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Choosing your diet: A new year’s resolution primer

December 30, 2009 |  4:59 pm
Cake As the deadline for new year’s resolutions approaches, dieting sits on the lips of talk show hosts and at the fingertips of bloggers everywhere. With all the new fads debuting and old favorites that just won’t exit stage left, prospective dieters might have some trouble sorting through the hype. Unique as each weight-loss system surely is, here are a few categories they fall into:

Low-carb: The carbohydrate, once seen as the basis for healthy eating in the vintage USDA food pyramid, is now nutrient non-grata in many a modern diet.

These regimens come in many forms, from the high-fat, high-protein Atkins diet to the more balanced South Beach diet. Atkins’ devotion to dairy, meat and other types of protein at the expense of fruits, vegetables, grains and fiber-rich foods can lead to constipation, heart disease and nutritional deficiencies.

The South Beach diet has been noted for being more healthful and nutrient-friendly, but some sites warn that some of the initial weight lost is just water – and like any diet, it’s difficult to keep up in the long run. 

The workhorses:  Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers are two good examples. These systems have been around for decades, and it’s possibly their no-gimmick style – not prohibiting certain foods, limiting calorie intake and controlling weight long-term – that has helped keep them around.

Some complain that they focus on the bottom line and don’t encourage eating healthier foods – more fiber-rich items, better fats, balanced meals – as much as they should.

Buy my food: Slim-Fast, Nutrisystem and the many “cookie diets” that have sprung up in the wake of Sanford Siegal’s original plan all fall into this category. The food offerings – whether they’re a meal-replacement shake or a civilian MRE – often get mixed reviews, and these perceived limitations on taste and choice might inspire devotees to “cheat” and go foraging for other flavorful fare. 

Drive-by: As I posted earlier, fast-food chains from McDonald's to Taco Bell are trying to market lower calorie, low-fat entrees. Sure, there are plenty of relatively healthful options available on each of these menus. But remember, fast-food joints are the purveyors of hidden-calorie vehicles such as soda. And you can’t eat two boxes of nachos or tack on an order of fries, just because the total number of calories still falls under your daily limit, and still expect to get your daily value of vitamins and minerals.

The trick is to be informed, and not let the drive-through window dictate your eating habits. Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center provides a comprehensive list of major chains and links to their nutrition labels here.

Crash diet: If it promises you will shed pounds and feel great by the end of the week, don’t do it. The weight you’re losing is likely water and muscle. It throws your system out of whack in the short term, and the results don’t stick in the long term. Plan ahead for that beach body or that 10 -year reunion: eat healthy and exercise.

The key to a healthy weight lies in finding the eating habits (and exercise regimen) that work for you – eat fruits and vegetables, moderate (but don’t cut out) fats and oils, and reduce your portion sizes.
But if you must find a ready-made diet, Frontline has a chart comparing some of the more (in)famous diets out there, and WebMD provides an alphabetical list of more than 60 diet reviews.

P.S. If you’re looking to lose weight, it’s not just about food. Sleep habits, daily activities and other lifestyle habits factor in too. That’s what "Freakonomics" authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt found back in 2005 when they wrote about a professor who perfected his individualized weight-loss system.

-- Amina Khan

Photo credit: Larry Crowe / Associated Press