Planning to start the New Year with a new diet? You’re not alone. According to the Caloric Control Council, one in four Americans are trying to lose weight. Aside from the way excess weight makes us look, those extra pounds can elevate serum cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Obesity can also lead to a higher risk of developing gallbladder disease, coronary heart disease, some cancers and osteoarthritis of the weight-bearing joints. Achieving your ideal weight can benefit your health, looks and self-esteem. But in a world where fad diets abound, what’s the healthiest path to long-term weight loss?
The quick fix
Among the trendiest diets are the high-protein/low-carbohydrate plans. Based on the theory that we gain weight simply because we eat too many carbohydrates, these plans severely limit carbohydrate intake, forcing the body into ketosis. Ketosis happens when the body must rely on incompletely metabolized fats, known as ketone bodies, instead of carbohydrates for its energy source. Because ketosis puts your body into a starvation state, hunger is suppressed. The result is rapid weight loss, but it’s mostly water, not fat. “As the body adjusts to the water deficit, weight loss slows or ceases,” says Ellen Coleman, R.D., M.P.H.
Plus, Coleman warns that ketogenic diets give dieters a distinctive breath that smells like a cross between apples and nail polish remover. More serious, these diets carry the risk of dehydration, electrolyte loss, calcium depletion, nausea and possibly kidney problems. Other critics worry that reducing carbohydrates so dramatically may cause a deficit in essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. And, they say, the lack of fiber can result in constipation.
On the other end of the weight-loss pendulum are high-carbohydrate/low-fat diets. Primarily plant-based, these diets were originally designed to reduce the risk of heart disease. The most well-known proponent of the high-carb habit is Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Eat More, Weigh Less (Harper, 1997). Ornish puts dieters on a very low-fat lacto-ovo vegetarian diet chock full of complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, oats, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Although the American Heart Association and the USDA Food Pyramid recommend a limit of 30 percent dietary fat, Ornish confines followers to a daily fat intake of 10 percent or a mere 22 grams of fat per day. And it must come from the food itself—the diet doesn’t allow any added fats or oils. Besides foregoing meat and oils, other foods dieters must avoid include avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, sugar, and alcohol. Soy products get the green light, as does dairy, but only if it’s fat-free. With all these restrictions, eating out is difficult and some of the recipes Ornish includes in his book are complicated and time-consuming. On the upside, the diet does live up to many of its health claims. A study by the University of California at Los Angeles found that this type of diet may help prevent breast cancer. And researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, confirmed that a low-fat diet rich in soy, vegetable protein and soluble fiber reduces serum lipids, a risk factor for heart disease.
Winning at losing
What is the smartest way to shed excess weight? Judith Stern, R.D., professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, advises picking a diet you can live with for the rest of your life. “Fasting, skipping meals or consuming less than 800 calories a day is a bad idea,” she warns. Instead, dieticians suggest a daily minimum of 1,200 to 1,500 calories. Stern also recommends following the USDA’s food pyramid, which offers a lot of variety. But pyramid detractors note that, without a thorough study of the recommendations, it’s easy to assume that all proteins, fats and carbs are equal. They point out that dieters have to make smart choices—if you are a carnivore, opt for lean chicken or fish, ditch the white bread and Twinkies in favor of complex carbohydrates such as fiber-rich legumes and whole grains and choose healthy fats such as olive and flaxseed oil. “And,” says Stern, “don’t forget to incorporate exercise into your overall plan.”
Natural fat fighters
Although cutting calories and increasing physical activity are the safest and most effective ways to slim down, adding herbs to the equation can help speed weight loss.
Appetite suppressants. One of the best-known weight-loss herbs is ephedra (Ephedra sinica), also known as ma huang. A potent stimulant, ephedra increases the speed at which the body burns calories. And, ephedra depresses hunger pangs. But, warns Stern, taking ephedra with caffeine—a popular weight-loss mix—may cause jitters, insomnia and an irregular heartbeat. And some researchers speculate that using ephedra for more than a week may put you at risk for a stroke or heart attack. It’s best to check with a qualified herbalist or other health-care provider before using ephedra.
Thermogenics. Ever notice how some spicy foods make you feel warm all over? Thermogenic herbs are a tasty way to generate body heat, promote perspiration, and give your metabolism a boost in the bargain. Traditional thermogenics include cayenne (Capsicum annuum), ginger (Zingiber officinale) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Less familiar is garcinia (Garcinia cambogia), an Ayurvedic herb that lowers the production of cholesterol and fatty acids while suppressing appetite. Green tea (Camellia sinensis) may also increase metabolism. A 1999 double-blind study of the effects of this antioxidant-rich drink found that green tea has thermogenic properties and promotes fat oxidation.
Diuretics. Increasing urination helps rid the body of excess water weight. One of the best herbal diuretics is dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Other diuretic herbs include parsley (Petroselinum crispum), juniper (Juniperus communis), and uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). But, be warned—don’t expect herbal diuretics to help with permanent weight loss. Although these herbs can help in the short-term, the body eventually adjusts to the continuous water loss and will retain water despite the herbs.
Herbs for staying regular. If you’re cutting back on carbs, bulking up with psyllium (Plantago spp.) can help keep you regular. Rich in mucilage, psyllium expands in the stomach, giving users the feeling of fullness while adding fiber to promote regular elimination. For stubborn constipation, try cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana). But don’t take cascara for more than a few days without medical supervision. Any longer could result in intestinal sluggishness.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books, 2002).