Rating the Diets

Published in Gourmet Live 01.11.12
Megan O. Steintrager asked food lovers to test-drive the most popular diets—including 17 Day, Dukan, Paleo, and Weight Watchers—and share their results

Every year there’s a new crop of diets, all promising to offer the solution for losing weight and keeping it off. By looking at Internet searches, book sales, and reader responses to a diet questionnaire posted on Gourmet Live and our sister site Epicurious, we identified three of the hottest diets of the past year: the 17 Day Diet, the Dukan Diet, and the Paleo Diet. Then we asked food lovers, including Epicurious and Gourmet Live editors, to try out those three, plus Weight Watchers—an evergreen favorite that received renewed buzz when it launched the PointsPlus program in late 2010—and share their experiences. The majority of the responses to our questionnaire espoused Weight Watchers or the Paleo Diet (although we suspect the latter is partially attributable to the fact that a proponent of the diet posted a link to our questionnaire on her blog and encouraged her readers to write in).

While our experiment wasn’t long or large enough to predict whether any of these diets will provide truly sustainable weight loss—or other health benefits—that they all promise, most of the dieters did report dropping at least a few pounds. Initial weight loss aside, we wonder whether these diets make long-term sense for people who want to maintain a healthy weight while also enjoying food—including at restaurants and parties. At the simplest level, which of these diets might work for you seems to come down to whether you want to reduce calories by cutting down on portions (Weight Watchers) or by cutting out entire food groups (all the other diets). For some, tracking every bite is onerous, for others, giving up a beloved food is. Read on for the diet details and to hear what our testers had to say about the pros and cons of each.

Diet Basics

17 Day Diet
Based on the book The 17 Day Diet by Dr. Mike Moreno, this “simple plan that targets both belly fat and visceral fat and produces fast results that last” has four 17-day cycles: Accelerate, Activate, Achieve, and Arrive. More info: The17DayDiet.com

The Dukan Diet
Based on the French book The Dukan Diet by Dr. Pierre Dukan, this weight-loss plan is also known as “the Kate Middleton Diet,” since there were rumors that the duchess slimmed down for her wedding following it. This diet is also structured around a four-phase plan— Attack, Cruise, Consolidation, and Permanent Stabilization—and promises “two steps to lose the weight, two steps to keep it off forever.” More info: DukanDiet.com

Paleo Diet
There are a number of popular books and blogs that advocate eating only foods that were available to our hunter-gatherer forebears, including The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, The Paleo Diet and The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., and Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint. You’ll also see variations called the “Caveman Diet,” the “Warrior Diet,” the “Ancestral Health Diet,” and the “CrossFit Diet” (because many practitioners of the CrossFit fitness method also advocate a “Paleolithic” diet). More info: RobbWolf.com, ThePaleoDiet.com, MarksDailyApple.com

Weight Watchers
Weight Watchers has been around since the early ’60s and is well known for its meetings, books, magazine, and Web site. At the end of 2010, Weight Watchers ditched its old Points system and introduced PointsPlus, which aims to encourage healthy eating by making nonstarchy vegetables and fresh fruits “free.” More info: WeightWatchers.com

Forbidden Foods and Other Rules

17 Day Diet
During the strictest phase of the plan—Accelerate—forbidden items include alcoholic beverages; “starchy” foods, such as corn, pasta, oatmeal, potatoes, legumes, and rice; added sugar of any kind; nuts; avocados; and any fruit after 2 p.m. During this first phase, dieters are allowed unlimited egg whites (and up to two whole eggs per day), unlimited amounts of specific types of fish, poultry, and certain vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli, green beans, artichokes, mushrooms, celery, and cucumbers. The rules gradually relax over the course of the diet, and once you “Arrive,” you can eat anything on weekends.

Dukan Diet
The Attack phase, which lasts from two to seven days, is described in the book as “Pure Proteins,” and requires dieters to give up all carbohydrates, including vegetables (except garlic, onions, and other aromatics), fruits, grains, and fats (including oil, butter, and lard). The next phase, Cruise, can last for months (about three days for each pound you want to lose, according to the book), and allows the reintroduction of a limited list of vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, asparagus, zucchini, peppers, and salad greens. Once the Permanent Stabilization Phase is reached, there are no forbidden foods, except during a once-weekly “Pure Protein” day. Dukan encourages drinking lots of water, limiting salt, and eating 3 tablespoons of oat bran per day. Chewing sugar-free gum, although “inelegant,” is recommended to satisfy sweets cravings. Dukan also gives a thumbs-up to diet sodas.

Paleo Diet
Because there are various gurus and guides for this diet—and little agreement about what was actually available to Paleolithic man—the list of off-limits foods varies wildly among different advocates of the modern Paleo diet. Here’s a sample of forbidden foods: all grains or all gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley, rye) and their derivatives (such as beer); most dairy (sometimes with the exception of butter); added sugar; “industrial seed oils” such as canola, corn, and soy; processed food of any kind; and legumes.

Meat, countless fruits and vegetables, and nuts are all on the table. The diet encourages you to “favor grass-fed, pastured, and wild animals and animal products over industrial,” explains Chris Teig, a 40-year-old man who was prescribed the “Caveman” diet by a naturopathic doctor “as a means to reducing some chronic joint pain and high blood sugar levels,” he says. “You are what your animals eat” says Allison Bojarski, a 39-year-old trainer and blogger for CrossFit NYC, who recommends a Paleo diet to her clients. Curiously, some Paleo dieters will also consume bacon, wine, and coffee. “Some versions say that you can have a cocktail, too,” says Brie, a 27-year-old woman who’s tried a number of diets and decided to give Paleo a whirl for a week. “I guess they could never prove if our Paleolithic brethren enjoyed a nice Martini.” Bojarski adds that “some people will eat strict Paleo on weekdays and whatever they want on weekends or one day a week or one meal a week.”

Weight Watchers
There are no forbidden foods, which is the major selling point for Weight Watchers to many dieters. However, the high-points value of certain foods and drinks discourages dieters from indulging. “You can have a slice of pizza but it’ll be about half of your day’s point allotment,” explains Kendra, a 27-year-old woman who has been following the PointsPlus program for four months. “It’s more about portion control and cutting back than it is about giving anything up.”

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