Diets That Don't Work—And A Look At What Does

U.S. News's Best Diets rankings emphasize plans that work over the long term, not quick fixes

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Fad diets are just that: fads. Although I still like my hula-hoop and I'd enjoy dancing the twist, fads are only successful while they last, and then … they're gone. Diets, on the other hand, cannot be fads. We don't want good health to come and go, nor do we want to shoot for success that will be temporary and perhaps even cause more harm than good.

Bonnie Taub-Dix
Bonnie Taub-Dix
[See Google's Most Popular Diets of 2012: Hit or Miss?]

For more than three decades, I've been highlighting the warning signs of potentially damaging diets to my clients. Here are some tips to help you proceed with caution as you're trying to drop pounds safely:

1. Avoid plans that make false promises. If you're told you'll "lose 10 pounds in 10 minutes," walk away.

2. Stay away from sales pitches. Testimonials are advertisements, and often based upon making money, not supporting the truth.

3. Don't starve your weight away. Diets that provide fewer than 1,200 calories a day for women and 1,500 calories a day for men may be nutritionally inadequate. Your initial feeling of euphoria from severe calorie restriction may be a result of lightheadedness.

4. Eat a variety of foods and don't ditch any food groups. Carbs, protein, fats … you need them all, in balance. Period.

Fortunately, thanks to credible websites and some solid health and fitness stories in popular magazines, there seems to be a shift in our culture towards a growing awareness of how and what we eat. Americans are realizing that we need to improve what we put in our mouths if we want to improve the health of our nation.

[See Easiest Diets to Follow]

Although I could go on and on about this subject, the newly released U.S. News Best Diets rankings have made my job easier. U.S. News evaluates and rates 29 different diets, from popular commercial plans (such as Weight Watchers, Atkins, and Medifast) to eating approaches, like veganism and the raw food diet. These diets were not based upon quick fixes that typically provide speedy weight loss and even speedier regain. Rather, "We paid attention to what's trending in the diet world, and we focused on including diets that cater to different goals, such as weight loss, heart health, and diabetes prevention and management," said Angela Haupt, U.S. News's health and wellness editor.

I had lots of questions about how this information was collected and how it was received by consumers, knowing that all too many readers just want to say "show me the plan" without reading between the lines of most diet books. Here's a slice of my interview with Haupt to help you decide which diet might work best for you:

BTD: How did you determine which diets to evaluate?

AH: Each year, we add a handful of diets, in order to keep up with what's appealing to our readers. We want to include as diverse a selection of diets as possible—low-carb, high-protein, low-calorie, balanced, and so on.

BTD: How did you choose your reviewers?

AH: When we initially produced Best Diets (this is the third iteration), our expert panel consisted of 22 experts, including nutritionists and specialists in diabetes, heart health, human behavior, and weight loss.

BTD: What made U.S. News decide to have such an emphasis on plant-based diets this year?

AH: People are very interested in going plant-based. And that's complemented by robust research that suggests replacing animal meat with plant sources of protein can make a significant difference health-wise, not only in terms of weight loss, but with heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. The benefits are unquestionable.

BTD: You seem to stay away from supporting a quick fix. Do you think your report will (finally) encourage a healthy way of life?

AH: I certainly hope so! We want people to realize that there's no magic, silver-bullet solution. If you want to achieve your goals successfully, you need to find a plan that you can actually live with. There are plenty of filling, tasty, flexible diets that are balanced and healthy, and can become a way of life.

BTD: How has the feedback been on your diet rankings?

AH: Very positive! Of course, no one will agree with our rankings 100 percent, and most people have their own diet allegiances and feelings about which plans should be at the top. But we're very pleased with the response so far, and we welcome criticism and ideas on how we can do better next year.

[See Foods Nutrition Experts Will Never Eat]

As Haupt said, "If a diet seems too good to be true, it is." Perhaps it's time for us to stop associating diet with deprivation, and instead, take a first step by filling half our plates with veggies and watching our portions of whatever fills the other side. One of my favorite quotes was said by Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell University's Food and Brand Laboratory. Wansink said, "The best diet is the one you don't know you're on." Great food for thought.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.