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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/7/2007 6:18:31 PM ET 2007-05-07T22:18:31

You’ve done the cabbage-soup diet, the grapefruit regimen, even the ice-cream plan. You’ve banned carbs and slashed fats from the menu. Still those stubborn excess pounds taunt away every time you pass a mirror.

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In the end, the strategy many of us have been using — labeling some foods as evil and others as good — may be part of what’s undermined repeated attempts at weight loss, according to a new in-depth analysis of diets and dieting by a panel of nutrition experts published in this month’s issue of Consumer Reports.

The new report rated eight diet plans based on the results of clinical trials and critiqued seven popular diet books based on the quality of the meal plans, ease of use, whether they incorporated exercise and the validity of the nutritional science.

A relative newcomer, Volumetrics, scored the highest among the diet plans for helping dieters lose the most weight. Although the regimen, which emphasizes low energy-density foods such as bulky veggies, spawned the book “The Volumetrics Eating Plan,” it’s lumped with diet plans, not books, because it is based on experiments and scientific evidence. Volumetrics is followed by the big-name calorie-counting plans Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and Slim-Fast.

When it came to popular dieting books, “The Best Life Diet” — an Oprah-endorsed best seller —led the pack. The panel of nutrition experts liked its straightforward recipes and nutritional meal plans.

Rounding out the top four were:

  • “Eat, Drink, & Weigh Less” — praised for its Mediterranean recipes but faulted for spending too little time on exercise.
  • “You: On a Diet”  — lauded for its simplicity but lacking in details and flexibility.
  • “The Abs Diet” — the experts liked the emphasis on exercise but dinged the book for pushing whey supplements.

The ratings are intended to help dieters figure out a place to start, says Nancy Metcalf, Consumer Reports’ senior project editor. “There’s no such thing as the perfect diet for everyone,” Metcalf adds. “You’ve got a better chance of doing better on one of the higher-rated diets.”

People on these higher-ranked weight-loss plans shed more pounds and were more likely to stick with those diets.

Currently 41 percent of Americans are trying to lose weight, while 63 percent say that they have dieted at some point in their lives, according to a separate survey being released by Consumer Reports. And ultimately, though weight-loss plans are big business, the vast majority of dieters — more than two-thirds — do it on their own, the survey found. Another 16 percent are enrolled in free weight-loss programs, while 8 percent have signed up for paid programs.

Budgeting calories
Top-scoring diets and plans offered weight-loss strategies that included nutritionally balanced menus and avoided demonizing or glorifying any specific types of food. That’s important, experts say, because most people fail with very restrictive diets because they can’t stick with them.

“They get bored and feel deprived,” says Wahida Karmally, director of nutrition at the Irving Center for Clinical Research at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “Rather than bashing certain foods, I tell my patients to budget their calories so they can still have small servings of their favorite foods.” 

Volumetrics, the eating plan that focuses on foods with fewer calories per bite, was designed by nutrition researchers at Penn State, led by Barbara Rolls, who also writes for MSNBC.com's Chew on This column.

Rolls’ team conducted trials and figured out that when people opt for low energy-density foods like fruits and veggies they can fill up on fewer calories.

“This is a well-researched diet,” Karmally says. “It is important to understand the strategy of how you can feel satiated by increasing your volume of food that is low in calories. You need to know that a pound of vegetables will fill you up as much as a pound of cake — but the cake has a lot more calories while the vegetables are full of nutrients.”

Although Weight Watchers scored second among the eating plans, slightly ahead of Jenny Craig and Slim-Fast, it has the highest long-term adherence — better even than Volumetrics.

This isn’t a surprise to Nina Beyer, who is a true dieting success story, having lost more than 100 pounds five years ago and kept it off.

Beyer and her husband signed up for Weight Watchers after he was turned down by a life insurance company because he was obese. Beyer says she’d tried dieting over the years, but had never lost more than 20 pounds at a time, and always gained the weight back.

“I don’t think I could have lost the weight without Weight Watchers,” says Beyer. “Even though I’m an intelligent, educated person, I didn’t have the tools. They taught me portion control.”

The easy-to-use system for scoring foods helped put the day’s choices in perspective, says the 46-year-old veterinarian from Mantua, N.J. “I never thought I was eating that much. But then to find out that a Dove Bar is 16 points and my day’s allotment is 28 points. I’m thinking, I just ate a Dove Bar and that’s more than half of what I get for the day. What am I doing?”

Karmally and other experts argue that one important ingredient in any diet plan is a method to calculate calories consumed. She blames much of the nation’s obesity problem on confusion about serving sizes and marketing that promotes the value of large servings.

Even though plans like Volumetrics and Weight Watchers have their success stories, that doesn’t mean that they will work for everyone, says Dr. Naomi Neufeld, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. It’s very individual, she adds.

Looking for a good fit
Sometimes it can take a few tries to find the right plan.

Brooke Fike-Carlson knew she needed to get serious after gaining 60 pounds during her second pregnancy. The Atkins diet looked appealing because there were no restrictions on meat and fats. All told, she lost 37 pounds while on the carb-cutting plan, which brought the 5-foot 9-inch horse trainer down to a slim 160 lbs.

She was happy. The diet, she says, didn’t feel like a diet.

“It truly was the best,” remembers the 42-year-old Morgan Hill, Calif., woman. “I ate as much meat and cheese as I wanted. I ate butter and ice cream.”

But, like many others, Fike-Carlson couldn’t stick with the restrictive eating plan. “I couldn’t keep it up,” she says. “I wanted chips with my Mexican food. I wanted french fries and bread.”

And over the next year all the weight — plus a few more pounds — came back.

Fike-Carlson tried Weight Watchers next, but gave up after a few weeks because she felt hungry all the time.

In the end, what worked was exercise.

For the past four years, Fike-Carlson has hit the gym three times a week for three hours a day. One hour is spent on the weight machines, one hour doing aerobic exercise and another hour doing crunches and other body-toning exercises.

“Now I can eat pretty much what I want,” she says.

What separates the best plans and books is their focus on lifestyle change rather than an attempt to lose weight through short-term changes with a restrictive diet, experts say. 

That’s because so many people lose weight only to gain it back when they go back to eating the way they once did. Better plans included regular exercise, menus with balanced meals and strategies for dieters to keep calories permanently under control.

Going it alone
Consumer Reports gave lower marks to diet plans and books that were needlessly restrictive or too elaborate.

For instance, the lowest-ranked three books were “The South Beach Diet,” “The Sonoma Diet” and “Ultra-Metabolism.” Among diet plans, the bottom four were eDiets, the Zone Diet, the Ornish Diet and the Atkins diet.  The experts were concerned about lack of long-term adherence for several of these plans.

The report also gave a thumbs down to three popular dieting strategies — diet pills, “angel and devil foods,” and plans based on glycemic index, which scores foods according to how quickly they boost blood sugar levels — arguing that there’s no good science to support any of them.

For the many dieters who choose to go it on their own, Consumer Reports offered strategies and tips, many coming from what are known as “successful losers.”  These are people, like Nina Beyer, who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off for a year or more and who have signed up with the National Weight Control Registry.

Based on information gleaned from participants in the National Weight Control Registry, Consumer Reports admonishes dieters against skipping breakfast and urges them to step on the scale regularly. A full 78 percent of the registry’s members say they eat breakfast every day, while 75 percent say they weigh themselves at least weekly.

Beyer says she checks her scale daily. Fluctuations of 1 or 2 pounds are no big deal, but 5 pounds means she’s got to pay attention. “I know that’s not fluid,” Beyer says. “And it means I’ve got to be responsible.”

The new report also suggested cutting carbs and fats and adding more foods to your diet that are low in energy density.

Another hint from Consumer Reports: Choose a more monotonous diet since variety stimulates appetite.

These eating tips may be helpful, but it’s best to choose a plan that is simple and easy to stick to, says Dr. George Blackburn, associate director of nutrition at the Harvard Medical School. “You can cut these tips to three: Eat less, eat healthy and exercise.”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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