Everyone burns fat differently. So how do you know which method will work for you?
The search for the perfect diet has never been more frenzied. Eat low-carb! No, eat low-fat! But beyond the hype, and the billions spent on weight-loss products, a revolutionary idea is catching on with researchers: the notion that no two individuals lose weight the same way. Each person has a hidden key to weight loss.
Some people find this key on their own. Steven Wallach, for example, spent most of his 40s gaining weight after an injury sidelined him from exercise. At 47, he was, literally, fed up — with pasta, potatoes and bagels — and more than 30 pounds overweight. “I didn’t look or feel as good as I wanted to,” admits Wallach, a jeweler in the New York City suburbs. He buckled down to a strict Atkins diet plan, cut out his beloved starches and within five months dropped 30 pounds. Another five came off when he took up running. A year later, his weight has stabilized and he considers himself a lifelong convert. “I could eat this way forever,” he says cheerily as he digs into his scrambled eggs.
For Katie White, 27, a San Francisco bookkeeper, the weight-loss process was entirely different. She didn’t want to eliminate whole food groups, so decided instead to reduce her portion sizes. She swapped fast food for simple home-cooked meals that she’d learned from her mother and grandmother while growing up in Brooklyn. White snacked on fresh fruit and was “religious” about her daily regimen of sit-ups. She dropped 20 pounds her way — a way she could live with and not feel deprived.
It’s possible that neither Wallach nor White would have succeeded on the other’s diet plan. They are living proof of what diet experts are coming to believe: One diet does not fit all. Each of us has markedly different indicators that influence how quickly we gain weight, and how hard it will be to lose it. In addition to the basics, such as height and age, scientists now realize our gender, genetics, metabolism, muscle mass, ethnicity, willingness to exercise, lifestyle, attitude and even where we live all come into play. This idea runs counter to what most diet-book authors or pricey weight-loss centers preach: that their plan is the key to the kingdom of the slim. A custom-fit diet not only makes sense, it’s also good news for the dieter who couldn’t lose weight on this year’s fad, or who took off pounds quickly and then gained them back (and more).
That message couldn’t come at a more opportune time, as Americans continue their climb toward universal pudginess. Since the ’70s, obesity rates have doubled and fully two-thirds of the country is overweight. Even more alarming: The number of fat kids has tripled in the past 30 years. The problem reaches beyond vanity, since diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer are associated with obesity.
The individualized approach to dieting has powerful proof at the Weight Loss Registry, a roster of successful long-term dieters started 12 years ago. To be included, members must have maintained a 30-pound weight loss for at least a year. At 4,800 members, the Registry is now the largest collection to date of long-term weight-loss data, says its cofounder James Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and co-author of The Step Diet Book. The Registry’s key finding, he reports, is that “there are a lot of different ways to lose weight.” The Registry entrants did “low-carb diets, low-fat diets, diets based on the food pyramid, the grapefruit diet, the beer diet … it’s amazing how many different plans worked.”
Even the venerable weight-loss program at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina, which recently had only a single low-fat, low-salt plan consistent with American Heart Association guidelines, now gives patients choices. “As of last year, we offer a wider range of options, including three different versions of low-carb diets,” says Howard Eisenson, MD, the center’s director. “There has been emerging research showing that some people do very well with those plans.”
What Kind of Car Are You?
While all of us require regular fueling and maintenance, just like cars, we’re made to different specifications. Some of us are trim, fuel-efficient Hondas; others are wide-bodied, gas-guzzling Hummers. “Eventually we will be able to identify dozens of different types of obesity, and therefore dozens of ways of treating it,” says C. Wayne Callaway, MD, an endocrinologist and weight specialist at George Washington University. In his practice, he sees people who have insulin resistance (a condition in which the body becomes less sensitive to insulin and begins to overproduce it to compensate); genetic variations in the autonomic nervous system that favor storing more abdominal fat; and people whose metabolisms have temporarily slowed while dieting. While some of these patients might need one of the few FDA-approved prescription weight-loss drugs, many will benefit from a diet that works with their body and lifestyle.
The human machine also contains a computer (otherwise known as the brain) that supplies the other half of the weight-loss equation. Eating is an emotional, cultural and personal experience, not just fuel.
What type of diet should a person choose? That question hit home with Gary Foster, PhD, clinical director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who compared low-fat and low-carb regimens. Though still a firm proponent of low-fat “heart healthy” diets, Foster found, in a recent study he headed, that after one year of adherence, the two diets offered equal benefits in pounds lost — but those on the low-carb plan had greater improvement in some heart-disease risk factors such as cholesterol levels. (Experts caution, though, that the long-term safety of low-carb, high-protein diets is unknown.)
“On a low-fat diet there’s a lot of counting calories, fat grams, fiber, sodium,” says Foster. “But some people like the freedom it provides to choose what to eat as long as they keep track of it. Others would prefer a simpler plan like Atkins, where you just count one thing: carbs.”
7 Tests for the Perfect Diet
How do you find a healthy way of eating you can live with long-term? Experts suggest an inventory of physical and psychological factors, based on the following easy self-exams:
The Glycemic Index
If you tend toward abdominal fat, crave starches and sugars, and have a fasting blood- sugar count of more than 100 (measured in a routine blood test), says Callaway, you may be insulin resistant. You’ll probably respond best to a low-carb diet, because cutting back on simple carbohydrates — especially sugars and starches — can often help stabilize blood-sugar and insulin levels.
The Exercise Equation
Active people, says David Schlundt, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University who specializes in weight disorders, might consider a low-fat diet that includes complex carbs. “You need glycogen for athletic performance, and it’s harder work for your body to take in a lot of protein and convert it to glucose,” he advises.
One thing all researchers agree on, however, is that everyone who wants to lose weight should get some exercise. “In our studies,” adds Schlundt, “people who exercised as well as dieted lost more fat and less muscle.” The one similarity among dieters catalogued in the Weight Loss Registry, says James Hill, is that they all combined dieting with regular exercise.
The Meal Monitor
Do you hate breakfast? Avoid lunch? Skipping meals or undereating slows your metabolism and blurs the chemical signals for hunger and fullness. “You can stabilize your neuropeptide Y levels, the ‘hunger’ chemical, by eating at least a third of your calories at breakfast and another third at lunch,” says Callaway. Complex carbs are good, especially early in the day. They rev up the metabolism, replenish the body’s need for glycogen and they digest slowly, which keeps you feeling full longer.
The Broccoli Barometer
What foods do you love and hate? You can’t disregard this factor or you’ll never be able to live with your diet. Vegetarians, for instance, will have a hard time following Atkins because of its reliance on meat. You’ll do better with a calorie-controlled, low-fat diet that allows for fruits, vegetables and complex carbs. On the other hand, if you’d rather give up pasta than steak, pick a low-carb option.
The All-or-Nothing Question
Some people do best depriving themselves of foods they crave, so they aren’t tempted, which may be why some bread and cereal lovers are converts to a low-carb plan.
The Stress Test
If you feel hungry often and like to snack, or if you tend to use food for comfort, consider a low-energy-density plan like the one endorsed by the Mayo Clinic. Although suitable for anyone, this diet is particularly good for people who are emotional eaters, explains Donald Hensrud, MD, a weight-management specialist at Mayo. “People eat until they’re satisfied or full,” he points out, and you can eat more in terms of volume on this plan. The Clinic has come up with its own Healthy Weight Pyramid, emphasizing fruits, vegetables and whole grains. An emotional eater, says Schlundt, will also do better reaching for low-energy-dense snacks like fresh fruit, a treat that might be off-limits for a low-carb dieter.
The Convenience Quiz
The Mayo Clinic is also studying a Slim-Fast-based diet to see if busy people will do better on a simple, ready-made plan. If you want a no-brainer diet, a meal-replacement regimen or a system like Jenny Craig’s could be right for you.
Remember that gender makes a difference too. “Men tend to have an easier time losing weight because they usually have more lean muscle mass, which means they burn more calories,” says Hensrud. This can be frustrating, Schlundt points out, if a couple diet together, and he loses weight faster. Another truth, Hensrud adds, is that women who are dieting seem to enjoy group support like a Weight Watchers program, while men may prefer being tough and doing it on their own.
The Diet for the Future
Will this new research lead to the end of dieting as we know it? It might loosen the stranglehold of the mega-diets like Atkins and South Beach. In any case, the Weight Loss Registry points out that although people lose weight by all different methods, they tend to keep it off in remarkably similar ways. Overwhelmingly, Hill says, successful dieters follow four rules in their maintenance phase:
- Eat breakfast.
- Eat a calorie-aware, moderately low-fat diet that includes complex carbs.
- Get plenty of exercise at moderate intensity. Walk!
- Self-monitor through frequent weigh-ins and a food and exercise diary