There's a new diet book on the shelves, one that says boosting intake of a single nutrient can help you lose weight without counting calories. Even without knowing the details, it's tempting to dismiss such a plan as a fad diet that can't be maintained over the long haul...except that this book is written by three reputable health pros and developed by a nonprofit health group, which means it's at least worth a look.
The miracle nutrient at the center of The Full Plate Diet is fiber. If you think you've heard that before, you have. Many eating plans, including the F-Factor Diet and the Fiber35 Diet, are built on the notion that fiber has health benefits and adds bulk to your meals, permitting you to eat the same volume of food but take in fewer calories. "We hit on fiber because it helps people feel full and start to lose weight," says Teresa Sherard, one of the Full Plate authors and a staff physician at the Lifestyle Center of America, a nonprofit that focuses on fighting diabetes.
The diet calls for boosting fiber consumption to 40 grams a day from the 10 to 15 grams in the typical American diet. The plan has three stages. The first two involve boosting fiber consumption from whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, as well as drinking a lot of water and stopping eating when you're no longer hungry. Only in the third stage are dieters advised to reduce intake of meat and dairy products and "other foods that are high calorie, high fat, and low fiber."
What about the science? As for the high-fiber premise, consumption of the nutrient is indeed associated with improved health outcomes, including reduction of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and some gastrointestinal diseases, Amy Jamieson-Petonic, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic, says in an E-mail. (Notably, though, that a 2005 study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association did not find that dietary fiber intake protected against colorectal cancer.) Epidemiological studies have associated fiber consumption from whole-grain sources with lower body weight.
[Get the scoop: Fiber Sources: Soluble, Insoluble, and Beyond.]
Yet it's unclear whether the advice for the first two stages of the diet—focusing only on boosting fiber, without consciously cutting the consumption of less healthful or more caloric foods—can do the trick. "If you eat the fiber-rich foods first, it will fill you up" and naturally cut down on your portions of less beneficial foods, says Sherard. Eating, say, fruit when you're hungry, as opposed to a cookie, helps you lose the craving for the sweeter, more rich foods, she says—to the point where she says she now craves salads (!).
But don't think that fiber is a miracle shortcut; simply sprinkling bran on top of a hot fudge sundae is not going to lead to health benefits or weight loss. The real key is to substitute high-fiber foods for the less healthful, and more caloric, items in your diet. That's where the advice presented in the diet's third stage—carefully reading labels to avoid certain ingredients and foods—comes in handy. (The book uses a "traffic light" rating system, much like Britain's voluntary food labeling system that some experts would like to see implemented in the United States.) It can also be very tough to, as the plan advises, "stop eating when you're no longer hungry." For most people, following that advice requires constant vigilance, given the variety of cheap sugar- and fat-spiked foods that surround us.
Any eating plan, including the Full Plate Diet, that recommends focusing on fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, and "good" fats like nuts and olive oil is certainly more healthful than the average American diet and may lead to weight loss, if the end result is fewer calories taken in. But it's important to remember the caloric bottom line and also not to overlook the authors' advice to get fiber from its natural, whole-food sources—not processed foods like drink mixes and energy bars that have been spiked with fiber.