News and Reviews of Popular Diets

Are you curious about a certain diet? Do you want to give advice to a friend who’s following an eating plan that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you? The authors of many diet books spin a fine tale with plenty of anecdotes that sound very convincing.

But keep in mind. . . the plural of anecdotes is not data. Many of these books lack solid scientific evidence to support their claims.

Or, even more confusing, they seem to be scientifically based, but authors are citing only the research that supports their ideas to create a stronger case for their eating plan, while ignoring the research that doesn’t.   This makes it challenging to find evidence-based and unbiased reviews. 

But people lose weight on these diets!

  • People initially lose weight on all kinds of diets (healthy and unhealthy, scientifically sound and unsound). This is often because they have decided to change their behavior, and are paying more attention to what they are eating, two important steps for behavior change that often lead to eating fewer calories.
  • Most people regain the weight they have lost after the initial motivation wears off, because they couldn’t maintain the changes.

A critical aspect of successful behavior change is learning to develop habits you can maintain for life.

Be wary of books that . . . 

  1. Claim “everything you’ve been told about nutrition is wrong’
  2. Blame a certain food group or food component (for example, carbohydrates, grains, gluten) as responsible for a long list of ailments
  3. Make outrageous claims of success
  4. Use many personal stories and testimonials; although these are compelling, they are not evidence

More Reading>> How to Create a Fad Diet

Beyond weight loss

Weight loss isn’t everything – the foods we eat are critical to good health so you’ll want to adopt an eating plan that promotes good health and prevents disease.

For general guidelines on eating for health and weight loss, check out this page.

GUIDE 

In this space, I will be providing a brief overview of popular diets and link to reputable articles, thorough reviews, and research updates that do a good job looking at the benefits and evidence behind these eating plans. As time allows, I’ll provide my own reviews.

What’s the Best Diet?

Recommended Approaches

Advice You Should Question (Evidence Varies)

Diets in this category have some or many health-promoting features (i.e., they might recommend more vegetables, restrict highly processed foods, limit sugar) and promote initial weight loss through calorie restriction. But generally, I would not recommend most of them, especially the ones that restrict certain foods without good enough scientific evidence, boast “miracle” results, rapid weight loss, cherry pick the research, demonize a food group (evil and magic foods), or have a conspiracy focus (and some of the books below do all of this!).

Not Recommended

Stay away from the diets or approaches in this section. All of them use pseudoscience to sell their ideas, and some of them verge on the more “extreme” side of energy restriction. Herbalife, Shakeology and Isagenix plans are multi-level marketing schemes that deceive consumers by making them believe that they need to buy their products for good health/weight loss.

What’s the “Best” Diet?

Trick question! There  is no best diet for weight loss.  Your previous diet, activity level, motivation, environment and many other variables factor into what will work for you.

in alphabetical order. . . 

DASH Diet

Overview:  The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) was developed originally as a research diet to study the influence of this eating plan on hypertension and other cardiovascular risk factors.  Rigorous studies have shown the DASH diet can lower blood pressure, reducing your risk of heart disease and stroke, increase “good” HDL cholesterol and decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol.

The DASH eating plan

  • encourages plenty of vegetables, fruits,  lean protein, and low-fat dairy
  • focuses on whole grains and beans
  • limits saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat
  • limits sodium, sweets, added sugars and sugary beverages, and red meats

Reviews & More Information:

DietFixThe Diet Fix

Overview: Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director at  Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute lets you know that there are no quick fixes for losing weight, and focuses his book on helping you develop the skills you need to help support permanent behavior change.  The book is practical, showcases Freedhoff’s vast-experience as a weight-loss specialist, and is routed in evidence-based behavior change and weight loss strategies.  His experience echoes research findings showing that the most successful diets are ones you can stick to, so he helps you lay out a plan that you can live with.

Reviews & More Information:

FU Diet

Overview:  This is not an eating style or diet book, but the excellent web resource of clinical psychologist and weight loss expert Sherry Pagoto.  Sherry believes that achieving health is about living a healthy life, not about dieting or magic pills, and her website embodies that spirit.  Her many articles are evidence-based, and will help you stay healthy and control your weight using the latest science on appetite, exercise, and health.

FUDiet

More Information:

FU DIet Table of Contents

Mediterranean

Mediterranean Diet FoodsOverview: A Mediterranean diet typically focuses on plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; healthy fats from nuts, seeds, and olive oil; moderate intake of fish and poultry, and low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets. This eating plan can include many delicious foods, is not restrictive,  and there is an extensive and growing body of research linking eating “Mediterranean-style” to numerous health benefits.

Reviews & More Information:

Mindful Eating

Woman Eating Strawberry MSOverview. Mindful eating is not a diet, but a practice that changes the way you think about food. Eating mindfully means giving full attention to the food that you’re eating and recognizing your feelings of hunger and fullness.  This practice should help you identify triggers to mindless eating and  help you the value quality over quantity of what you’re eating. A growing body of research is showing that this approach to eating can improve obesity-related eating behaviours such as binge eating and emotional eating.  Proponents of mindful eating for weight loss highlight research supporting the idea that structured dieting often doesn’t work for weight loss and long-term weight maintenance.

Reviews & More Information:

Research

New Nordic Diet

Overview:  Researchers from the University of Copenhagen developed this eating plan, which is similar to the Mediterranean diet. The diet focuses on vegetables and fruits, protein from lean meats and seafood, and locally-grown, organic, and in-season eating.  The diet isn’t about deprivation or drastic changes, but focusing on healthful foods.

Reviews & More Information:

OmniHeart Diets

The OmniHeart Diet is based on a clinical trial looking at variations of the DASH diet. Like DASH, the diets were rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, seeds and legumes. Diets were also low in sweets, added sugars and red meats. Researchers found that replacing some carbohydrate-containing foods with lean proteins or unsaturated fats had greater cholesterol-reducing and blood-pressure reducing benefits. (OMNI stands for Optimal Macro Nutrient Intake – hence the protein/carb/fat differences).

More Information:

Slim by Design

This book is by Brian Wansink  is a researcher who is passionate about figuring out how cues that aren’t related to hunger influence our eating habits. Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life  shows you how to rearrange your environment so it’s conducive to good habits and healthy eating.  This book follows the principles of Wansink’s Mindless Eating.  I’ve written more about Brian Wansink’s research here.

Spark Solution Diet

Overview:  Brought to you by the popular healthy living website sparkpeople.com,  the general guidelines in this book are well-founded in successful weight loss and behavior change: balanced meals, calorie reduction and exercise. For those whole like a lot of detail for food choices, the book outlines 2 weeks of structured meal plans.

Reviews & More Information:

Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes Diet (TLC)

Overview:  This diet is a heart-healthy plan aiming to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease with a focus on lowering cholesterol. It was created by the National Institutes of Health’s National Cholesterol Education Program.

Reviews & More Information:

Volumetrics

Overview: Despite the faddish name, this eating plan is routed in sound science. The diet plan focuses on choosing healthful foods that fill you up with fewer calories, based on the research of Barbara Rolls.

Advice You Should Question
(Evidence Varies)

You can eat well on some of the diets below, and you may lose weight. Many feature some good nutritional wisdom, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, and fewer refined grains, sugar, and processed foods.  Others heavily restrict some foods (e.g. carb-containing foods).  The reason they are on my “Questionable” list is because the evidence behind some of the recommendations is not rigorous.

Alkaline Diet

Overview: The alkaline diet is based on the idea that some foods (meat, wheat, refined sugar, and processed foods) cause your body to produce acid, which isn’t good for your health. The diet encourages foods that make your body more alkaline to protect from disease and help you lose weight.

Problems with the alkaline diet:  Although many “alkaline” foods like vegetables and fruits are health promoting,  how what you eat influences your body’s acidity level (PH) is not fully understood.  The environment in which foods are digested is complex, and many scientists question the accuracy of methods used to calculate the acidity of foods.  Foods avoided may limit your intake of essential nutrients such as calcium, iron and zinc. Some nutritious on the acidic list include oats, blueberries, cranberries, most legumes (lentils and beans), many nuts, corn, olives, mushrooms, and many grains.

This infographic from the Association of UK Dietitians sums up the lack of logic with the alkaline diet . . .

Reviews & More Information:

Always Hungry

This diet book by researcher Dr. David Ludwig boasts that it will help you “conquer cravings, retrain your fat cells and lose weight permanently.” This is book is based on the questionable claim that carbohydrates make you fat because of their influence on insulin (see low-carb diets below). Ludwig says our belief that calories in, calories out has actually contributed to weight gain.  This is simply not true and a misrepresentation of the data.

Blood Type Diets

Overview:  The blood type diet recommends eating based on your blood type — O, A, B, or AB — to help you lose weight, have more energy, and prevent disease. The idea is that you will digest foods more efficiently if you eat foods designed for your blood type (the author claims that the foods you eat react chemically with your blood).

Problems with the Blood Type Diet. The blood type diet did undergo scientific investigation, but researchers found any health improvements were not linked to blood type.   

Gluten-Free

Slice of bread with Gluten text - Gluten Free diet concept
Slice of bread with Gluten text – Gluten Free diet concept

Overview:  Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.  The 1 percent of North Americans have celiac disease need to strictly avoid gluten, and the 6-7% of individuals who are sensitive to gluten may feel better on a gluten-free diet.  Others will benefit if it means they start paying attention to what they’re eating, eat more vegetables and fruits, and avoid processed foods; but the health benefits for these people aren’t likely because they are avoiding gluten.

Problems with Gluten-Free Diets: Gluten-free diet proponents claim that gluten makes you sick, causes inflammation, gives you headaches, is a toxin, creates digestive problems, increases insulin resistance, and leads to weight gain. These claims aren’t supported by science, and the idea that gluten sensitivity is  widespread goes far beyond the current scientific evidence.

READ  Healthy or Hype? Gluten-Free Diets

Reviews & More Information:

Gluten Can be Good for You

Although the anti-gluten books claim the gluten is the cause of almost all health problems, gluten (for non-celiacs) can actually be health promoting (the information and links below are from Dr Mirkin.com – an excellent evidence-based nutrition and health resource)

  • Gluten helps to lower high triglycerides, a blood fat that can increase risk for diabetes and heart attacks (J Am Coll Nutr 1999; 18:159–165).
  • Gluten increases growth of good bacteria in your intestines (Brit J Nutr, 2008;99:110–120) that reduce inflammation and increase absorption of healthful nutrients (Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2010;13:722–728).
  • Gluten makes your cells more sensitive to insulin, helping to prevent or treat diabetes (Curr Diab Rep, 2011;11:154–159).
  • Gluten may reduce heart attack risk (Curr Atheroscler Rep, 2010;12:368–376), and lower high blood pressure (Food Chem, 2011;127:1653–1658).

Intermittent Fasting/Time Restricted Eating

Overview: Many variations of intermittent fasting diets exist, but they generally involve consuming no calories or severely restricting calorie intake for defined periods. Proponents claim intermittent fasting can improve overall health, help with weight loss, improve body composition, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce systemic inflammation, and increase your lifespan. 

Problems with intermittent fasting.  Intermittent fasting regimes have been studied in animals, and do show health benefits. Human studies are fewer and only short term, but fasting  regimes have shown health improvements (e.g., lowered blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity, lower markers of inflammation).  No long-term studies in humans have been conducted. Adhering to such a plan would be difficult for most individuals (you might not be the best dinner party guest), and could create unhealthy relationships with food. 

However, recent research suggests that simply prolonging the nightly fast might be a feasible and easy way for individuals to restrict their feeding window and benefit  metabolic health. The study below investigates how circadian rhythms and timing of food influences metabolic health.

Novel research method to study eating habits and time restricted eating. An emerging field of research is looking into how the timing of meals in relation to our circadian rhythms (which influence biological processes and metabolism) affects health.  Researchers from the Salk Institute are investigating what they call “metabolic jet lag,” a name they use to describe when circadian rhythms become distorted due to irregular eating times.

Early findings in animals and preliminary small studies in humans suggest it might be better for health to restrict our feeding period.  The Salk investigators developed an app to get a snapshot of timing of eating patterns, and used the app to help study participants limit their feeding to a 10-11 hour period. After 16 weeks, participants with a restricted feeding window lost weight and reported better sleep and energy levels. You can download the smartphone app (and contribute your data to their research) here. (Cell Metabolism, September, 2015).

Reviews & More Information:

Low Carb/High Fat (LCHF) Diets

Some people successfully lose weight by restricting their carbohydrates. One problem with the “low carb” craze is lumping all carbohydrates into one category, equating legumes to candy. These diets often claim that guidelines to increase carbohydrates made people fat, because people decreased their fat intake and increased carbohydrate intake, although there is no good evidence to support this claim.

Carbs Not EqualData show that an increase in calories better explains the obesity epidemic than recommendations to reduce fat intake (and contrary to popular belief, Americans did not reduce their fat intake, but they did increase their calorie intake).  Proponents of low carb diets claim that nutrition scientists are deceptive, and have been ignoring any research supporting high fat diets.  Although this makes for a good story, this is simply not true.

These diets often recommend consuming high amounts of fats and saturated fats.  Although research on fats is evolving, no evidence shows that diets high in saturated fats are healthy, and quite a bit of evidence suggests they promote disease.

If you want to reduce your carbohydrate intake, limit refined carbohydrates (sugars, processed foods), but keep the healthy beans/legumes, vegetables, and fruits, and unprocessed whole grains that are important for good health.

Low Carb Diets for Athletes

Athletes need more carbohydrates that most people to fuel their physical activity. Low-carbohydrate diets can leave endurance athletes short on fuel for their workouts, compromise recovery, and suppress their immune system. Most wheat-free/grain free/gluten-free diets are low carb diets.

Kenyan Runners-Berlin_marathon_2012
Kenyan runners have a very high carbohydrate diet

Some athletes are confused by some interesting research looking at carbohydrate restriction in athletes. Although proponents of the research claim improved performance benefits, to date but no study has shown performance benefits and there are risks. Low-carb training **might** be effective periodically, but not as an everyday diet for athletes.  For example, low carb/fasted “low glycogen” workouts can be used as a training strategy (the Canadian marathoners did this  – a kind of nutrition periodization). The research on the benefits isn’t solid, and experts recommend being careful about when/how you implement these workouts (best during baseline training/not high intensity). Here’s an excellent interview about low-carbohydrate training with the leading sports nutrition expert in the field of carbohydrate metabolism.

Reviews & More Information:

Paleo Diet

Overview: The basic principal  of the Paleo diet is to adopt the eating habits of our ancestors in the paleolithic period (between 2.5 million and 10,000 year ago)  who were picking berries, hunting and scavenging meat and fish, or digging for tubers. Paleo is based on the idea that no species should eat something it hasn’t eaten before, because it can’t adapt.  The diet focuses on meat, vegetables, and fruits, and excludes dairy, grains, legumes (peanuts, lentils, beans, peas), alcohol, and sugars.

Problems with Paleo: The paleo diet has been widely criticized by evolutionary biologists and nutrition experts.  Although the paleo diet can be a healthy one, it excludes many health-promoting foods for reasons that aren’t well-supported by science. Also, many paleo dieters eat large quantities of red meat, which is at odds with evidence-based disease prevention recommendations.

Reviews & More Information:

Pioppi Diet

This is another low-carb high fat diet, that explains how we’ve been lied to about saturated fats, the dietary guidelines made us fat and sick, and that carbohydrates are evil.  Angry Chef Anthony Warner has a good interpretation about the absurdity of this narrative:

It’s a bizarre and ahistorical conspiracy theory which, as Anthony Warner says in The Angry Chef would require ‘paying off the medical establishment, the World Health Organisation, numerous charities, public health bodies and nutrition researchers around the world, and keep producing systematic reviews that show links between consumption of saturated fats and increased risk of heart disease.’ The idea that millions of people have been killed by guidelines which (a) were never followed, and (b) clearly discouraged sugar consumption, is one of the strangest memes in the world of nutritional woo.

But the book is persuasively written by cardiologist Asseem Malhotra, who cites research to back up his story.  Shouldn’t you trust him? But as  journalist Christopher Snowdown explains in his review of this book, it’s easy to cite what you want to help your story and sell your book . . .

“The reader should not have to look up the references in a book to find out what is being concealed. The nutritional epidemiology literature is enormous. Thousands of studies have been conducted and they do not all agree with one another. If one ignores the totality of the evidence and cherry-picks a handful of studies, it is possible to argue almost anything. If the reader cannot trust the author to play with a straight bat, he might as well save his money and go on a Google binge.”

Raw Food Diet

Overview: A raw foods diet involves eating uncooked foods, or foods that are not cooked or heated past about 110 degrees or heat processed.  The diet is typically rich in vegetables and fruits,  whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds.

Problems with Raw Food Diets. Although this diet encourages many healthy foods, the science behind the reasons for eating raw is shaky. Raw foodists claim that cooking destroys nutrients and “enzymes” in foods, but there is good evidence that heat can increase the bioavailability of certain nutrients.  There’s no good evidence to show that we need the enzymes in foods to help digest them.

One study found a  raw diet was associated with low cholesterol and triglycerides but also with nutrient deficiencies (low vitamin B-12 and low “good” HDL cholesterol). Also, consider than some vegetables are actually more nutritious when cooked, since cooking frees up more nutrients, making it easier for your body to absorb them.

Reviews & More Information:

Stash Plan

The Stash Plans website states that this is “a 21-day plan that combines the latest in food science with ancient dietary wisdom.”  It features celebrity “wisdom” (Laura Prepon, star of Orange is the New Black) and pseudoscientific ideas or what the site calls “cutting edge food science” from  integrative nutritionist Elizabeth Troy.  The Nutrition Wonk provided excellent in depth reviews of the book below.  She writes that the authors promote unrealistic body expectations and is not science-based, with errors in basic biology concepts. The book uses Chinese meridian theory to explain how the body reacts to various food choices. The book promotes the opinions of popular quacks including Dr Joseph Mercola.

Reviews & More Information:

Wheat Belly/Grain Brain

Overview: Wheat Belly and Grain Brain are two popular diets based on the premise that wheat and other grains are responsible for a myriad of health problems.  The books urge readers to eliminate wheat to lose weight and prevent disease.

Problems with Wheat Belly/Grain Brain: There is no good evidence that wheat causes disease or weight gain, but actually very good evidence that WHOLE grains are health promoting.  Some of the claims in these books are borderline ridiculous (Grain Brain links grains to various conditions including depression, autism, tourette’s, and ADHD, while Wheat Belly links wheat to just about any ailment you can imagine). The diets are very low in carbohydrates, so if you’re an athlete you will have a hard time on these diets.

Reviews & More Information:

Not Recommended

Cook Your Butt Off (Rocco DiSpirito)

You’ll find plenty of misleading health and nutrition advice in ‘Cook Your Butt Off!’ with Chef Rocco DiSpirito, that has been featured of all places on the New York Times health pages. The book boasts the following:

  • lose up to a pound a day (dangerous and doesn’t lead to sustainable changes)
  • fat-burning foods (don’t exist)
  • gluten-free recipes (because they help you lose weight?) They don’t
  • recipes designed to burn more calories than they contain! Sorry.

cook your butt offIn the New York Times video chef DiSpirito explains that we shouldn’t use kitchen appliances and do cooking tasks by hand as a form of exercise to burn more calories (he claims this can burn up to 400 calories an hour – doubtful – unless you’re somehow running around or doing exercises at the same time). I’m all for saving energy, noise, and doing some things by hand, but this doesn’t make sense in terms of diet or nutrition advice. In fact, the reason most people don’t cook is because they don’t have enough time – so it would make more sense to encourage time-saving devices. Also, although health experts are unanimous in encouraging exercise for better health, when it comes to using exercise to burn calories that leads to weight loss there is some debate. It’s disappointing that the New York Times Health Section is promoting such a book.

Detox or Cleansing Diets
Herbalife

Dietitian Diana Chard provides a nice review of Herbalife, summing it up with ” Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.” (Diana Chard, Bite My Words)

Isagenix

Isagenix is an expensive meal replacement program involving shakes, bars, and herbal supplements that relies on multilevel marketing often via social media or email to promote its product.  The product boasts “nutritional cleansing,” “detox” and is essentially a low-calorie diet that might promote short-term weight loss. Research has repeatedly shown that weight loss that relies on meal replacements and low calories is difficult to sustain, since it doesn’t change habits. Also, why spend a whole lot of money on low-calorie shakes and supplements when you can choose real foods that are inexpensive, fit into regular daily habits, and have proven nutritional benefits?

Reviews & More Information:

Shakeology

Nutrition Scam & Waste of Money.  A look at the the nutrition in shakeology, a  multi-level marketing scheme. (Fooducate)

Whole30

Whole30The Whole 30 diet is an “extreme” paleo diet that eliminates a wide variety of healthful foods, including all grains, legumes, dairy, and soy. Micheal Hull’s critical review linked to below details the lack of credibility of the authors and highlights the pseudoscience in the book.

RD Abby Langer sums it up nicely in her review:

“Whole 30 isn’t a whole foods diet, it’s a half-wit cleanse that cuts out a ton of healthy food for no good reason. It uses poorly done research to ‘prove’ points and is written in an insulting, punitive way. The Whole 30 is a lesson in extremes: good vs bad. Toxic vs clean. Strong vs weak. Not many things in life are that black and white, and food is certainly not one of them.” – Abby Langer, RD.

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Updated Augst 7, 2017

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