Before you buy another book or throw out half your groceries, get the skinny on three of the hottest diet contenders.
Popular diet plans have always played musical food groups: no carbs, more protein, low fat, high carbs.
Today, having been there and done 'em all, Americans are heavier than ever, which is why the newest approaches are taking a different tack, claiming to manipulate the body in some way—say, by "flushing" fat or "revving" metabolism. The question is: Do they work? "The golden rule with weight loss is always 'calories in versus calories out.' No matter what the gimmick is, if fad diets lead to weight loss, they operate by making you take in fewer calories," says Donald Hensrud, MD, associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
We asked some of the country's top nutrition experts to help evaluate the high-concept diet books making the rounds.
The Sonoma Diet by Connie Guttersen, PhD The concept Eat a Mediterranean diet inspired by the California wine country lifestyle, and you'll recalibrate your body to want wholesome, unprocessed foods, says Guttersen, a nutrition consultant for the California branch of the Culinary Institute of America. In the first ten-day phase—or "wave"—you lose weight quickly by eliminating sugar and refined foods, focusing on vegetables, lean protein, good fats (olive oil, avocado) and whole grains. In the second wave you're allowed a wider variety of foods, a bite-size piece of dark chocolate up to three times a week, and (you guessed it) a daily glass of wine. In the third wave you learn how to maintain your weight loss. There's no calorie counting. Instead, you're advised to use specifically sized plates and bowls and instructed how to fill them with the right proportions from each food group.
"This is actually the way we've been telling people to eat for a long time. Just about everything the author advises—like eating whole grains instead of refined and watching your portion sizes—has been scientifically proven to improve your health and aid weight loss," says Barry Popkin, PhD, director of the Interdisciplinary Obesity Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In addition to stellar nutrition, the book emphasizes savoring one's food—practicing mindful eating, for example, which prevents overdoing it by making you more conscious of how much you take in.
Eating this way may or may not retrain your taste buds to prefer healthier foods. There's evidence to suggest that reducing salt and high-fat dairy eventually makes you desire less of both, but the research on sweets is weaker: "Even if there isn't specific science to support it, my clinical experience is that when people decrease their sugar intake, often they don't want it as much," says Hensrud.
The bad news is that the plan is pretty hard-core for the first 10 days. "Cutting out favorite foods sometimes sets people up for failure, because when they eventually allow themselves a treat—like a piece of birthday cake—they then feel so disappointed in themselves that they just give up completely," says Howard Eisenson, MD, director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. Nevertheless, if you can make it through the first "wave," chocolate and wine await you.
The bottom line
Anyone up for a major diet overhaul will find that this is a solid plan with health benefits to boot.
The 3-Hour Diet by Jorge Cruise The concept Eat every three hours and you keep your metabolism stoked, burn fat while preserving lean muscle, and stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels, which help control appetite. Cruise, a weight loss coach who struggled with his own weight through early adulthood, developed the plan with an advisory group that included two registered dietitians and an internist. Daily meals consist of breakfast, a midmorning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner, and an optional nighttime treat. You're limited to about 1,450 calories a day, and while you can eat anything you want, you must make sure to get plenty of vegetables, healthy carbs, protein, and good fats in each of your meals. You must also follow Cruise's portion size guidelines (for example, veggies should fill half your plate, carbs should be the equivalent of a Rubik's Cube, and protein should be the size of a deck of cards). Finally, you're encouraged to use tactics like keeping a journal and creating a buddy system to help conquer emotional eating.
There's been a lot of debate over whether mini-meals are better than three square ones a day for weight loss, but there's no definitive science to support the claim that eating this way will help you burn fat while preserving muscle. Furthermore, "three hours" isn't necessarily the magic number for metabolism. ("Our bodies don't go into starvation mode after a few hours without food," says Andrea Giancoli, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Los Angeles.) Nevertheless our experts like the basic rules: "Allowing yourself to indulge in portion-controlled servings of any food is a proven way to curb craving-induced binges," says Elisa Zied, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in New York City and author of So What Can I Eat?! "And this is one of the few diets on the market that provides solid advice for dealing with emotional eating."
The bottom line
The "three-hour rule" doesn't have to be so rigid, but this is a healthy plan that works if you rely on mostly wholesome foods and don't use frequent meals as an excuse to eat more.
The Inflammation Free Diet Plan by Monica Reinagel with Julius
Torelli, MD The concept "Inflammation" is a buzzword these days as researchers explore how it may contribute to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's. Reinagel, a nutrition writer, and Torelli, a cardiologist, claim their diet reduces inflammation in your organs and tissues, helping you reduce the risk of disease and lose weight. In the lowest-calorie option, you eat about 1,600 calories a day, composed of 50 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. You're encouraged to eat as many inflammation-fighting foods as possible, selecting from a list of more than 1,500 items that have been given an inflammation-factor rating based on Reinagel's own research. For example, vegetables score high (meaning they're a good choice); poultry scores low.
The reality We know that when our natural inflammatory response becomes chronic, it can cause damage (arthritis, for example). And there's some evidence that suggests excess body fat contributes to this kind of ongoing inflammation; also, that pro- and anti-inflammatory substances produced by the body may result in part from what we eat. Still, this diet is probably jumping the gun: "Given that research has yet to uncover all the dimensions of how inflammation happens, rating foods based on their effects is arbitrary and doesn't make much sense," says Popkin.
The experts, however, give the diet a big thumbs-up for overall health and weight loss: "The proportions of the diet and recommended food choices are very healthy," says Hensrud. While there's no reason to eliminate some of the proteins the diet rates as inflammation-causing (eggs and poultry, for example), the plan's other rules, like eating lots of fresh vegetables and avoiding refined carbohydrates (like white bread and rice), are some of the best for trimming your body and taking care of it in the long run.
The bottom line The inflammation claim is a stretch, but you can lose weight and eat well on this plan.
Looking for more advice on new diets? Find our experts' analyses on the following diets in the August issue of O, The Oprah Magazine!