BOSTON (Reuters) - Advocates for various diets may argue that theirs is the best and healthiest way to lose weight but a study published on Wednesday suggests that many of them are effective.
The findings show that would-be dieters should choose the weight-loss program that they are most comfortable with, as long as it is high in fiber and low in calories and saturated fat.
“You can’t go wrong,” Dr. Frank Sacks of the Harvard School of Public Health, whose study appears in the New England Journal of Medicine, said in a telephone interview. “Our bottom line is, choose a diet that is good for your heart and there’s a big range of what you can eat. Then just be reasonable about your intake. If you need to lose weight, eat less.”
More than 800 U.S. volunteers, who were either overweight or obese, were put on one of four diets.
Two were low fat, two were high fat. Two were high protein and two had average protein levels. Carbohydrate levels ranged from 35 percent to 65 percent of the diet. All participants were asked to engage in 90 minutes of moderate exercise per week and all had diet counseling.
The volunteers were followed for two years, much longer than most diet studies.
The average weight loss was 9 pounds (4 kg) and people typically took 2 inches off their waistline, regardless of which diet they were on.
“There’s no special diet that’s better for weight loss than any other,” Sacks said. “As long as it’s healthy for you — high in unsaturated fats, high in whole grains and fiber, low in junk foods and high carb-junk foods, and low in fatty meats — any of these variations will be fine for losing weight.”
The results “won’t make people who advocate a special diet happy but it’s good news for most people,” he said.
In all the diets, weight loss peaked at the six-month mark. After one year, the volunteers typically started gaining the weight back.
People who shed 10 percent of their body weight have a lower risk of heart disease and other health problems. Sacks said it was encouraging that 15 percent of the volunteers were able to lose that amount.
But the modest weight reductions among the volunteers in the new study is prompting one researcher to conclude that dieting may not be the answer to the growing obesity problem.
“Even these highly motivated, intelligent participants who were coached by expert professionals could not achieve the weight losses needed to reverse the obesity epidemic,” said Martijn Katan of VU University in Amsterdam and author of an editorial in the same journal.
Instead, Katan said, it may be wiser to adopt an approach like the EPODE community-based program begun in 2000 in two small French towns, where there was a widespread effort to get schoolchildren to eat better and move around more.
Five years later, 8.8 percent of the children were overweight compared to 17.8 percent in neighboring towns.
“Like cholera, obesity may be a problem that cannot be solved by individual persons but that requires community action,” Katan said. “It is an approach that deserves serious investigation because the only effective alternative that we have at present for halting the obesity epidemic is large-scale gastric (weight-loss) surgery.”
Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Trott