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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.”

“Weight Watchers recommends drinking plenty of water, eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, and limiting your alcohol intake,” adds Kendra. “It also encourages that weight loss be a long-term and permanent goal. It’s definitely not a quick-fix program.”

Dieters Weigh In

How did you feel on this diet, emotionally and physically?

17 Day Diet
“I felt pretty energetic, and slept soundly.” —Carolina Santos-Neves (Epicurious editor), 30, female

“The first week on this diet had me feeling a little slow. I didn’t want to do anything taxing. But the second week I felt energetic. The pounds were melting off quickly. Now that I have been doing this over time I have noticed mentally I have fewer mood swings.” —Maggie, 38, female

Dukan Diet
“The first couple of days were torture. I felt like I was hungry often. Generally, I’m not hungry right away when I wake up but I would wake up ravenous. I tend to snack on things when I’m bored but most all things were prohibited: fruits, cookies, chocolates, etc. I was consumed and obsessed. And not in a good way.” —E. E., 37, female

“I felt amazing in both regards. I had much more energy than I thought I would. I did not suffer any physical drawbacks when on the diet. I still adhere to its principles today. One thing that could have supported this was that I am a savory and salty food craver, not a sweets craver.” —Betty, 31, female

Paleo Diet
“F--ing awesome. Within a week, I was seeing improvements in my workouts, sleep, energy, and mood, in addition to my digestion. There have been so many unexpected benefits—no seasonal allergies, clear skin, hard nails, I rarely get headaches, I have not been sick or had a cold since I began, etc. I’ve never felt this good—Paleo has helped keep me lean and carry good weight.” —Trevor, 23, male

“At first I was depressed at the thought of giving up pastas and breads, which were staples of my diet. I was confused about what to eat and missed the ease of a bagel in the morning. However, most of my joint pain has been alleviated and I’m leaner than I’ve been in years while still maintaining the same amount of exercise as before the diet. I feel healthy and have fewer highs and lows throughout my day.” —Chris Teig, 40, male

“I felt limited in my choices and didn’t look at eating as a fun or rewarding experience. I did feel leaner, however, but generally eating became a chore that I did when I felt hungry, not an enjoyable part of my day.” —Brie, 27, female

Weight Watchers
“The first week I was very temperamental and emotional. I think this had more to do with the fact that I had to eat less than I had been, and that I cut back on the ever-comforting sweet, greasy, and salty foods. By the second week I started feeling much better. I had much more energy than I had before the diet and my mood had improved.” —Kendra, 27, female

“After just a few days on the plan, I felt much better physically than I had in a while. Emotionally, I felt like I had much more control.” —Ashley, 25, female

What were the best things about the diet?

17 Day Diet
“Feeling healthy. Going from a tight size 22 in the plus-size department to a loose size 14 in the regular department. Feeling strong and capable.” —Maggie, 38, female

“I slept really well. I liked the idea of being able to eat a lot of veggies and protein. They say you don’t have to exercise more than 17 minutes a day, but I exercised about an hour a day.“ —Carolina Santos-Neves, 30, female

Dukan Diet
“The plus side to this is there is no weighing or sizing or portions. And it forced me to eat a lot more protein than I generally would. It reduced my reliance on carbs and sugars. I still want yummy cheese, fresh fruit and veggies, and bread and pasta—just maybe not so much anymore.” —E. E., 37, female

“I love cooking and this diet gave me some great recipe ideas, made me really think about what I was eating rather than rely on gimmicky food and gave me quick results.” —Betty, 31, female

Paleo Diet
“The best thing about the diet is how it reinforces my good health. I live with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune form of hypothyroidism, and I’m convinced that eating this way helps me lessen the disease and keep the medical intervention I need—via medication—as low as possible.…The next best thing about the diet is how much I enjoy it.” —Allison Bojarski, 39, female

“Eating bacon and eggs for breakfast almost every morning. Cooking with butter or animal fats—everything tastes so much better.” —Chris Teig, 40, male

Weight Watchers
“The great thing about Weight Watchers is that they don’t direct you to give up anything for good. As long as your points permit it—daily, weekly, or activity points—you can have it. Weight Watchers is more of a lifestyle change than a diet. I accepted that my eating habits were out of control, and I changed that through Weight Watchers. It gears you towards eating healthy fruits and veggies—0 points!—and encourages exercise, which helps you develop healthy habits. I like that I never felt deprived. If I wanted to go eat at my favorite restaurant, I could and not feel guilty about it! It really taught me how to choose the foods I eat more wisely.” —Ashley, 25, female

“The Flex Points are the best part. In addition to your daily allotted points you get 49 ’free’ points a week—that’s about 1 1/2 times the average daily point allotment. These allowed me to go out on weekends and eat richer foods than I would on a daily basis. Or, if I went over my points any given day the flex points allowed me to not feel like I failed entirely. Basically, the extra points give you a safety net each week. I try not to use all of them, but it’s nice knowing they’re there.” —Kendra, 27, female

What about the worst things about the diet?

17 Day Diet
“It can get boring really fast. I couldn’t eat bananas and peanut butter. No quinoa or squash. I love roasted veggies and couldn’t technically eat that either. At first I had a hard time not being allowed to have anything sweet, including fruit, after 2 p.m., but then I got used to it. The use of artificial sugar-free products is also a downside.” —Carolina Santos-Neves, 30, female

“It is difficult to eat out. When I do eat out, the food tends to taste overly salty or greasy. I have had to become a better cook to avoid boredom. Also, the book is inconsistent or isn’t always clear. For example, the cultural exceptions—why is zucchini okay if you are Latina? I’m part Latina but heavily rely on Asian food—can I [make] an exception?” —Maggie, 38, female

Dukan Diet
“As a former vegetarian, this was hard. I eat meat and poultry from time to time but nowhere near even once a week, so this was a big deal for me. Buying meat doesn’t seem cheap, and certainly, buying seafood isn’t. And organic, free-range chickens are expensive! I missed having fruit and veggies. With grapefruit now plentiful, I would usually have that for dessert, and not being able to enjoy that clean, refreshing taste was so hard. When I finally went to the farmers’ market when I finished the diet, I was so thrilled to buy veggies. That evening’s salad and vegetable frittata never tasted so good. Oh, and a definite downside: constipation. Sorry, TMI, but it’s true. Dukan allows for oat bran from the beginning but for me, I was not as regular as I usually am. Fortunately, I didn’t experience the bad breath he mentions as another possible side effect.” —E. E., 37, female

Paleo Diet
“Eating out at restaurants can be difficult for those who are not committed to the new way of eating.” —Allison Bojarski, 39, female

“It’s not super-convenient for travel or quick food on the run. It’s more expensive at the grocery store and I also miss biting into a fresh baguette or a big, gooey chocolate chip cookie.” —Chris Teig, 40, male

“It is tiring to explain at office parties, family functions, etc., why I am not having cake, beer, and deep-fried Oreos with powdered sugar and whipped cream.” —Trevor, 23, male

“I miss some sweets, but cravings seem to have decreased over time.” —Joshua Doeleman, 40, male

Weight Watchers
“The constant accountability is the worst. But that also probably helps the most. You always have to think about what you’re going to eat and plan ahead, but that’s what helps you lose weight. I have reached the point many times where I just didn’t want to think about it anymore.” —Kendra, 27, female

“Keeping up with points and calculating the points of a new recipe you may want to try can get annoying.” —Ashley, 25, female

“Accepting the fact that I will never be able to eat with abandon.” —Susan, 46, female

“It’s tough to go to nice restaurants and try to calculate the points of what I’m eating.” —Laura, 31, female

Would you recommend this diet to a food-loving friend? Why or why not?

17 Day Diet
“Yes, but I would allow oneself to cheat a little bit. I thought that it was very strict and unrealistic. For example, I thought that veggies should be allowed to be roasted with a little bit of oil and perhaps some veggie stock. Also I had coffee instead of green tea. And I think one should be allowed to have or two alcoholic drinks a week. This diet proved to be useful for me just more on the cutting back of sugar. I normally use honey a lot and didn’t throughout this time, and I sometimes eat candy, but didn’t while on the diet. I think it made me realize that just changing one or two things can really make a difference.” —Carolina Santos-Neves, 30, female

“It would depend. Do you love food more than yourself? If so, then this isn’t the diet for you. If my friend really wanted to lose weight and was willing to become more creative in the kitchen to make that happen, of course!” —Maggie, 38, female

Dukan Diet
“Yes—I would if they were open to pushing themselves to cook and get creative with what they’re eating. Otherwise, it’s too easy to fall back on what’s readily available cooked or pre-made at a grocery store or restaurant, which are foods that typically include a high amount of carbs. I also recommend doing the diet with a significant other or friend to share ideas, keep each other motivated, and have a buddy to brainstorm with when out to dinner or lacking ideas on what to make.” —Betty, 31, female

“No, I would not recommend this to a food-loving friend unless that friend already was primarily a meat, poultry, and seafood eater and eschewed vegetables, fruits, and grains. I missed the textures of vegetables and fruits: There was nothing crunchy, nothing really [naturally] sweet, nothing bitter, nothing! Zip. Zilch. It was boring. With the beef and turkey, I felt like I was always missing a side of carbs. Thankfully we would go out for sushi, but it’s really only sashimi and tofu that you can eat—although I sort of cheated and had broiled salmon and miso soup, both of which had way more salt that the diet allows. Even on the Cruise phase, it’s hard to eat seasonally because there are so many outlawed foods.” —E. E., 37, female

Paleo Diet
“I recommend this diet to anyone, including food-loving friends. While on the surface it seems like you’re sacrificing a lot of what you ’can’t’ eat, look at what you can: fatty meats, fresh fish and seafood, vegetables—whether leafy or starchy—fresh fruits, etc.” —Allison Bojarski, 39, female

“I would, although it’s probably not for everyone. I’ve had great results from it but it’s a pretty major lifestyle change and involves a lot of dedication.” —Chris Teig, 40, male

“Yes, I would, provided that food-loving friend also loved steak. This is a great way to put what you’re eating into focus. It challenges you to eat more vegetables and look to healthy foods as snacks—instead of grabbing a bag of chips, you’re encouraged to eat an apple. But this is not the right diet for you if you enjoy going out to dinner and socializing—and especially not for you if you love passed appetizers.” —Brie, 27, female

Weight Watchers
“I would definitely recommend this diet. It allows you to live your life without many restrictions or limitations and it works. You can still eat the foods you love, just in smaller quantities.” —Kendra, 27, female

“Absolutely! It taught me how to determine which foods really are good for me and which ones are just better to stay away from.” —Ashley, 25, female

“I would recommend Weight Watchers to a foodie because of the fact that you can save up your points to go out to dinner or cook something indulgent at home.” —Laura, 31, female