Don't fall for gimmicks when it comes to weight loss. Evaluate diets carefully to find one that's right for you.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When it comes to weight loss, there's no shortage of advice. Magazines, books and websites all promise that they've discovered the key to losing weight for good — from diets that eliminate fat or carbohydrates (carbs) to those that tout superfoods or special supplements.

With so much conflicting advice and so many weight-loss options, how do you know which diet might work for you? Following are some suggestions for choosing a weight-loss program that's right for you.

Before starting a weight-loss program, talk to your doctor. He or she can review any medical problems that you have and any medications that you take that may affect your weight, and provide guidance on a program that may be best for you. And you can discuss how to exercise safely, especially if you have trouble or pain carrying out normal daily tasks.

Talk to your doctor about weight-loss plans you may have tried before. Be honest with your doctor about fad diets you may be interested in trying. Your doctor also may be able to direct you to weight-loss support groups or refer you to a registered dietitian.

There's no single weight-loss diet that will help everyone who tries it. But if you consider your preferences, lifestyle and weight-loss goals, you should be able to find or tailor a diet to suit your individual needs. Before starting another weight-loss program, think about these factors:

  • Your experience with past diets. Think about diets you may have tried before. What did you like or dislike about them? Were you able to follow the diet? What worked or didn't work for you? How did you feel physically and emotionally while on the diet?
  • Your preferences. Do you prefer to diet on your own, or do you like getting support from a group? If you like group support, do you prefer online support or in-person meetings?
  • Your budget. Some weight-loss programs require you to buy supplements or meals, or to visit weight-loss clinics or attend support meetings. Does the cost of such programs fit your budget?
  • Other considerations. Do you have a health condition, such as diabetes, heart disease or allergies? Do you have specific cultural or ethnic requirements or preferences when it comes to food? These are important factors that should help determine which diet you choose.

It's tempting to buy into promises of rapid and dramatic weight loss, but a slow and steady approach is easier to maintain and usually beats fast weight loss for the long term. A weight loss of 0.5 to 2 pounds (0.2 to 0.9 kilograms) a week is the typical recommendation.

In some situations, faster weight loss can be safe if it's done the right way — such as a very low calorie diet with medical supervision, or a brief quick-start phase of a healthy-eating plan that offers lots of healthy and safe strategies at once.

Successful weight loss requires a long-term commitment to making healthy changes in your eating and exercise habits. Be sure to pick an eating plan you can live with. Look for a plan with these features:

  • Flexibility. Look for a plan that doesn't forbid certain foods or food groups, but instead includes a variety of foods from all the major food groups. A healthy diet includes vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean protein sources, and nuts and seeds. Even an occasional, but reasonable, indulgence is allowed. A diet plan should also feature foods that you can easily find in your local grocery store.
  • Balance. A weight-loss plan should include proper amounts of nutrients and calories for your individual situation. Diets that direct you to eat large quantities of certain foods, such as grapefruit or meat, that drastically cut calories, or that eliminate entire food groups, such as carbohydrates, may result in nutritional problems. Safe diets do not require excessive vitamins or supplements.
  • Likeability. A diet should include foods you like and that you would enjoy eating for the rest of your life — not just for several weeks or months. If you don't like the diet, if it's overly restrictive or if it becomes boring, you're probably not going to stick to it and therefore won't lose weight in the long term.
  • Activity. Every weight-loss program should include physical activity. Exercise plus calorie restriction can help give your weight loss a boost. Exercise also offers numerous health benefits, including improving your mood, strengthening your cardiovascular system and reducing your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And exercise is an important factor in maintaining weight loss. People who get regular physical activity may be more likely to maintain their weight loss.

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.

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?

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