Diets in Review: Part 1

Americans spend over $60B on the diet industry every year.

Products, programs, memberships, food, appointments, procedures… it all adds up.

But do any of them actually do anything or have any merit to stand on?

Here is the first installment of Diets Review, where I will present a quick summary as well as my personal and professional evaluation of popular (and obscure) diets that are out there today.

do want to set the record straight on one thing right off the bat, however:

A “diet” is simply defined as the sum of the food and drink that an individual habitually consumes.

Therefore, you are always following a diet of some sort. We all are. It may not have a name or fancy rules or promise sexy results, but we all eat a diet.

This is in contrast to diet-ing or “being on a diet”, which usually refers to the practice of attempting to achieve or maintain a certain weight through the use and manipulation of diet.

Note: These are not all weight loss diets, although you will find that this is often a common theme of many defined diets floating around out there.

1. Weight Watchers

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Weight Watchers is an international American company founded in 1963 by a homemaker. Notorious for famous spokespeople, currently Oprah Winfrey holds the title as well as being a member of the board of Weight Watchers International. Past spokespersons include Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Hudson, and Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson (Duchess of York).

The program assigns foods and drinks with a SmartPoints value that somehow takes into account its nutritional value through a super secret proprietary formula. The food plans try to guide members toward making more food choices that are higher in protein and lower in saturated fat and sugar. Technically, you can “spend” your points on whatever foods you want, as long as you stick to your daily SmartPoints determined by your gender, weight, height, and age. You can also earn FitPoints with exercise. In addition to your daily SmartPoints, you may also use some of your weekly cushion of “extra” points if you want to eat more on a certain day or if you go out to eat and know you will go over your daily goal. Also, as with many reduced-calorie weight loss programs, they encourage taking a daily multivitamin.

Meetings are highly encouraged, although there are online- and phone-based options available if in-person meetings are not your thing or are not available in your area.

Cost varies with promotions and depending on if you attend the weekly in-person meetings, work with a coach, or use the online tools. Typically, new members pay a $20 starter fee. Online tools cost $19.95 per month. Meetings + online tools cost $44.95 per month (or pay-as-you-go for $12-15 per week). Personal coaching + online tools cost $54.95 per month. Coaching + meetings + online tools cost $69.95 per month. None of this includes the cost of food, which since this is not a meal replacement program, is up to you to decide what to eat.

Three meals and at least 2 snacks per day is encouraged. With the development of the mobile app, the diet is also quite convenient to follow even if you are busy and on-the-go. Anyone who is following a special diet for whatever reason (vegetarian, halal, etc.) will also still be able to participate due to the fact that you make all of your own food choices. Weight Watchers does sell some of their own packaged foods and lends their SmartPoints logo to many other companies, since it is such a widespread and popular diet. You don’t even need to plug in the values to their calculator – the value is already on the front of the box!

Personally, of the diet programs out there today, I do consider Weight Watchers to be one of the best. Especially after they redid their points system which makes fresh fruits and vegetables free (no points). Do I think that the system could still use some improvement? Of course! I wish that they would take other nutrients into greater account than just calories, protein, saturated fat, and sugar, but making fresh fruits and vegetables free is at least a step in the right direction. The fact that they recreate themselves every few years is also encouraging, as they are not afraid to change their system and recommendations as new information and feedback comes out.

2. DASH

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DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and was developed to lower blood pressure without medication in research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Since that time, many studies have shown that the diet reduces the risk of stroke, heart disease, heart failure, kidney stones, diabetes, and some types of cancer as well as helping some lose weight and become healthier overall. DASH is also regularly rated #1 by US News as the Best Diet Overall as well as near the top for Best Diabetes Diets and Best Heart-Healthy Diets.

The DASH diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, lowfat/nonfat dairy, whole grains, lean meat, fish, poultry, nuts, and beans and limits red meat, sodium (1500mg), and added sugars. It is high fiber and low to moderate in fat and is sometimes referred to as a more Americanized version of the Mediterranean diet explained below. Exercise is also encouraged as this helps lower blood pressure as well.

Because this is not a program, the only cost to you is the cost of food. You may choose to purchase books and cookbooks, but they are in no way needed to eat a DASH diet. It is also completely appropriate for other members of your family to eat as it is not required that you have high blood pressure before adopting this eating style.

A major complaint is that the food is bland. Well, if your taste buds are used to everything being coated in salt, then DUH your food will probably taste bland. Your taste buds will need to get used to the way food actually tastes again, and learning how to use other seasonings and spices to flavor your food will also help in this area.

As far as sustainability goes, you can’t get much better than this. If you want to be super strict about eating the exact number of servings of each food group that they recommend, that may be a bit of a pain, but the overall eating pattern and food choices themselves can be followed easily after the initial adjustment period.

Side note: this is the diet that I teach my cardiac rehab patients.

3. Mediterranean

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Rating just barely behind the DASH diet is the Mediterranean diet. As the name suggests, this diet is based on the observance that those who live in countries around the Mediterranean Sea often live longer and have lower rates of cancer and heart disease than we do here in the United States.

Now, you may be thinking. Wait! The French eat differently from the Italians who eat differently than the Spanish who eat differently than the Greek. You would be correct. However, they do share many of the same eating principles.

The secret? An active lifestyle as well as a diet low in red meat, sugar, and saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, fish, whole grains, seafood, and beans… and the occasional glass of red wine.

The same as the DASH diet, this is not a structured diet so much as an eating pattern.

How is this different than the DASH diet, exactly? The Mediterranean diet includes fewer dairy products and higher amounts of unsaturated fats as well as being more liberal with the consumption of alcohol. The DASH diet also places a limit on sodium whereas the Mediterranean diet does not emphasis this and allows for more poultry. However, they are still very, very similar. Many patients that I meet with hate fish and seafood, so for them, the DASH diet would probably yield better results because it includes more of the foods that they already enjoy

4. MIND

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Following closely on the heels of #2 and 3 is the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet which combines aspects of both with the aim of preventing Alzheimer’s disease by emphasizing foods that have been shown to have a greater impact on brain health. This is a very new diet, created out of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago in the past few years. Research is still in its early stages and longer, larger, more-controlled studies are still needed, as the initial study lasted only 4 1/2 years and looked only at seniors in the Chicago-area.

In the MIND diet, there are 10 “brain healthy” food groups: green leafy vegetables, berries, fish, wine, olive oil, nuts, whole grains, poultry, beans, and other vegetables. You eat from these different food groups differing amounts of times per day or week… I didn’t think that a single food could comprise an entire “food group”.

It is also recommended that you avoid foods from the 5 “unhealthy” food groups: red meat, butter and stick margarine, sweets and pastries, cheeses, and fried or fast foods. In general, I am not a fan of label foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Any kind of black-white dichotomy when it comes to foods, dieting, or really anything at all sends up a little red flag in my MIND.

Exercise is not addressed, although it has been shown that physical activity may help protect brain health.

5. Jenny Craig

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Founded in 1983 and operating in the United States since 1985, I was actually surprised by how long Jenny Craig has been around! This is essentially a meal replacement program – 3 meals and up to 3 snacks per day.

According to their website, their program is evidence-based and designed by Registered Dietitians. I think this is great! However, in general I am not a fan of meal replacement programs. You are constrained by the foods they offer, although they do appear to have a wide range of foods available. However, if you have special dietary needs or restrictions, such as a vegan, gluten-free, kosher, or low-salt, on top of the weight loss diet, you may be limited in your options (if you are even left with any at all).

As a meal replacement program, it can be a bit of a financial burden. There is a $99 enrollment fee and at least $19.99 per month on top of that PLUS the cost of food, which averages out to $15-23 per dayPlus shipping. There are a few membership deals out there (month-to-month, premium one-time fee, refunds for reaching your goal weight, etc.) but I would still consider this an expensive program for many.

I would also think that someone who lives on their own with few social occasions would be more successful. If you had a family that you still needed to feed and have family meals with, you may feel left out. Same with social events. No more going out to restaurants with friends or on dates, unless you wanted to “go off plan”. But wait! Don’t fret! You are allowed 250 “splurge” calories for special occasions, even if that is a couple of times a week. 250 measly calories!?… Gee, thanks, Jenny Craig. At least they encourage physical activity. Also, as with many reduced-calorie weight loss programs, they do encourage at least taking a daily multivitamin.

In the beginning, you eat 3 prepackaged meals and 1 snack per day as well as 5 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables and at least 2 nonfat dairy foods “for volume and nutritional balance”. Halfway through, you cook for yourself twice a week using their recipes. After reaching your weight loss goal, you spend four weeks transitioning back to making your own meals.

You get a personalized meal and exercise plan plus sessions with a consultant. Their credentials? A training course. That’s it. Well, that and be “health-oriented and customer-focused”.

Do you have experience with any of the above diets?
What diet(s) would you like to see in the next “Diets in Review”?

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