Weight loss: Choosing a diet that's right for you
Medically reviewed on July 3, 2018
When it comes to weight loss, there's no shortage of advice. Magazines, books and websites all promise that you'll lose all the weight you want for good, using diets that eliminate fat or carbs or those that tout superfoods or special supplements.
With so many conflicting options, how do you know which approach might work for you? Here are some suggestions for choosing a weight-loss program.
Involve your doctor in your weight-loss efforts
Before you start a weight-loss program, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can review your medical issues and medications that might affect your weight and provide guidance on a program for you. And you can discuss how to exercise safely, especially if you have physical or medical challenges, or pain with daily tasks.
Tell your doctor about your previous efforts to lose weight. Be open about fad diets that interest you. Your doctor might be able to direct you to weight-loss support groups or refer you to a registered dietitian.
Consider your personal needs
There's no one diet or weight-loss plan for everyone. But if you consider your preferences, lifestyle and weight-loss goals, you'll likely find a plan you can tailor to your needs.
Before starting a weight-loss program, think about:
- Diets you've tried. What did you like or dislike about them? Were you able to follow the diet? What worked or didn't work? How did you feel physically and emotionally while on the diet?
- Your preferences. Do you prefer to do a weight-loss program on your own, or do you want support from a group? If you like group support, do you prefer online support or in-person meetings?
- Your budget. Some weight-loss programs require you to buy supplements or meals, visit weight-loss clinics or attend support meetings. Does the cost fit your budget?
- Other considerations. Do you have a health condition, such as diabetes, heart disease or allergies? Do you have cultural or ethnic requirements or preferences regarding food?
Look for a safe, effective weight-loss program
It's tempting to buy into promises of rapid and dramatic weight loss, but a slow and steady approach is easier to maintain and usually beats fast weight loss for the long term. A weight loss of 0.5 to 2 pounds (0.2 to 0.9 kilograms) a week is the typical recommendation.
In some situations, faster weight loss can be safe if it's done right — such as a very low-calorie diet with medical supervision, or a brief quick-start phase of a healthy-eating plan.
Successful weight loss requires a long-term commitment to making healthy lifestyle changes in eating, exercise and behavior. Behavior modification is vital, and could have the greatest impact on your long-term weight-loss efforts.
Be sure to pick a plan you can live with. Look for these features:
- Flexibility. A flexible plan doesn't forbid certain foods or food groups, but instead includes a variety of foods from all the major food groups. A healthy diet includes vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean protein sources, and nuts and seeds. A flexible plan allows an occasional, reasonable indulgence if you like. It should feature foods you can find in your local grocery store and that you enjoy eating. However, the plan should limit alcohol, sugary drinks and high-sugar sweets because the calories in them don't provide enough nutrients.
- Balance. Your plan should include adequate nutrients and calories. Eating large quantities of certain foods, such as grapefruit or meat; drastically cutting calories; or eliminating entire food groups, such as carbs, can cause nutritional problems. Safe and healthy diets do not require excessive vitamins or supplements.
- Likeability. A diet should include foods you like, that you would enjoy eating for life — not ones you can tolerate over the course of the plan. If you don't like the food on the plan, if the plan is overly restrictive or if it becomes boring, you probably won't stick to it, so long-term weight loss is unlikely.
- Activity. Your plan should include physical activity. Exercise plus fewer calories can help give your weight loss a boost. Exercise also offers numerous health benefits, including countering the muscle mass loss that occurs with weight loss. And exercise is an important factor in maintaining weight loss.
What are the options?
The table below lists some of the more common diets. There's overlap, but most plans can be grouped into a few major categories.
Studies comparing different weight-loss programs have found that most programs result in weight loss in the short term compared with no program. Weight-loss differences between diets are generally small.
|Diet type and examples||Flexible||Nutritionally balanced||Sustainable for long term|
|DASH = Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, HMR = Health Management Resources.|
|Balanced (DASH, Mayo Clinic, Mediterranean, Weight Watchers)||Yes. No foods are off-limits.||Yes.||Yes. Emphasis is on making permanent lifestyle changes.|
|High protein (Dukan, Paleo)||No. Emphasizes lean meats, dairy.||Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans.||Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.|
|Low carb (Atkins, South Beach)||No. Carbs are limited; fats or proteins or both are emphasized.||Deficiencies are possible on very restrictive plans.||Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.|
|Low fat (Ornish)||No. Total fat is limited; most animal products are off-limits.||Yes.||Possibly. But the diet may be hard to stick to over time.|
|Meal replacement (Jenny Craig, HMR, Medifast, Nutrisystem, SlimFast)||No. Replacement products take the place of one or two meals a day.||Possibly. Balance is possible if you make healthy meal choices.||Possibly. Cost of products varies; some can be cost prohibitive.|
|Very low calorie (Optifast)||No. Calories are severely limited, typically to 800 or fewer calories a day.||No.||No. Diet is intended only for short-term use with medical supervision.|
Ask yourself these questions when evaluating weight-loss plans
Before you dive into a weight-loss plan, take time to learn as much about it as you can. Just because a diet is popular or your friends are doing it doesn't mean it's right for you. Ask these questions first:
- What's involved? Does the plan provide guidance that you can adapt to your situation? Does it require buying special meals or supplements? Does it offer online or in-person support? Does it teach you how to make positive, healthy changes in your life to help maintain your weight loss?
- What's behind the diet? Is there research and science to back up the weight-loss approach? If you go to a weight-loss clinic, what expertise, training, certifications and experience do the doctors, dietitians and other staff have? Will the staff coordinate with your regular doctor?
- What are the risks? Could the weight-loss program harm your health? Are the recommendations safe for you, especially if you have a health condition or take medications?
- What are the results? How much weight can you expect to lose? Does the program claim that you'll lose a lot of weight quickly or that you can target certain areas of your body? Does it tout before and after photos that seem too good to be true? Can it help you maintain your weight loss over time?
The keys to weight-loss success
Successful weight loss requires long-term changes to your eating habits and physical activity. This means you need to find a weight-loss approach you can embrace for life. You're not likely to maintain whatever weight loss a diet helps you achieve if you then go off the diet and revert to old habits.
Diets that leave you feeling deprived or hungry can cause you to give up. And because many weight-loss diets don't encourage permanent healthy lifestyle changes, even if you do lose weight, the pounds can quickly return once you stop dieting.
You'll likely always have to remain vigilant about your weight. But combining a healthier diet with more activity is the best way to lose weight, keep it off for the long term and improve your health.