From the Today's Chiropractic ~ January 2004
By Mark Farmer
A Look at today’s most popular diets
Strictly speaking, our “diet” is whatever we eat. For some years,
however, the term has been synonymous with weight loss. It conjured up images
of calorie counting, carbohydrate charts, and fat grams, all topped with a helping
of discipline, and maybe a lapse or two on the side. Nutrition or health often
were meager portions if they were served at all. The goal was to trim the waistline.
But increasingly, creators of weight-loss diets present health concerns, e.g.
nutrients and exercise, as integral parts of their programs. Likewise, proponents
of health-based diets say that achieving proper weight is a natural result of
Finding the right diet may not be easy. A blizzard of dozens, if not hundreds,
of diet philosophies are available to the consumer. The principles of some conflict
with those of others.
Beginning with this of Today’s Chiropractic, we’re tackling some
of the popular trend diets of today. Our guide/summary of eight of the most
popular diets (some are actually weight-loss programs and some are food philosophies
that mix in a little food ethics) is featured in this article, and we will be
following up in every issue this year with an in-depth analysis of each of these
diets by a nutritional expert.
What follows are synopses of the eight popular diets, presented as a starting
point for diet research. Bear in mind that these are boiled-down versions of
the diets. In some cases, the programs span full-length books or more. Careful
study, as well as consultation with a health care provider, should precede starting
any diet, and keep an eye out for insightful analysis on all these diets in
our following issues.
First outlined by Dr. Robert Atkins in the early 1970s, the Atkins Diet is probably
the best-known of the low-carbohydrate diets. It espouses four “nutritional
principles,” weight loss, weight maintenance, health, and disease prevention.
The weight loss and maintenance logic goes like this: The human body normally
uses carbohydrates for energy, but will turn to burning its stored fat if the
carbohydrate intake is reduced sufficiently. Each person has his or her own
level of carbohydrate consumption below which this switch kicks in. Transitioning
to the new body state, known as lipolysis/ketosis, is accomplished by means
of an “Induction” phase that lasts a minimum of 14 days. During
Induction, carbs are significantly restricted. Likewise, for the “Maintenance”
segment, a level of carbohydrate intake exists, higher than during Induction,
that will hold weight steady once the desired goal is met. Atkins says the hunger
and deprivation common to other diets is eliminated with the right balance of
fat and carbohydrates.
Beyond weight loss, the author says his diet plan makes use of foods with high
nutrient value, which are more likely to promote good health than a low-fat,
low-cal diet. The regimen may require vitamin and mineral supplements, and includes
exercise as an “essential” component. Atkins claims that by following
the program correctly, which both boosts nutrition and reduces the body’s
insulin production, “people who are at high risk for or diagnosed with
chronic diseases can see improvement in clinical parameters.” (Insulin
levels, in addition to impacting hunger and health, affect the burning of fat.
Less insulin makes the body use fat instead of carbohydrates for fuel.)
South Beach Diet
Dr. Arthur Agatston, a Florida cardiologist, developed the South Beach Diet
to help his heart patients. The South Beach Diet resembles the Atkins Diet,
but has some key differences. Agatston stresses that the plan isn’t low-carb
or low-fat, but leads adherents through a three-phase program that shows them
how to identify and eat the right carbohydratess and fats.
That said, the two-week first phase is practically carbohydrate-free. Breads,
pastas, cakes, and the like are prohibited. The doctor insists that this phase
is much less painful than it sounds—except for maybe the first couple
of days. He predicts a weight loss of 8 to 13 pounds by the end of two weeks.
South Beach echoes Atkins when speaking of a switch that gets flipped during
the plan’s initial days—a fat-storing switch that moves to the “off”
Phase two begins the re-introduction of carbohydrates in controlled amounts.
Desserts are even allowed during this segment. The phase ends when the goal
weight is achieved. Average weight loss in phase two is one to two pounds per
The final phase, characterized as a lifestyle rather than a diet, allows yet
more favorite foods, but again, under some rules. Agatston explains that sticking
to the plan should result in improved health and longevity.
The Zone program, developed by Dr. Barry Sears, features four “key elements,”
one of which is the Zone Diet itself. The diet is based on the premise that
evolution designed the human digestive system to process natural carbohydrates
(the kind found in vegetables) and lean protein. Refined foods such as bread
and pasta are too dense in carbohydrates, resulting in high insulin levels and
subsequent conversion of excess carbohydrates into body fat. Similarly, The
Zone Diet says saturated fats are bad, but that monounsaturated fats, like that
found in olive oil, are good.
According to the Zone rules, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats should be eaten
in a 40-30-30 ratio, respectively, at each meal. They go on to explain a way
to determine portion size—The Eyeball Method—that uses the dieter’s
hand as a measuring instrument. For example, the Zone web site states, “The
size of your hand is relative to the size of your body and, therefore, your
protein needs. Your protein portion should be equal to the size and thickness
of your palm.” Further, the five fingers of the hand remind the dieter
to eat five times per day, three meals and two snacks, and to never let more
than five hours pass without eating. The expected weight loss is greatest in
the first two weeks and then levels off to about a pound per week.
The second key to the plan emphasizes making monounsaturated fat a staple. Fat
is said to slow down the body's absorption of food and tells the brain to send
out a “stop eating” signal. Part three of the program deals with
supplementation using omega-3 fish oils, nutrients described as vital to overall
health and prevention of disease. The final segment lays out an exercise routine.
Dr. Dean Ornish disagrees with what some people are eating. He decries the low-carb
diets as not scientifically based. His weight-loss diet, set forth in the book
Eat More, Weigh Less, was derived from earlier success at developing diets for
his heart patients. His first two diets, one designed to reverse heart disease
and the other designed to prevent it, are vegetarian. The overarching goal for
these programs is a healthier heart through the reduction of cholesterol in
the patient’s blood.
In the forward to Eat More, Weigh Less, Ornish walks the reader through how
various foods affect the body. He claims that diets based on animal fat can
lead to everything from bad breath to impotence to cancer. He draws a sharp
distinction between good carbohydrates and bad ones. The bad carbohydrates,
such as sugar, can adversely affect the body’s insulin levels and cause
weight gain. By the same token, good carbohydratess don’t spike the insulin
levels and therefore don’t lead to weight gain, and in fact, reduce it.
Moreover, good carbs usually come from vegetables and whole grains that are
rich in fiber and valuable nutrients. Fiber slows absorption of these foods,
which in turn reduces weight.
The title of the book comes from Ornish’s observation that the plant-based
foods he recommends have fewer calories by weight than do meats and simple carbohydrates.
It follows that the dieter can eat more while consuming fewer calories and thus
keep unwanted pounds off. Ornish insists this will help people stay on the diet
because it’s not based on skimpy portions.
Weight Watchers, around since the early 1960s, is one of the older and better-known
weight-loss diets. Founder Jean Nidetch first gathered friends into her Queens,
New York, home to discuss how to lose weight. Today, millions follow the program.
Weight Watchers also boasts a celebrity spokesperson, Sarah, Duchess of York,
who in 1997 reached her goal weight using the system and has maintained it ever
The diet is somewhat different from others now popular in that it doesn’t
exclude any type of food. Instead, all foods are assigned a certain number of
points. Dieters can eat whatever they want as long as they stay within their
daily point allotment, which is determined using the dieter’s current
weight. Additionally, 35 “FLEXpoints” are allowed each week to handle
“food challenges,” presumably unexpected eating situations and food
cravings. The program provides materials to help calculate points used when
eating. It also features “activity points” that accrue through exercise.
These can be traded for food points or used to quicken weight loss.
Integral to the program, and reminiscent of its origin, are weekly counseling
meetings where dieters gather to support one another’s effort. Each local
meeting has a leader who began as a member and who presides over the meetings
and orients new members. At meetings, attendees go through a confidential weigh-in
to track progress. Dieters’ weights can be kept secret if desired, and
verbal participation at meetings is not required. Fees, which vary among locations,
are charged for meetings.
More accurately called the “Caveman” or Paleolithic diet, this philosophy
says that we should eat what our ancestors ate because human evolution hasn’t
kept pace with the food source revolution. (Recall that the Zone Diet uses this
same logic.) It argues that animal species are slow to adapt to new food sources.
Homo sapiens ate raw food for millennia and haven’t evolved to eat cooked
vegetables, let alone the cornucopia of processed foods available to modern
man. Thus, food in its natural state is best for us. As one writer puts it,
“For a typical Westerner at least 70 percent of calories are provided
by foods that were practically unavailable during human evolution, namely dairy
products, oils, margarine, refined sugar and cereals.”
But, the diet is a bit hard to pin down when it comes to the details of which
foods to consume. Proponents appear to follow the diet with a “cafeteria”
approach, selecting this or that item as best suits them. For example, some
advocates recommend dining on meat, which of course must be cooked. Likewise,
raw dieters differ over whether certain dairy products are allowed. Some say
the advent of cooking allowed the consumption of certain plants that were previously
considered inedible, such as grains and beans; those, too, are to be avoided.
Others say grains and beans can be eaten after preparation through sprouting.
Not surprisingly, many modern ailments, as well as rising obesity rates, are
blamed on the shift away from the pre-historic diet. Advocates use this as further
evidence of the diet’s virtue.
As much a lifestyle as a diet, veganism flows from a wish to spare animals any
harm. Vegans eschew animal products of any kind, such as leather. They also
attempt to determine which foods at first may appear to be vegan, yet harbor
an animal product in their processing. Some beers and wines, for instance, are
refined with animal products. Vegans reject eating eggs and drinking milk because
they claim chickens and cows are harmed by the industries that do the processing.
Even honey is often shunned because vegans reason that bees make honey for the
good of the hive and not for humans to exploit.
Most of the health claims of veganism derive from the avoidance of meat, with
its bad reputation, and with the natural nutrition garnered from a plant-based
Vegetarianism holds parallels to both veganism and the Caveman diet. Like vegans,
vegetarians, as the name suggests, avoid the eating of meat. On the other hand,
some persons who for health reasons eat no animals or animal by-products at
all, may have no compunction about wearing leather shoes. Similar to the Caveman
dieters, some vegetarians blur the line on exactly what constitutes allowable
food. Some who call themselves vegetarians will also eat fish, eggs or dairy
products on occasion. Chicken can even find its way onto the menu.
Like the vegans, vegetarians say their diet boosts health by cutting the fat
common to a diet with a large percentage of red meat. Additionally, they point
to the nutrients and fiber in vegetables as beneficial to health.