When the calendar resets to January once again, many of us dust off our running shoes, stock up on broccoli and vow that this will be the year we succeed in the resolution to lose weight. Structured diet programs often seem like the easiest way to shed pounds for good, but the structure and restrictions could potentially set dieters up for failure.
We chatted with WakeMed registered dietitian Lori Stevens to uncover pros and cons of some popular diet programs.
Advertised as a “‘no brainer’ meal plan — no counting calories, carbs or points,” Nutrisystem can seem like a godsend to those looking to organize their lives in the new year. Plans range from Basic to Vegetarian, Diabetic or Silver for ages 65 and older. Participants order a four-week supply of prepared meals to supplement with a few staple grocery items, leaving very little room for personal interpretation.
Following the meal plan removes the stress of coordinating a healthy, balanced diet and dealing with cooking and cleanup of daily meals. However, Stevens cautions people about depending on programs that don’t require them to make decisions about diet, because ultimately they haven’t learned about leading a healthy lifestyle.
“Some people do need that high level of structure to get them started,” she admitted, so while Nutrisystem may work as a jump-start, it is not ideal for long-term weight maintenance.
The premise of The Zone system is to eat a balance of 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent fat and 30 percent protein at every meal and snack.
“The benefit of it is it does have you include carbohydrates, protein and fat in every meal,” Stevens noted. However, “They do kind of put foods in categories as favorable and unfavorable, and I’d prefer a little more freedom in a diet, where you’re not calling things good foods and bad foods,” she said. For example, favorable carbohydrates on the program are vegetables and whole grains, whereas unfavorable ones are rice, pasta, fruit juice and other refined products.
One more factor to consider is activity level. “We generally recommend about 50 percent carbohydrates,” Stevens said. “If someone is very athletic, The Zone program may not be the right one.”
Three phases of the South Beach Diet are aimed to first eliminate cravings for sugar and refined foods, then lose weight and maintain for a lifetime. Dieters spend two weeks in phase one to break their dependence on certain foods, then introduce more flexibility with foods like whole-grain bread and pasta, fruit and certain vegetables that were prohibited in phase one for the duration of their weight loss. The same principles are followed for maintenance with an emphasis on moderation in phase three.
Stevens reiterated that restricting carbohydrates isn’t necessarily recipe for health. “It is pretty carbohydrate restricted. The first phase is super restricted,” she said. While some phases restrict more than she deems necessary, Stevens believes the South Beach program has tangible benefits for people struggling with food cravings. “If people are eating a lot of processed foods, it helps break habits.”
The long-established point-based diet plan got a revamp for 2011 with a new Points Plus system. The program allows dieters to choose their own foods, with nothing off limits, as long as they remain within a personalized range of points that are based on nutrient profiles of foods.
“It’s a program that a lot of people have long-term success with,” Stevens said. One perk is a degree of support catered to an individual’s needs. Those wanting the most support can attend Weight Watchers meetings, while those who feel more comfortable independently can track points via Weight Watchers Online.
In not prohibiting any foods, and allowing extra points to be earned by activity, Weight Watchers can be a tool for learning the essential elements of a healthy long-term diet.
Though a prescribed plan may break habits and reduce cravings, following a scripted program is no match for making a lifestyle change via education on achieving a balanced diet.
Rather than restricting a particular food group, nutrition should be the focus of a plan. “I think people need to dial back their portions and processed foods, or what people could call empty calories.”
That means don’t cut out carbohydrates, but be mindful. “You need to look at where your carbohydrates are coming from. For example, potatoes and fruit are much better sources than cake.”
While not as vilified now as in previous decades, fat can still seem like a four-letter word to dieters. “Fat gets a bad rap because there are more calories per gram of fat than per gram of carbohydrate, but fat is a nutrient that we need. It helps add flavor to food, absorb fat-soluble vitamins and helps you feel full.” So aim for making smart choices (oils that are liquid at room temperature, nuts and avocados are all considered healthiest) rather than cutting out all fat.
And then there’s exercise, which Stevens deems as essential as dietary choices. “You can’t really have one without the other, and I don’t think you can be healthy without being active in some way.”
If the thought of going for a run or pumping iron in the gym turns your stomach, don’t fret: “That can be gardening, or tennis, or yoga. It doesn’t have to be traditional exercise,” she assured. “Being active every day is what’s important.”
If you’re preparing to tackle a resolution this year, Stevens reminds you to be kind to yourself, one day at a time. “Take small steps. Don’t get discouraged. Realize there are going to be good days and bad days.”