There’s no one best diet for everyone.  Looking at how much people lose and keep off, research tells us a little about which diets might slightly outdo the competitors.  A few constants emerge, nevertheless, from the many studies carried out over the years.      Most of these rules of thumb not only help manage weight, as it happens, but also minimize cancer, cardiac, and other major disease risks.  Put in very short form, the best diets usually include lots of vegetables, along with fruits, lean protein, healthy oils, whole grains and legumes.   The best diets keep sugar and refined carbohydrates to a minimum.  And they are consumed within a lifestyle that includes exercise. 

Different diets prescribe these food categories in different proportions and amounts, and that’s where individual needs and choices—and outcomes—enter the picture.  It’s proving true that people with a lot of weight to lose (nearing 100 pounds, say) often do better on diets that emphasize protein, rather than those that emphasize complex carbohydrates.   (Let me say here, though, that the adage “the best diet is the one you’ll stick with” often applies even in these cases).

The protein emphasis helps with obesity in a few ways.  First, people who’ve carried extra weight for years often have some degree of insulin resistance, even if they’re not fully diabetic.  This means that their bodies convert calories to fat more readily than those whose endocrine systems work normally.  Eating protein also supports  feelings of fullness—and therefore probably cuts down on snacking and other types of overeating.  Further, many refined carbohydrate foods—sweets, chips, breads, pasta—are easy and tasty enough to keep people eating more and more.  This means more and more calories. 

When we think “high protein”, we often jump to diets like the Atkins and its relatives.  These diets continue to show decent results in weight loss studies, though mostly for the short term, perhaps not meeting the “one you’ll stick with” criteria.  What many have expressed concern about with these diets though—that is, their high saturated fat content—has now emerged as a problem.  A recent study showed that those whose high protein intake depended mostly on animal sources (like red and processed meats) had higher death rates from cancer and heart disease than others.  On the other hand, those whose high protein intake depended more on vegetable sources (like beans and nuts) had lower death rates from these disease than others.

So, I think we might draw a few morals from these recent findings.  First, the “rules of thumb” mentioned above—eating lots of vegetables, for one—continue to prove solid, no matter what form your overall diet regime ultimately takes.   Also, it really does make sense to temper new diet fads (more on these in a near-future blog) with common sense.  Did any of us really not worry about all that steak and bacon in the Atkins diets?  Finally, we can eat less animal-sourced food—here I point you to the 8/12/10 blog reading list—and more foods that simultaneously work toward healthy bodies and a healthy planet, while still keeping a protein emphasis in mind for weight loss.

For more on the matter of “What’s to Eat”, see Module 4 in the Eat Sanely workbook—and watch for it in paperback soon.