Seems like almost anything can be cooked into a diet these days (Big Mac for breakfast, anyone?). And every year, a whole new wave of weight-loss books is unleashed upon the millions of Americans looking to lighten their saddlebag load: The self-improvement book market, fueled largely by diet books, raked in about $695 million in 2005 and is expected to grow by 8.3 percent a year, according to independent market research publisher Marketdata Enterprises. Why is it, then, that we’re gobbling these books up but still getting fatter by the minute? Simple: A lot of the diet programs weighing down bookstore shelves are so fraught with sketchy advice that they can do more harm than good. That’s why we checked out the 10 you’re most likely to encounter — and separated the bologna from the boeuf bourguignon.
Eat, Drink, & Weigh Less: A Flexible and Delicious Way to Shrink Your Waist Without Going Hungry
The Dish This 1,500- to 1,600-calorie program has recipes and a 21-day meal plan. The authors’ diet advice is based on what they call the “Nine Turning Points”: Eat lots of fresh produce; say yes to good fats (like olive oil and avocados); upgrade your carb intake (opt for whole grains); choose healthy proteins (aim for 50 percent plant-based); stay hydrated (drink at least six glasses of water a day); consume alcohol in moderation (one drink per day for women); take a multivitamin every day; move more; and eat mindfully.
The Goods There’s a simplified “portable plan” for those who can’t spend a long time preparing meals. Also, this is the “first major diet that’s suitable for vegetarians, meat-eaters, and ‘flexitarians,’” people who usually get their protein from sources other than meat.
The Bads Some of the little things they recommend, like drizzling olive oil on bread, can ratchet up your calorie count if you’re not careful.
Best Suited For Someone dedicated to transforming her eating habits steadily and permanently. There’s a “warmup plan” to help you do this.
Best Bit of Advice To take the edge off your appetite — and eat less — drink a glass or two of water or a cup of hot vegetable broth before a meal.
WH Says A- You won’t find anything revolutionary or faddish here — just sound, practical advice, based on Dr. Willett’s 30 years of research in the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The Fast Food Diet: Lose Weight and Feel Great Even If You’re Too Busy to Eat Right
By Stephen Sinatra, M.D., and Jim Punkre (Wiley)
The Dish Dr. Sinatra offers up a 6-week meal plan of restaurant foods (from the likes of Pizza Hut, Subway, and Taco Bell), complete with calorie and fat counts, so you can shed pounds while on the go. His theory: If you’re “eating right about 80 percent of the time, it’s okay to splurge the other 20 percent.”
The Goods Well, let’s see: You can cave in to your Wendy’s craving and still lose weight. The book also includes tons of practical tips for different eating-out situations, including travel, holidays, and shopping at the mall (think kiddie menu).
The Bads Some of Dr. Sinatra’s recommendations are over-the-top unhealthy: The Angus Steak Burger from Burger King has 570 calories and 22 grams of fat (8 of which are saturated). He also recommends getting a bagel with cream cheese at Dunkin’ Donuts, which packs more calories and sat fat than most of the doughnuts! And, unless you’ve memorized the meals, you have to take the book with you.
Best Suited For A mom with a demanding job and 10 kids, or a truck driver — someone who has to rely on the drive-thru for most of her meals.
Best Bit of Advice Get at least 15 to 20 grams of protein at every meal. It curbs hunger better than fats or carbohydrates.
WH Says B- We could all use some advice on how to avoid diet disasters when fast food is our only option, but some of Dr. Sinatra’s menu suggestions are just plain bad for you.
The Fat Smash Diet: The Last Diet You’ll Ever Need
By Ian K. Smith, M.D. (St. Martin’s Press)
The Dish Dr. Smith is the guy who serves up diet advice to the B-listers on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club. His 90-day program (the same one he gives the celebs) consists of four phases: The first is a 9-day detox that focuses mostly on fruits and vegetables but also includes a little protein. The next two phases gradually reintroduce stuff eliminated from the first. And phase four is a maintenance plan meant to last the rest of your life.
The Goods It’s realistic. Once you get to phase four, you’re allowed things like pizza and beer. It’s also easy: Just choose from a list of portion-controlled foods and recipes and you’re good to go.
The Bads Dr. Smith allows 2 teaspoons of salt a day starting in phase two — that’s double the RDA for sodium, which can be bad news if you have high blood pressure.
Best Suited For The yo-yo-prone dieter. Dr. Smith says: “If you’ve gained back 10 to 15 percent of the weight…then simply go back to [phase one] until you’ve lost that weight again, then return directly to phase four.”
Best Bit of Advice Go for a 20-minute walk after dinner, which revs metabolism and burns calories before bedtime.
WH Says B+ The plan is very sensible. Still, why certain foods are included — or excluded — from the different phases doesn’t make sense to us. (For example, why brown rice is okay in phase one but whole-wheat breads aren’t is a mystery.)
The Feel Good Diet: The Weight-Loss Plan That Boosts Serotonin, Improves Your Mood, and Keeps Pounds Off for Good
By Cheryle Hart, M.D., and Mary Kay Grossman, R.D. (McGraw-Hill)
The Dish This program is meant to keep you smiling while you’re dieting. Serotonin, the brain chemical that controls mood, appetite, cravings, and s*x drive, is often depleted on weight-loss diets, which leads to feelings of hunger and irritability. There are food lists, meal guidelines, and calorie-controlled plans to help you drop pounds without lowering your serotonin levels. This concept, called “linking and balancing,” combines proteins and carbohydrates in specific ways that actually increase serotonin.
The Goods A plan that helps you lose weight without obsessing about food and feeling deprived? Yee-haw!
The Bads The book recommends certain supplements (like 5-HTP) to help boost serotonin levels if you’re still struggling with cravings, but these pills may cause nausea, headaches, and drowsiness, or interact with antidepressants.
Best Suited For Someone who gets really moody when dieting (so pretty much anyone).
Best Bit of Advice Cut empty calories from your daily food intake by making small changes — you could shed 9 pounds in a year just by using 2 percent milk instead of cream in your coffee.
WH Says B+ We love the emphasis on emotional health — something that diet experts often overlook. But the complexity of the daily diet recommendations can be intimidating.
How the Rich Get Thin: Park Avenue’s Top Diet Doctor Reveals the Secrets to Losing Weight and Feeling Great
By Jana Klauer, M.D. (St. Martin’s Press)
The Dish This is yet another high-protein, low-carb diet (yawn), but with a twist: Dr. Klauer, a New York City-based physician, incorporates advice based on the lifestyles of her wealthy clientele. Here’s a morsel: “Instead of having lumpfish from a tin, treat yourself to the 20-gram presentation of Caviar Tsar Imperial Beluga from Petrossian and savor every bite.”
The Goods The author’s set of “nonnegotiables”: exercising for 45 minutes, 6 days a week; meeting daily calcium goals; and staying away from processed foods.
The Bads Phase one, where you’re supposed to remain until you’ve reached your goal weight, consists primarily of fish, eggs, and dairy, and severely limits carbs (read: no fruits or grains aside from half a cup of berries). This not only gets boring fast, it can make working out difficult, as carbs are the body’s main source of fuel for exercise.
Best Suited For A lady who lunches (and has a load of dough to spend at gourmet shops and fancy-schmancy restaurants).
Best Bit of Advice To fight cravings, set a stopwatch for 15 minutes, then drink a large glass of water and eat a high-protein snack. When the watch beeps, your blood sugar should be normalized and the craving gone.
WH Says B- The plan emphasizes some healthy foods and principles, but phase one is simply too low in carbohydrates. Also, following this diet for too long could break the bank.
The QOD Diet: Eating Well Every Other Day
By John T. Daugirdas, M.D. (White Swan Publishing)
The Dish The concept is simple: You alternate 400-calorie fasting days (“off” days) with 2,000-calorie normal days (“on” days), on which you can eat pretty much whatever your little heart desires. Dr. Daugirdas, a retired kidney specialist, argues that varying your intake like this keeps your metabolism revved up — so it stays in high gear even on low-calorie days — making you burn more calories overall and lose more weight.
The Goods It’s super easy to follow.
The Bads Eating just 400 calories in a day can sap your strength and make you irritable, lightheaded, and unable to concentrate. It can also cause you to go whole hog on “on” days: The author himself admits to consuming 800 calories’ worth of peach pie during a 2,000-calorie day.
Best Suited For A fan of fads who needs to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress in 2 weeks.
Best Bit of Advice Dr. Daugirdas emphasizes the importance of portion control (on “on” days): “Go ahead and have a piece of pie or cake — but make it a thin slice and eat it slowly, savoring every morsel.” He also recommends exercise (though how you’d have the energy to move on “off” days is beyond us).
WH Says C- The C here stands for “crash.” Even Dr. Daugirdas concedes that QOD is not a “lifestyle diet.”
The Reality Diet: Lose the Pounds for Good with a Cardiologist’s Simple, Healthy, Proven Plan
By Steven A. Schnur, M.D. (Avery)
The Dish The 8-week “Reality Diet” plan consists of three daily meals designed to ensure that you get your recommended 25 grams of fiber a day — which, Dr. Schnur says, not only significantly lowers the risk of life-threatening illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, but is also the key to losing weight. By following the 2:90 rule for starches (2 grams of fiber per 90-calorie serving), you can also create your own menus.
The Goods The plan’s focus on heart-healthy fiber means you’ll feel full on fewer calories. Plus, it’s totally realistic: It includes “Reality Rewards” (desserts, alcohol, and other splurges) and foods like rice, waffles, and pasta that are no-nos on a lot of other diets.
The Bads Dr. Schnur demonizes snacking, calling it “a habit that can have dangerous consequences when it comes to weight loss.”
Best Suited For A woman with enough time on her hands to cook the delicious recipes included in the plan — like moo shu chicken wraps, salmon croquettes, and panna cotta with dates. There are more than 200!
Best Bit of Advice Keep a “3E” journal to help you identify and address problems related to eating, exercise, and emotions that can hinder your weight-loss efforts.
WH Says B+ The diet hits the mark with its emphasis on the importance of fiber for weight loss. Our only quibble: that darn snack thing. Eating small, frequent meals can actually help boost your metabolism and curb cravings.
The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan
By Seth Roberts, Ph.D. (Penguin Group)
The Dish Roberts, a psychologist who created his plan by experimenting on himself, believes that we each have an individual “set point” — the weight our body naturally wants to be — that acts as a thermostat of sorts, regulating how hungry or full we feel. The key to dropping pounds is to lower your set point by adding foods to your diet that make you feel fuller faster, specifically 100 to 400 calories of unflavored sugar water or extra-light olive oil a day. Roberts argues that since these foods have no flavor, you won’t want to eat as much of them as you would of, say, Boston cream doughnuts.
The Goods There’s no learning curve, plain and simple. Says Dr. Roberts: “Adding the sugar water and oil are the only changes you need to make in your diet.” In fact, you can follow other diet plans, like Weight Watchers, at the same time.
The Bads Adding 400 calories of anything will cause weight gain if you don’t consume fewer calories overall.
Best Suited For Someone who balks at the idea of following a set of diet rules or meal plans.
Best Bit of Advice Take a multivitamin to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of essential nutrients.
WH Says C-/D We’ll just say it: Shangri-La gives new meaning to the term “fad diet.” It lacks guidelines for calorie and nutrient consumption, and the science behind it is based largely on animal research.
The Sonoma Diet: Trimmer Waist, Better Health in Just 10 Days!
By Connie Guttersen, R.D., Ph.D. (Meredith Corporation)
The Dish This is the “Western Hemisphere version of the Mediterranean diet” — a way of eating that decreases your risk of heart disease and cancer by emphasizing vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and good fats (like canola oil and almonds) and discouraging sugar and refined foods.
The Goods Meal plans and visual guides that tell you how to fill your plate with the right proportions from each food group (for example, equal amounts of protein, grains, fruits, and vegetables) make calorie counting unnecessary. Plus, you can enjoy a glass of wine at dinner.
The Bads About that wine: The book doesn’t mention that women with a family history of chest cancer should steer clear of alcohol. Also, completely cutting out sugar for the first 10 days of the diet may make bingeing more likely.
Best Suited For Someone with the energy to make a lot of recipes from fresh ingredients. (Preparation can take up to an hour.)
Best Bit of Advice Meet your cravings halfway by treating yourself to smaller, healthier versions of the foods you really want. For example, instead of scarfing a bag of potato chips, bake a sweet potato until crisp, then cut it into slices.
WH Says A- The diet is scientifically backed and full of really flavorful foods (though sugar hounds may find it tough to follow).
UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss
By Mark Hyman, M.D. (Scribner)
The Dish According to weight-loss physician Dr. Hyman, we can blame our cushy tushes on our DNA, which was designed to accumulate fat back in the day when we had to forage for food in the wild. But, he says, food “talks to our genes,” which means eating the right stuff (whole, unprocessed foods) can awaken the genes that make us burn fat and silence the ones that cause us to hoard it. Of course, the amount of specific nutrients you need to do this depends on your unique genetic makeup. Dr. Hyman’s 8-week metabolism-boosting plan, which includes menus, recipes, shopping lists, and supplement and exercise recommendations, is meant to be customized.
The Goods The list of “right foods” emphasizes healthy fare like fish, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
The Bads There are no calorie limits in this diet, so you could actually follow its guidelines to a T and still not lose weight. Also, the FDA doesn’t regulate the herbs and supplements Dr. Hyman recommends, so their safety and efficacy are unknown.
Best Suited For Someone who has a whole lot of time to wade through the thick science required to personalize the plan (and completely redesign her kitchen).
Best Bit of Advice Eat every 3 to 4 hours to keep insulin and glucose levels normal, which helps keep hunger at bay.
WH Says C+ We can’t imagine implementing this diet (it was hard enough just to review). It’s full of scientifically grounded info but is very difficult to customize and follow.