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What's the Best Diet for Weight Loss?

Diet trends come and go. New research shows the best diet plan is the one that works for you.


Female Friends Eating Healthy

Americans are obsessed with weight loss. Half of the country tried to lose weight in the last year, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But based on the rising obesity numbers in Iowa and beyond, we’re not very good at achieving our weight loss goals. And our diets are a big part of the problem.

“When most people lose weight, they gain it back in a year. My job is to help you understand and break through that cycle to maintain a healthy weight over your life,” says Lena Rydberg, DO, an Internal Medicine physician at The Iowa Clinic in West Des Moines and a board-certified expert in weight loss. In this role, she helps patients answer an important question every day:

Which diet is right for me?

“There are many valid diets. How you feel is really important in picking out what diet is best for you,” Dr. Rydberg says.

And the research backs her up.

“They’ve been trying to figure out whether low-carb or low-fat diets are better. There were two really big nutritional studies, the Framingham State Food Study and DIETFITS Study, that tried to see which is better,” she says. “And they found that either diet can be successful. It really is just about what you’re able to adhere to.”

No matter the diet plan, books, blogs, TV, friends and family all say the same thing: “It worked for me, so it can work for you too.” That might be true. But only if you can stick to the plan.

“Some people feel much fuller, more satisfied on a low-carb diet. And there are some people that feel they tend to graze and it’s not nearly as forgiving as being on a low-fat diet for them,” Dr. Rydberg says. “There are a variety of ways to do it. How you are feeling is really important in picking out what diet is the best for you.”

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Low-Fat Diet

Low-fat diets have been around for years, which is why you see so many low-fat or nonfat versions of your favorite foods. They might be based on a specific meal plan like Jenny Craig or use a point system to help you monitor your fat like Weight Watchers.

Generally, low-fat diets recommend you eat these reduced-fat or nonfat alternatives and get most of your fat from plant sources. No more than 30 percent of your calories can come from fat sources. You may not shed as much weight as quickly, but if you stick to a low-fat diet long-term, you’ll see similar weight loss results as other plans.

Low-fat diets aren’t for everyone. Some people have a constant feeling of hunger on this type of plan, Dr. Rydberg says. “You have to pay attention to your body. If you’re hungry or feel deprived all the time, it’s not going to be a good life-long eating plan for you.”

“People don’t gain weight back because they are weak. They gain it back because they aren’t sending the right hormone signals to tell their brain that they are satisfied. That puts the brain in an emergency mode all the time and sends people hunting and searching for food.”

Low-Carb Diet

Carbohydrates have replaced fats as the enemy in modern diet plans. Popular diets like Atkins, Whole30, Paleo and Keto are all low-carb options. Each diet has its own set of guidelines — some more restrictive than others — to help you lose weight and improve your health.

“Keto and Paleo are both low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein diets. A lot of people think that these are high protein diets and they’re not!” says Dr. Rydberg. “Really, what you’re looking at is a high-fat diet. And that, for some people, can really help keep them full.”

Fat has a higher density, so by adding more of that to your diet, you feel more satisfied until your next meal. Focusing on eating healthy fats to stay full can help keep you from snacking or resorting to quick, unhealthy options throughout the day.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet has received a lot of buzz for its health benefits. People living along the Mediterranean Sea live longer and have lower rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Their eating habits get a large share of the credit.

“It’s a low-carbohydrate diet that is high in foods that contain Omega-3 fatty acids like fish and nuts. All the carbs you do eat are complex, so that means whole grains,” says Dr. Rydberg.

Despite its name, the Mediterranean diet is more of an eating pattern than a prescriptive diet plan. Since it doesn’t have the same restrictions as the Keto diet, Paleo diet or other low-carb plans, you may find it easier to incorporate into your lifestyle long-term.

“The best data on the prevention of heart disease comes from Mediterranean eating plans. If this is one of your goals, this may be the best plan for you,” says Dr. Rydberg.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Inflammation is an issue in a number of health conditions. Chronic inflammation results when your immune system is attempting to fight off an infection that isn’t there. Many foods, like fish, nuts, fruits and seeds, are shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that can help the underlying issue in your health.

The gluten-free diet is the most common anti-inflammatory diet. While it’s primarily prescribed for people who have celiac disease, many people choose to follow it for other reasons.

“The research isn’t mature yet there, but if you’re feeling better, there’s no harm in it. You’re not missing anything essential nutritionally by being on a gluten-free diet,” Dr. Rydberg says. “You’re probably eating fewer carbs. So I think a good percentage of people that see weight loss with a gluten-free diet have success because their diet is lower in carbs.”

Plant-Based Diet

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

That’s the simple advice offered up by author Michael Pollan that started the push toward plant-based foods. His diet advice doesn’t rule out meat; it emphasizes food that’s directly derived from plants, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These foods are full of essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber.

“That’s where you’re getting your fullness sensation. Fiber is in vegetables. It can be in your fruits as well, particularly fruits that have skin,” Dr. Rydberg says.

When you’re eating a plant-based diet, or if you’re taking it a step further and becoming a vegetarian or vegan, you have to be conscious of your fiber to help control your appetite and weight. Dr. Rydberg recommends keeping the peel on your fruits and veggies as much as possible and limiting the processed vegetarian and vegan foods that are becoming more popular.

The best diet is the one you can stick with.

Too often, people think of diets as a quick fix. You may be successful in the short-term. But as soon as you abandon your new eating habits, the weight returns.

The key to successful dieting is to not think of it as a temporary solution, but a long-term lifestyle change.

“That’s actually what the research has shown. A lot of people get really angry at themselves that they can’t stick to something rather than responding to what their body is telling them,” Dr. Rydberg says. “If you respond to it and change what you do so you don’t have the same drive to eat more than you should, you can be successful long-term.”

She works with patients to examine their eating habits over the span of a week or a month to fine-tune the diet that works best for them. To stick with your diet of choice, she recommends:

  • Meal planning – When you’re busy or in a hurry, quick, fast and convenient foods become your only option. They’re usually not healthy. Plan out your week, including the times you know you need a quick fix, so you’re not resorting to unhealthy options outside the home.
  • A stocked pantry – If you don’t have time to meal plan, you can still stock up on healthy essentials. Fill your pantry and fridge with the foods that fit your diet so you’re not tempted by processed foods and other options that would cause you to stray.
  • Single-serving snacks – Easy to grab and go, single-servings of low-fat cheese, nuts and other healthy foods can help you hold off hunger and say no to the cookies in the breakroom.

“All of those things help you stay consistent with whichever diet is working for you,” says Dr. Rydberg. “And consistency is really what helps you be successful long-term.”

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