*Est. $19 for the book) is another well-recommended diet book, although it has faded from the spotlight in the past few years. Developed by Dr. Barry Sears, this approach -- sometimes called simply the Zone Diet -- emphasizes maintaining a strict ratio of 40 percent of calories from carbs, 30 percent from protein and 30 percent from fat. Sears claims the correct ratio of protein to carbs can help regulate insulin levels and discourage the body from storing fat. Dieters are instructed to include some sort of lean protein at every meal; meal plans are provided. Reviewers like the Zone Diet's focus on whole foods, but most experts note that no scientific studies back up its advice. "That doesn't mean Sears' theories are wrong, it's just that no scientific evidence has proven that his program works," say editors at WebMD.com.
Even so, "Enter The Zone" gets mostly positive ratings at Amazon.com, where more than 200 reviews combine to give the book a 4-star rating (out of 5). Most readers say they like the diet and report moderate amounts of weight loss. "It's difficult at first, but once you begin to see results it becomes almost addictive," one owner writes. However, some say they can't get enough calories using the prescribed meal plans, and find themselves hungry all the time. Others complain that determining the correct macronutrient ratios can get complicated.
\"The South Beach Diet\" (*Est. $10 for the book) also receives mostly positive reviews on Amazon.com, with a rating of 4 stars out of 5 from more than 800 users. Readers typically appreciate this book's focus on natural foods, and say it represents a useful, comprehensive plan for healthy living. The updated version has a section dedicated to exercise, although not much else has changed. Most reviewers are happy that there's no calorie counting with this program. Instead, you work through three diet stages based on the principles of the glycemic index -- a measure of how quickly foods affect your blood sugar levels.
The first phase is the biggest hurdle; you eat only lean meat and a limited selection of vegetables for two weeks. Writing for Health magazine, Maureen Callahan, MS, RD, describes South Beach as "the best of the reduced-carb regimens." Nonetheless, she dislikes the restrictiveness of the first phase and suggests dieters go straight to phase two, which adds in low glycemic index grains, fruits and vegetables. The third phase -- designed for long-term maintenance -- is more permissive, with what one reviewer describes as just a few guidelines to help you "eat normal foods in normal portions."
However, "The South Beach Diet" isn't perfect, and Callahan isn't the only dietitian to express concern about the very restrictive first phase. Another worries about possible electrolyte imbalances, and one writing for WeightLossResources.co.uk isn't happy with all the claims made in the book. "The South Beach Diet" receives more than 70 reviews on Viewpoints.com, most of which indicate that they felt good while on the diet, but others report struggling with cravings and having a hard time getting through the first two weeks. If you need extra support, you can purchase one-on-one counseling, plus access to message boards and tools such as grocery shopping planners, through SouthBeachDiet.com (*Est. $10 for the book). Experts praise this component of the plan; in fact, the editors of Good Housekeeping named it their favorite online diet website overall out of 10 they evaluated.
If the cost of purchasing a diet book is prohibitive, or you're just not willing to give up any more space on your bookshelf, you can download a free 64-page booklet detailing the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. You can find commercial books for sale that discuss this diet, but the NHLBI helped develop the original version that, as the name implies, was meant to lower blood pressure. A panel of experts declared DASH the best diet out of the 26 they evaluated for U.S. News & World Report, giving it high marks for nutrition, safety, heart health and short-term weight loss. The free pamphlet includes everything you need to calculate how many calories you should take in and, by extension, how many servings of each food type you should eat. However, because weight loss isn't this diet's primary goal, you must build a calorie deficit into your plan to lose weight.
It may be hard to find a print copy of Rosemary Conley's "Eat Yourself Slim" in the United States, but you can purchase the book online from RosemaryConley.com or from U.K. retailers, or simply download a digital copy (*Est. $16). You receive a personal calorie allowance based on your height, weight and how much you want to lose, and are encouraged to eat regular meals (no skipping breakfast), participate in group exercise and eliminate extremely high-fat foods.
"Eat Yourself Slim" is associated with "Diet Trials," a study of 300 dieters that was both published in the British Medical Journal and publicized as a BBC reality television show. Although all the dieters reported similar levels of weight loss after six months, only two groups -- one of which followed the "Eat Yourself Slim" diet -- saw continued success afterward. "Eat Yourself Slim" was also one of four commercial weight-loss programs evaluated in a study published in Public Health Nutrition; researchers found that it helped lower subjects' LDL (bad) cholesterol.
If you prefer following a precise, carefully defined plan, some reviewers say \"The 17 Day Diet\" (*Est. $14 for the book plus food costs) may serve as a "psychological distraction" to keep you focused and entertained. However, readers report being flummoxed right from the start, because it's actually a 68-day diet with four cycles of 17 days each. Experts say the very intricate guidelines are confusing; if readers make it past a very low-carbohydrate, calorie-restricted diet in the first 17-day cycle, they must then "calorie zigzag" -- altering their caloric intake every day for the next 17 days. Cycle three is what one reviewer calls a "balanced low-calorie diet," and cycle four is intended to create a lifelong habit of calorie zigzagging, also known as calorie cycling.
A registered dietitian writing for WebMD interviewed several other experts who like the diet itself but not its gimmicky title or the theory behind it, which one politely describes as "very loosely based on science." Another expert says at CalorieCount.com that there's no scientific proof that calorie cycling is effective, and the diet doesn't really address the day-to-day behavioral issues of creating a healthy eating plan. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, which also owns CalorieCount.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
Extremely restrictive high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets like Atkins aren't as popular as they once were. The Atkins diet, which completely eliminates starchy vegetables, fruits, grains and all types of added sugar -- but encourages high levels of protein, oil and fat intake, along with greens -- has always been controversial. Devotees defend it staunchly, and a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that women dieting with Atkins had the greatest weight loss after 12 months, and comparable (or even better) health outcomes including lipid profiles, than dieters using the other three weight-loss plans evaluated. However, Atkins finished in last place in a Journal of the American Dietetic Association comparison of eight weight-loss plans evaluated for dietary quality. Many experts worry about the nutritional imbalances that can result from completely eliminating or severely restricting food groups, and express strong concerns about this diet's long-term safety.
The so-called "Eco-Atkins" diet is a vegan version of Atkins, concocted by researchers who wondered about its effects on body weight and blood lipid concentrations in subjects with high cholesterol. They evaluated 47 overweight men and women for four weeks, and found that those using the Eco-Atkins diet had a similar level of weight loss to those following a high-carbohydrate, lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. The Eco-Atkins group also demonstrated a better lipids profile at the end of the short study period, but there's no information about the long-term weight-loss results or health effects of this extremely restrictive diet.
While Atkins' popularity has waned, 2011's royal wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William brought attention to \"The Dukan Diet\" (*Est. $15 for the book) -- possibly the cornerstone of her bridal preparation. During the first two- to five-day stage, dieters eat only lean protein and oat bran. (Unlike Atkins, Dukan severely restricts fat intake.) The second stage reintroduces some vegetables (excluding starches and avocados), and the third stage allows the addition of one serving of certain fruits, plus two slices of whole-wheat bread, per day. You can eat anything you want during the fourth stage, as long as you maintain your oat bran intake and return to eating only lean protein one day a week.
Even Dr. Pierre Dukan, the diet's creator, warns of undesirable side effects including constipation, low energy and bad breath. Users confirm these repercussions, and experts are concerned about potential health risks, especially because the still-restrictive second and third phases of the diet can draw out for months, depending on how much weight you have to lose. "The Dukan Diet" has received much publicity from rumors that link Middleton to it, but the British Dietetic Association declares it to be "offal!" with no solid science behind it at all, and numerous experts fret about the health problems it may cause. One warns in a report for CBS News that Dukan is "not something to do for lifelong weight loss, and especially for lifelong health."