Each year, millions of Americans adopt a new diet in an attempt to lose weight. And for the past 20 years, there has been a battle waging for the title of "America's Healthiest Diet". Competitors for the title include the likes of Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig. On Tuesday, the newest study of these diets was released in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
For many years, the two leading contestants have been the low-fat diet pioneered by Dean Ornish, and the low-carbohydrate diet pitched by Robert Atkins.
The Ornish diet consists of only 10 percent fat and lots of carbohydrates. I have seen the ineffectiveness of this diet firsthand. For 20 years, I have been involved in a lifestyle education program called Healthy Change of Heart that was originally modeled after the Ornish diet. Unfortunately, we found that patients could not stick with this diet long term. It also proved to raise triglyceride levels and lower HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
The Atkins diet has the opposite problem, in my experience. It is full of saturated fats like meat such as steak, bacon, pork, and eliminates carbohydrates completely. It is also hard to maintain long term, with complaints from patients regarding constipation, flatulence, and bad breath. Since the Atkins Diet is rich in the saturated fats, it can worsen inflammation and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Like them or not, most medical research in the past 20 years has focused on these two diets. In recent years, smaller, commercialized diets have been winning the battle to be "America's Healthiest Diet" but these diets are not backed up by nearly as much research. Many are fad diets that are often not sustainable. Initially they seem successful, but then followers lose and gain the same twenty pounds over and over again. This phenomenon is called the yo-yo effect.
Do commercial weight loss programs work? According to the new study in Annals, there is some evidence that Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig help with sustained weight loss for at least a year. But, are these diets really the best?
The answer is no.
The Mediterranean Diet is the way to go, especially in the context of making a lifestyle change. The diet is rich in polyunsaturated fats like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, and monounsaturated fats found in nuts. It is not restrictive, and embraces food that is found all around the world. Perhaps most importantly, it does not emphasize sugar, processed foods, and simple carbohydrates like white breads, bagels, and white flour pasta.
There are more and more medical studies proving that it promotes weight loss, but also dramatically reduces the risk of heart attack, and it is easy to follow.
Here is a typical day on the Mediterranean Diet:
Egg white omelet with vegetables; whole-wheat toast with peanut butter; skim milk; coffee/tea
Fat-free or low-fat Greek yogurt (23 grams of protein in 8 ounces is ideal); fruit (banana, grapefruit, strawberries, blueberries); 1/4 cup of walnuts; coffee/tea
Whole-wheat pita with tuna fish and 1 TBS of light mayonnaise; carrots, celery, peppers, or a salad for added vegetables; fresh fruit (grapes, cherries, banana, peach, etc.)
Turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with mustard; 1 cup of black bean soup; fresh fruit
4 ounces of seasoned salmon; stir-fried vegetables, using lots of different colors; brown rice; watermelon/cantaloupe or other fruit
Grilled Chicken breast; whole-wheat pasta with garlic and olive oil or a tomato-based sauce; large salad with dark leafy greens, raw vegetables and olive oil dressing or balsamic vinaigrette; strawberries/blueberries
As summer approaches, many will be looking for that quick weight loss fix before hitting the beach. If you want to avoid the trap of yo-yo dieting, according to this new study, Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig may not a bad choice. But, it is much better to begin a sustainable lifestyle with the Mediterranean diet, which is backed by research, easy to follow, and the real victor of the 'Diet Wars'.
Dr. David Becker is a board certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. and has been in practice for 25 years. In 1993, after extensive research, Dr. Becker launched Healthy Change of Heart™, an innovative 10-week program designed to reverse heart disease and improve quality of life through diet, exercise, and stress management. Since then, thousands of patients have participated in the program, achieving significant results in improving cardiac wellness.