What are the options?

The sheer number of weight-loss plans can be overwhelming. The table below lists some of the most common diets. There's overlap, but most plans can be grouped into a few major categories.

Which ones work? The reality is that almost any diet that restricts calories will result in weight loss, at least in the short term. The real challenge is keeping the weight off. To do that, you must make lifestyle changes in healthy eating and regular physical activity your normal routine.

Diet type and examplesFlexibleNutritionally balancedIncludes physical activitySustainable
over long term
Balanced (DASH, LEARN, Mayo Clinic, Mediterranean, TLC, Weight Watchers) Yes. Calories are controlled but no foods are off-limits. Yes. Yes. Yes. Emphasis is on making permanent changes.
Fad (cabbage soup, detox, grapefruit, raw food) No. Emphasizes a single food or combination of foods; all others are limited. No. No. No.
Glycemic index (Nutrisystem, Sugar Busters) No. Foods that rapidly increase blood sugar levels, such as white bread and potatoes, are limited. Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans. Optional. Possibly.
But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.
High protein or low carb (Atkins, Dukan) No. Carbs are limited; fats or proteins or both are emphasized. Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans. Optional. Possibly.
But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.
Low fat (Ornish) 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. Possibly. Restriction of fish and nuts may result in need for supplemental omega-3 fats and other essential fatty acids. Yes. Possibly.
But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.
Meal replacement (Jenny Craig, HMR, Medifast, Nutrisystem, Slim-Fast) No. Replacement products take the place of one or two meals a day. Possibly. Balance is possible if you also make healthy meal choices. Optional. Cost of products varies; some
may be cost prohibitive.
Very low calorie (Optifast) No. Calories are severely limited, usually to 400-800 calories a day. No. No. 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? What benefits does the weight-loss program promise? Does it 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 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 do 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 may always have to remain vigilant about your weight. But combining a healthier diet and more activity is the best way to lose weight and keep it off for the long term.

June 22, 2012 See more In-depth