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Diet books can be a helpful, affordable guide for dieters

It may seem like there are as many diet books as there are stars in the sky. In addition to books by trainers, celebrities, doctors, and all of the random books devoted to one fad diet or another, many of the most popular diet programs -- like Atkins and South Beach -- began as books. However, like the top commercial diet programs, the best use of a diet book is to learn healthy eating habits for the long term.

The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet (Est. $13 and up) is a sensible, sustainable approach that draws rave reviews from experts and dieters. You swap high-density foods, which tend to have more calories, for lower-density foods like fruits, vegetables, soups and stews. This swap, of foods with more bulk but fewer calories, helps fill you up, thus eliminating one big problem with dieting: hunger. It's a top pick in most of our expert roundups, and its author, Barbara Rolls, is a leading researcher in the field of nutrition. Many other diets, most notably Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, have adopted the "volumetrics" approach to meal planning.

The Volumetrics Plan does not have a website, therefore there is no formal support, but it can be paired with any free online support program, such as those we discuss below. For some people the big drawback is that food preparation, both shopping and cooking, is not optional -- you will need to have some level of comfort in the kitchen. However, the book features meal plans, and the recipes are reported as easy to follow by consumer reviewers. At least one expert says this particular approach is probably best for people who have hunger or portion-control issues rather than emotional eaters who often eat for reasons other than hunger.

There is a whole series of diet books based upon the TV show "The Biggest Loser," and they get high marks from experts for quick weight loss, long-term weight control and diabetes control. As with the Volumetrics Plan, satiety is emphasized and they teach you how to make better food choices. Exercise is a key component of this program, as it is on the show -- another factor of the program that experts like. There are no costs beyond the purchase of one of their books -- and there are dozens to choose from, including family plans, budget-eating plans, and plenty of cookbooks. The books are highly rated by users on Amazon.com, with none getting fewer than four stars. The Biggest Loser has a fee-based website (Est. $20 per month) as well, for support and tools.

Another weight loss program that is highly rated by experts and usually ranks toward the top in roundups of best diets is The Mayo Clinic Diet. The latest book in the series, The Mayo Clinic Diet (Est. $12), is more focused on weight loss rather than controlling diabetes as the diet was originally developed to do. It gets high marks from consumer-reviewers as well, who say it's easy to follow and has good, solid information. The lower ratings come from those who say it's nothing new: just basic nutritional information that they already were aware of. However, even those reviewers concede that if you follow the diet, you will lose weight and be healthier.

One of the newest, and most popular diet books with consumers is The 17 Day Diet. The current version is The 17 Day Diet Breakthrough Edition (Est. $8 and up). Originally published in 2011, you can find used hardcover versions of earlier editions for as little as 1 cent. You can also find various cookbooks and workbooks at various prices. The 17 Day Diet is one of the highest rated diet books on Amazon.com, with nearly universal praise for its effectiveness. The idea behind it is to change up your eating and exercise habits every 17 days to keep your body from becoming adapted, which, the theory goes, leads to faster, more consistent weight loss. And users say it works, although we found no expert reviews. Pair the information in the book with Bistro MD's 17 Day Diet Delivery, which we cover in our discussion of the Best Prepackaged Diets, and you have a powerful, yet simple tool for weight loss, says one expert review of prepackaged diets.

Many experts say you don't need a formal diet to help you lose weight and keep it off; rather, they recommend making small but consistent changes to your diet for long term benefits. That's the idea behind the Eat This, Not That (Est. $8 and up) and Cook This, Not That (Est. $8 and up) series of books by David Zinczenko. The "Eat This, Not That" series focuses on making healthier swaps for common foods -- with an emphasis on making better choices when eating out. The "Cook This, Not That" series are cookbooks that teach you how to cook popular dishes in more healthful ways. Users say the books are very easy to follow, and many report losing weight without any painful restrictions to their diets, or having to give up favorite foods. Quite a few like that the books are big on pictures and light on text, making them an easy read. The main criticisms we see are from those who would prefer a more in-depth look at nutrition science.

Online support programs can help you stay on track -- and many are free

Many of the best diets are either free or, in the case of book-based diets, cost very little. However, they also don't come with the support structure that make fee-based diets like Weight Watchers so effective.

One way to get around the lack of support and structure of these non-commercial diets is to pair them with an online program that specifically offers support to dieters. MyFitnessPal.com and SparkPeople.com are both free, popular sites that offer tools like calorie counters, fitness trackers, recipes, tips, exercise program guidelines, and a community of fellow dieters, as well as mobile apps. MyFitnessPal.com also syncs with a range of electronic fitness trackers and gets slightly better reviews for ease of use than SparkPeople.com. Diet.com has both a basic and a premium membership (Est. $40 per month). Weight Loss Buddy is more forum-based, and connects you with other dieters. There are many other sites as well, and most offer a wealth of educational material, meal plans, buddy systems and expert consultations.

In addition to these websites, most fitness trackers, such as Fitbit and Jawbone, offer diet and exercise advice and support through their desktop and mobile apps, as well as tracking calories eaten and burned. Many allow you to add buddies, for a bit of healthy competition, and the sites are free with the purchase of the activity band. We discuss these programs in more depth in our separate report on fitness trackers.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Reviewed Weight Loss Programs: Whether you just need to lose a few pounds, are having weight-related health issues, or just want to find a healthier of eating, there's a diet that's right for you. The top diets are healthy, effective, easy to follow, and come with the support you need.

Best Diet Plans: If weight loss is your primary goal, these plans are the top choices of experts and dieters. We found the top commercial and free diet plans to fit anyone's diet preferences.

Best Diabetes Diet: If you suffer from diabetes or prediabetes, you really need to watch what you eat. These eating plans have been proven to be effective in helping to manage -- or even cure -- type 2 diabetes.

Best Prepackaged Diet Plan: If you're short on time or cooking skills, a prepackaged diet plan can save the day. Delivered right to your door, they offer heat and eat convenience, with healthy, controlled portions.

Buying Guide: Not sure which weight loss plan is right for you? We offer a thorough overview of what you need to know to find a great program for the long term.

Our Sources: These are the expert and user sources we consulted to find the best weight loss programs. They are listed in order from most helpful to least.

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The Mayo Clinic Diet: Eat well. Enjoy Life. Lose weight.
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The 17 Day Diet Breakthrough
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Eat This, Not That! 2013: The No-Diet Weight Loss Solution
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Cook This, Not That! Easy & Awesome 350-Calorie Meals
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