These diet books may be on the best-seller lists, but which ones will help you drop pounds and which ones are a waste of time and money? Pilates Style columnist Jonny Bowden weighs in.
With the number of overweight Americans increasing every year, five, new diet books offer a variety of solutions. While some just recycle old advice, others try to make dieting as simple as ordering a Happy Meal and still others utilize new scientific and nutrition research to help us finally win the battle of the bulge. I’ve rounded up and reviewed five of the most recent crop, which vary from quite excellent to pretty boring, and give you my take on what you need to know.
The Dukan Diet by Dr. Pierre Dukan
This is the diet I’d vote for as “most likely to succeed,” especially if you define success as a big celebrity following, which in the case of the Dukan Diet includes Jennifer Lopez, Gisele Bundchen and Kate Middleton’s mother Carole. The plan, which was created by Dr. Pierre Dukan, a medical doctor and nutrition specialist, has been a best-seller in France since 2006 and has just been published in the U.S. It has been such an international sensation that there are also more than 500 websites with ten million followers devoted to it.
This high-protein diet is divided into four phases. In Phase One, which can last between one and ten days (the average is two to seven days), you eat nothing but protein, depending on how much you need to lose. You’re limited to a specific list of foods. Pounds drop quickly, which can be very motivating.
In Phase Two, you alternate days eating protein plus vegetables with pure protein days.
Phase Three is called “the Transition Diet;” you begin adding back a wider range of foods such as bread, fruit and cheese, along with two servings a week of starchy carbs and two “celebration” meals.
The final, fourth phase of the plan, boasts a built-in mechanism for preventing rebound weight gain. One day a week—for the rest of your life—you eat nothing but protein. Dr. Dukan calls it “Protein Thursday” (the day of the week is arbitrary but “Protein Thursday” sounds pretty catchy).
The program also has a novel requirement for oat bran, which Dukan suggests be prepared into a tasty little pancake and eaten daily to increase dieters’ fiber intake.
I find a lot of reasons to give kudos to this program, as well as a few things that aren’t so great. I think Dr. Dukan makes a valiant attempt at solving some of the biggest problems in weight loss: compliance and rebounding. But the idea of “celebration” or “cheat” meals is fraught with disaster for many people, especially those with addictive relationships to food. And I think Dr. Dukan reintroduces grains, starches, fruits and cheeses in too large of quantities and too quickly. And I am saddened that he still buys into the “saturated fat causes heart disease” myth.
But this is an original, thoughtful work, and I particularly love the idea of “Protein Thursdays.”
Expect to see a lot of bad press on this from folks at the American Dietetic Association and docs who don’t know their biochemistry. Ignore them. There’s nothing in this diet that’s dangerous in the least. And it clearly works well for a lot of folks. Whether it will work for everyone is another story all together.
The 17 Day Diet by Mike Moreno, MD
The idea behind The 17 Day Diet is what Michael Moreno, MD, a doctor who practices family medicine in San Diego, calls “body confusion,” which is achieved by changing your calorie count from day to day as well as the foods you eat. “By varying these things, you prevent your body from adapting,” says Dr. Moreno. “The scale is less likely to get stuck!”
While all this sounds fine, there’s not much that’s different in this deeply unoriginal diet book. It’s a four-phase program (like a gazillion others, including Atkins, South Beach and many others): low carb in phase one, add some foods back in phase two, add more foods back in phase three, maintain forever on phase four. Ho hum.
During the first 17-day cycle (which is what Moreno calls phases), you eat protein and vegetables, a few low-sugar fruits and some yogurt (for the probiotics), for a total of about 1,200 calories a day. The second cycle allows you to add in a few more foods (such as shellfish) and some “natural starches” (brown rice, quinoa and potatoes) and is slightly higher in calories (around 1,500). To accomplish that “body confusion” mentioned earlier, the higher-calorie meals from this cycle are alternated with the lower calorie meals from the first cycle (just like the second phase of the Dukan Diet).
In Cycle Three, you keep adding more foods in, as long as your weight loss continues at the “slower” rate of two to three pounds a week.
Finally, the fourth and last cycle happens when you have achieved your target weight. At this point, you follow meal plans from earlier cycles but are allowed splurges on weekends, a concept clearly taken from the Dukan Diet, and, in my opinion, just as ridiculous here as it was there.
So, if the quirky idea of 17-day “cycles” appeals to you, go for it. Though there isn’t a single original thought in this book, nothing in here suggests that it will work any better—or any worse–than a dozen other similar plans.
The Amen Solution by Daniel Amen, MD
The previous books of Daniel Amen, MD, a psychiatrist and brain imaging specialist, including Change Your Brain, Change Your Life and Sex on the Brain, should give you a clue about what to expect from his first weight-loss book, The Amen Solution. In any case, the opening words make things crystal clear: “The number one secret is that most weight problems occur between your ears,” he writes. “If you want to have a better body, the first place to always start is by having a better brain.”
Pardon the bad pun, but amen to that.
According to Dr. Amen, there isn’t just one brain pattern associated with being overweight—there are at least five. “Giving everyone the same diet plan will make some people better and a lot of people worse,” he writes. “Finding the right plan for your individual brain type is the key to lasting weight loss.” Amen believes that since different types of overeaters have very different brain chemistries, foods and supplements that might be effective for one type of person could spell disaster for another.
“Compulsive Overeaters,” for instance, have too much activity in the front part of their brain, so they tend to become stuck on negative thoughts or actions. For these folks, high-protein diets (which Dr. Amen believes help people focus) don’t work. “On diets like the Atkins diet, compulsive overeaters focus more on the things that upset them,” he notes. Instead, they do best with a higher-carb diet.
“Impulsive Overeaters,” on the other hand, have a hard time saying no when someone offers them a second or third or fourth slice of pizza or piece of cake. In brain scans, they have decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive decisions. Dr. Amen believes they should avoid high-carb diet and instead concentrate on eating more protein, which contains the amino acids needed to build a brain chemical called dopamine, which is a big part of the engine that drives behavior and is heavily involved with the pleasure and reward system in the brain.
Dr. Amen describes three other types, the “impulsive-compulsive” overeater, the “sad or emotional” overeater and the “anxious” overeater and gives specific “prescriptions” for the supplements and foods that are best for them. This individualized approach is at the heart of The Amen Solution and it makes a lot of sense. There’s also a lot of good stuff in here about breaking cravings, changing habits, reducing stress and using self-hypnosis.
Those who are looking for a specific diet, with specific calorie targets or a daily eating plan, are going to be disappointed. But Dr. Amen gives some very interesting self-tests for determining just what “type” you are and then general guidelines on choosing the best foods for your type. Overall, this is an unconventional approach to weight loss, but one that’s likely to produce very impressive results.
The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss
I can’t write an honest review of this book without a rather lengthy disclaimer, so please bear with me.
Every so often, some strange, incredibly talented, gifted weirdo will come seemingly out of nowhere with a cockamamie theory about how to get rich, how to get skinny, how to make a bundle in real estate, or how to get on The New York Times best-seller list. Once in a while, some of these crackpot types are really onto something.
Timothy Ferriss is just that kind of guy. Obviously brilliant, this fit, smart, ridiculously successful entrepreneur made a killing a while back with a book called The 4-Hour Workweek, which outlined his unorthodox theories of management success while putting in fewer hours in a week than most folks put in a day. The full title of his latest book tells you exactly what you’re in for: The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman.
This is not technically a diet book. Instead, Ferriss brings to the table a team of really smart, geek-tech-science types who provide a lot of good research, which Ferriss road-tested on himself. The danger with these savant types is to assume that because this program worked for him, it’s also going to work well for you. It’s probably not.
He calls his plan “The Slow-Carb Diet” and there are only five rules: 1) avoid any white carbohydrates (the usual suspects—bread, rice, cereal, potatoes, etc.); 2) eat the same few meals over and over again (this one actually makes more sense than you might think and is supported by research); 3) don’t drink your calories; 4) don’t eat fruit; and 5) take one day off per week and go nuts.
Okay, I told you it wasn’t for everyone. If you’re looking for a structured plan—eat exactly these foods at exactly these times, look elsewhere. I think the one day off and go nuts is exactly that—nuts—but it works for some people. But the basic premise is interesting, and I’d be interested to see if there are many success stories.
I suspect the main audience for this book—unlike most diet books—will be men, and they will pay particular attention to the sections on exercise and sex (the book has some R-rated chapters on incredible sex and becoming superhuman that I can’t go into here—sorry!).
Essentially, the diet portion of this book is a basic, low-carb plan in one of the many flavors these plans come in these days. I can’t see anything wrong with trying it.
Cinch! By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is the co-author of The Flat Belly Diet and was the former nutrition editor for Prevention magazine and frequently appears on Good Morning America. Her new plan, which specifically targets women 25 years and older, is pure simplicity: portion control, four meals plus a small piece of dark chocolate every day.
The novelty here is the 30-day “jumpstart” portion of the plan. It starts with five days of eating only five foods: eggs, spinach, almonds, raspberries and yogurt. Sass is way too saavy to bill this as a “quick fat-loss plan,” but she correctly points out that this “jumpstart” phase may help reduce cravings and help people feel confident and successful. (And sure, some of the weight you lose during those five days is water weight, but who cares? You hated all that bloat anyway!)
The Cinch! Plan is based on three, pretty simple rules. First, eat like clockwork: Have breakfast within an hour of getting up and space your meals three to five hours apart. Second, each meal should contain five components: produce, whole grains, lean protein, plant-based fats and spices (not only are they loaded with health-promoting plant chemicals, but they help you enjoy the taste of food without added calories or sodium). And you’re highly encouraged to walk 30 minutes a day. Red meat, alcohol and diet sodas are not allowed.
Nothing terribly novel here, but it’s good solid info, the program is easy to follow and offers a nice alternative for those who simply can’t stomach the idea of a high-protein, high-fat diet. Worth a try? You betcha.
Ultimately, the best advice when it comes to choosing a weight-loss plan is that there is no such thing as the “best diet,” since no plan will work perfectly for everyone. Instead, focus on finding a program that’s a good fit for you, which means one that you can actually stay on. In the end, all diet plans have to be customized for your individual needs. PS
Nutrition editor Jonny Bowden is, among other things, the author of The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer (Fair Winds, 2010) and The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth (Fair Winds, 2007).