Weight loss: Choosing a diet that's right for you

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 plenty of advice. Magazines, books and websites promise that you can lose all the weight you want for good. To do this, they suggest that you use diets that get rid of fat or carbs. Or use superfoods or special supplements.

With so many options, how do you know which approach might work for you? Here are some suggestions for choosing a weight-loss program.

Talk to your health care provider about your weight-loss efforts

Before you start a weight-loss program, talk to your health care provider. Your health care provider can go over your medical issues and the drugs you take that might affect your weight. Your provider can guide you on a program that's right for you. And you can discuss how to exercise safely. This is important if you have physical or medical challenges or pain with daily tasks.

Tell your health care provider about your past efforts to lose weight. Be open about fad diets that interest you. Your provider might be able to direct you to weight-loss support groups or refer you to a registered dietitian.

Think about your personal needs

There's no one diet or weight-loss plan for everyone. Think about your preferences, lifestyle and weight-loss goals. Pick a plan that you can tailor to your needs.

Before starting a weight-loss program, think about:

  • Diets you've tried. What did you like or dislike about them? Were you able to follow the diet? What worked or didn't work? How did you feel physically and emotionally while on the diet?
  • Your preferences. Do you prefer to do a weight-loss program on your own, or do you want 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, visit weight-loss clinics, or attend support meetings. Does the cost fit your budget?
  • Other considerations. Do you have a health condition, such as diabetes, heart disease or allergies? Do you have cultural, religious or ethnic requirements or preferences for food?

Look for a safe, effective weight-loss program

It's tempting to buy into promises of fast and amazing weight loss. But a slow and steady approach is easier to keep up. And it often 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.

Faster weight loss can be safe if it's done right. Examples include a very low-calorie diet with medical supervision or a brief quick-start phase of a healthy-eating plan.

Successful weight loss requires a long-term commitment to making healthy lifestyle changes in eating, exercise and behavior. Behavior change is vital, and could have the greatest impact on your long-term weight-loss efforts.

Be sure to pick a plan you can live with. Look for these features:

  • Flexibility. A flexible plan uses a variety of foods from all the major food groups. It includes vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean protein sources, and nuts and seeds.

    A flexible plan allows a treat now and then if you like. The plan should include foods you can find in your local grocery store and that you enjoy eating. But limit alcohol, sugary drinks and high-sugar sweets. The calories in those items don't provide enough nutrients.

  • Balance. Your plan should include the right amount of nutrients and calories. Eating large amounts of some foods, severely cutting calories or removing entire food groups can cause nutritional problems. Safe and healthy diets don't need large amounts of vitamins or supplements.
  • Likeability. A plan should include foods you like and that you would enjoy eating for life. If you don't like the food on the plan, if the plan is too restrictive or if it becomes boring, you probably won't stick to it. So long-term weight loss is unlikely.
  • Activity. Your plan should include physical activity. Exercise plus fewer calories can help give your weight loss a boost. Exercise also offers many health benefits, including countering the muscle mass loss that occurs with weight loss. And exercise is an important factor in maintaining weight loss.

What are the options?

The table below lists some of the more common diets. There's overlap, but most plans can be grouped into a few major categories.

Studies comparing different weight-loss programs have found that most programs result in weight loss in the short term compared with no program. Weight-loss differences between diets are generally small.

Diet type and examples Flexible Nutritionally balanced Sustainable for long term
DASH = Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, HMR = Health Management Resources.
Balanced (DASH, Mayo Clinic, Mediterranean, WeightWatchers) Yes. No foods are off-limits. Yes. Yes. Emphasis is on making permanent lifestyle changes.
High protein (Dukan, Paleo) No. Stresses lean meats, dairy. Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans. Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.
Low carb (Atkins, South Beach) No. Carbs are limited; fats or proteins or both are stressed. Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans. Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.
Low fat (Ornish) No. Total fat is limited; most animal products are off-limits. Yes. Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.
Meal replacement (Jenny Craig, HMR, Medifast, Nutrisystem, SlimFast) No. Replacement products take the place of 1 or 2 meals a day. Possibly. Balance is possible if you make healthy meal choices. Possibly. Cost of products varies; some can be very expensive.
Very low calorie (Optifast) No. Calories are severely limited, often to 800 or fewer calories a day. No. No. Diet is meant only for short-term use with medical supervision.

Ask yourself these questions when evaluating weight-loss plans

Before you dive into a weight-loss plan, take time to learn as much about it as you can. Just because a diet is popular or your friends are doing it doesn't mean it's right for you. Ask these questions first:

  • What's involved? Does the plan provide guidance that you can adapt to your situation? Does it require buying special meals or supplements? Does it offer online or in-person support? Does it teach you how to make positive, healthy changes in your life to help keep up your weight loss?
  • What's behind the diet? Is there research and science to back up the weight-loss approach? If you go to a weight-loss clinic, what expertise, training, certifications and experience do the providers, dietitians and other staff have? Will the staff coordinate with your regular provider?
  • What are the risks? Could the weight-loss program harm your health? Are the recommendations safe for you, especially if you have a health condition or take medications?
  • What are the results? How much weight can you expect to lose? Does the program claim that you'll lose a lot of weight quickly or that you can target certain areas of your body? Does it show before and after photos that seem too good to be true? Can it help you keep up your weight loss over time?

The keys to weight-loss success

Successful weight loss requires long-term changes to your eating habits and physical activity. This means you need to find a weight-loss approach you can embrace for life. You're not likely to keep off the weight you lose if you go off the diet and back to old habits.

Diets that leave you feeling deprived or hungry can cause you to give up. And many weight-loss diets don't encourage permanent healthy lifestyle changes. So even if you do lose weight, the pounds can quickly return once you stop dieting.

You'll likely always have to remain careful about your weight. But mixing a healthier diet with more activity is the best way to lose weight, keep it off for the long term and improve your health.

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June 09, 2022 See more In-depth