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Popular Approaches to Weight Loss

Take a look at any supermarket checkout newsstand and you're sure to be bombarded by a variety of tabloids and women's magazines touting any number of miracle weight-loss diets. Type the word diet into any Internet search engine and brace yourself for a tidal wave of suggested eating plans. If you want to lose weight, it seems there are a million-plus ways to do it — and according to the hype, every approach is a winner.

But like many important decisions in life, choosing a weight-loss plan is one you shouldn't make alone. Many fad diets are questionable, controversial, and may even be unhealthy. Before starting a weight-loss program, including the six listed here, talk to your doctor about whether your choice is right for you.

Medically supervised low-calorie diets

Think of these as prescription diet plans, available only from healthcare professionals who specialize in treating obese people (bariatricians). As the names of the two most well-known low-calorie diets, Optifast and Medifast, imply, these programs involve some serious calorie deprivation. The prepared drinks and bars patients consume on this program — usually along with one small meal per day — contain 800 to 1,000 calories a day and are fortified with protein, vitamins, and minerals. The goal of these programs is to produce faster short-term weight loss to improve or help prevent dangerous obesity-related health conditions, such as diabetes.

Meal-replacement diets

The convenience of a commercially available, ready-to-drink meal replacement appeals to many overwhelmed dieters. These diets, including Nestle Sweet Success and the perennially popular Slim Fast are based in part on many of the same principles as low-calorie diets, but are available at drugstores and grocery stores. Medical supervision, is not required because these drinks are not intended to replace all three of your daily meals. The idea is to substitute a shake in place of one or two meals a day, depending on your weight-loss goals, and then supplemented with a sensible meal or meals at other times.

Commercial weight-loss programs

Programs such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig focus on lifestyle issues, including a low-calorie diet and portion control, as well as exercise and behavioral changes. Both programs offer weekly meetings (providing a strong support-group component) and one-on-one counseling. Costs for these programs vary, but both Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig offer financial incentives for reaching your goal weight. Jenny Craig requires you to purchase their branded food; Weight Watchers food products are available, but optional.

Food-specific diets

Aimed at jump-starting your weight-loss efforts or helping you meet a short-term goal, diets based on single foods such as the grapefruit diet and the cabbage soup diet promise rapid results. While some (for example, the grapefruit diet) theorize that enzymes in certain foods burn calories, others contend that combining the key food, such as cabbage soup, with specific foods in a particular order promotes weight loss. These diets are not nutritionally balanced; if you're interested in trying out a food-specific diet, you'd be wise to consult your doctor or a registered dietician first and plan to use this for only a brief period of time.

High-protein/low-carb diets

The premise of these diets is that carbohydrate, not too much fat or calories, is responsible for our country's dietary woes. According to low-carb programs such as Sugar Busters!, Carbohydrate Addicts, The Zone, the Atkins diet, the Protein Power Plan, and even the classic Scarsdale diet, carbohydrate-rich diets encourage the production of insulin, which — in one way or another, varying by which diet you consult — is what keeps you from losing weight.

Drs. Richard and Rachael Heller, creators of the Carbohydrate Addicts program theorize that if you're carbohydrate-sensitive, eating foods rich in carbohydrates makes your body produce extra insulin, which causes you to crave even more carbohydrates. The Zone advocates a diet that's 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat. According to author Barry Sears, M.D., this ratio produces optimal levels of insulin. And, embraced by meat-lovers everywhere, the Protein Power Plan asserts that we should eat a diet more like that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors — lots of meat, poultry, and fish — and avoid foods early humans didn't have, such as refined sugars and grains.

Vegetarian diet

A popular belief is that non-meat-eaters tend to weigh less than meat-eaters, so it's no surprise that vegetarian diets have gained popularity as weight-loss plans. Because they eat a plant-based diet, vegetarians may consume more fiber-rich complex carbohydrates and less fat; these two behaviors have been shown to provide numerous health benefits (including lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes) in addition to helping you shed extra pounds.

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