What are the options?

The sheer number of weight-loss plans can be overwhelming. There's overlap, but most plans can be grouped into a few major categories.

Balanced

  • Examples: DASH, LEARN, Mayo Clinic, Mediterranean, TLC, Weight Watchers
  • Flexible? Yes. Calories are controlled but no foods are off-limits.
  • Nutritionally balanced? Yes.
  • Includes physical activity? Yes.
  • Sustainable over long term? Yes. Emphasis is on making permanent changes.

Fad

  • Examples: Cabbage soup, detox, grapefruit, raw food
  • Flexible? No. Emphasizes a single food or combination of foods; all others are limited.
  • Nutritionally balanced? No.
  • Includes physical activity? No.
  • Sustainable over long term? No.

Glycemic index

  • Example: Sugar Busters
  • Flexible? No. Foods that rapidly increase blood sugar levels, such as white bread and potatoes, are limited.
  • Nutritionally balanced? Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans.
  • Includes physical activity? Optional.
  • Sustainable over long term? Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.

High protein or low carb

  • Examples: Atkins, Dukan, the Zone
  • Flexible? No. Carbs are limited; fats or proteins "or both" are emphasized.
  • Nutritionally balanced? Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans.
  • Includes physical activity? Optional.
  • Sustainable over long term? Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.

Low fat

  • Examples: Ornish, Pritikin
  • Flexible? No. Total fat and saturated fat are limited. Because even lean cuts of meat, poultry and fish contain some fat, very low fat diets may ban these foods. Healthy oils, nuts and seeds also may be off-limits.
  • Nutritionally balanced? Yes.
  • Includes physical activity? Yes.
  • Sustainable over long term? Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.

Vegetarian

  • Flexible? No. Meat is off-limits, and some people also restrict fish and dairy products. There are no specific limits on nonanimal sources of food.
  • Nutritionally balanced? Deficiencies are possible on a vegan diet depending on the types of foods chosen.
  • Includes physical activity? Optional.
  • Sustainable over long term? Yes. But, some people may find it difficult to give up meats.

Meal replacement

  • Examples: Jenny Craig, HMR, Medifast, Nutrisystem, Slim-Fast
  • Flexible? No. Replacement products take the place of one or two meals a day.
  • Nutritionally balanced? Possibly. Balance is possible if you also make healthy meal choices.
  • Includes physical activity? Optional.
  • Sustainable over long term? Cost of products varies; some may be cost prohibitive.

Very low calorie

  • Example: Optifast
  • Flexible? No. Calories are severely limited, possibly 200-800 calories a day.
  • Nutritionally balanced? No.
  • Includes physical activity? No.
  • Sustainable over long term? No. Diet is intended only for short-term use with medical supervision.

DASH = Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension; HMR = Health Management Resources; LEARN = Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships, Nutrition; TLC = Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes.

Ask yourself these questions when evaluating weight-loss plans

Before you dive into a specific weight-loss plan, take time to learn as much about it as you can. Keep in mind that just because a diet is popular or your friends are doing it doesn't mean it's the right approach for you. So ask these questions first:

  • What does it consist of? Does the diet plan provide general guidance that you can tailor and adapt to your situation? Does it require you to buy special meals, supplements, drugs or injections? Does it offer online or in-person support? Does it teach you how to make positive, healthy changes in your life to help maintain your weight loss?
  • Who's behind the diet? Who created the weight-loss plan? What are their qualifications and experience? Do they have solid research and science to back up their weight-loss approach? If you go to a weight-loss clinic, what expertise, training, certifications and experience do the doctors, dietitians and other staff have? Will their staff coordinate with your regular doctor?
  • What are the risks? Could the weight-loss program harm your health? Are the recommended drugs or supplements safe for your situation, especially if you have a health condition or take medications?
  • What are the results? How much weight can you expect to lose? Does the weight-loss plan claim that you'll lose a lot of weight in a very short time? That you can target specific problem areas of your body? Does it tout before-and-after photos that seem too good to be true? Can it help you maintain your weight loss permanently?

The keys to weight-loss success

Unfortunately, most weight-loss diets are hard to stick to long enough to reach your weight goal. And some may not be healthy.

Diets that leave you feeling deprived or hungry may create irresistible cravings — or worse yet, may leave you feeling like giving up. And because most weight-loss diets don't encourage permanent healthy lifestyle changes, the pounds you lose often quickly come back once you stop dieting.

Successful weight loss requires permanent changes to your eating habits and physical activity. This means you need to find a weight-loss approach that you can embrace for life.

Even then, you'll likely always have to remain vigilant about your weight. But combining a healthier diet with more activity is the best way to lose weight and keep it off for the long term.

April 29, 2015 See more In-depth