Low-Carb, Low-Fat, Vegetarian – Is One Diet Better Than Another?

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With the way diet trends go back and forth, trying to follow them is like watching a game of ping pong. By their nature, trends aren’t meant to be long-lasting, and most people who jump onto the latest dietary bandwagon are usually looking for super-fast results. If you ask those who have managed to lose weight how they did it, their answers are all over the map. Some swear by a low-carb plan, while others give credit to a vegetarian regimen or a strict accounting of fat grams. With so many possible ways to lose weight, it sort of begs the question: is one diet better than another?

When it comes right down to it, the key to weight loss is cutting calorie intake—eat fewer calories than you need every day, and you’ll lose weight. And there are plenty of ways to do that. Any method that helps you reduce your calories is going to put you on the path to weight loss.

Several studies have pitted different methods of weight loss against each other in an attempt to determine if any one approach is truly more effective than another. There’s been no clear winner. Whether the diets are low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian or simply stress behavior modification, the results are pretty consistent. Among subjects who are followed for at least a year, they all lose about the same amount of weight no matter what approach they use.

One study1 involved over 800 people who were placed on one of four diets—all designed to create a shortage of about 750 calories a day. The composition of the diets varied a lot: fat ranged from a low of 20% to a high of 40% of calories, and wide ranging amounts of protein and carbohydrate were tested, too. And yet, across the board—regardless of which diet they followed—weight loss averaged about 10 pounds over a two year period, leading the authors to conclude that, “reduced calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.”

If that’s the case, then why don’t we just focus on calories and nothing else? If we love junk food, why not lose weight by eating junk food, only less of it? The answer, of course, is simple. The goal isn’t just weight loss, it’s healthy weight loss. And while different dietary approaches may lead to the same result, proper nutrition is key.

  • Emphasize low-fat proteins: fish, poultry, low-fat dairy products and plant proteins such as soy help to keep hunger under control.
  • Plenty of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables will give you plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals and all-important phytonutrients.
  • Include modest amounts of whole grains as your calories allow.
  • Fats add up fast, so eat modest amounts of healthy fats from fish, tree nuts, avocado and healthy oils like olive and canola.
  • Eat small, regular meals and snacks to keep energy levels up.
  • Practice portion control so you know what you’re putting on your plate. Using meal replacements is a good strategy, too. The calorie count is built in, so it takes away the guesswork.
  • Don’t neglect exercise. Get your heart pumping to burn calories, and pump some iron to build up your muscle mass.

1Sacks et al.  NEJM 360(9); 859-873, 2009. 

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