Last updated: Dec 16, 2008

From Health magazine
If losing weight is at the top of your list, youre not alone: An estimated 80 million Americans go on diets every year, spending more than $30 billion annually on programs and products. Thats a lot of money, a lot of advice, and a lot of emotional investment.



So, which diets really work—and work safely? To find the weight-loss programs with that golden balance of nutrition, calorie control, motivation, and activity, Health harnessed a panel of experts to put more than 60 well-known diets to the test and narrow them down to the top 10. (Compare the pros and cons of more than 40 popular diets here!)


Here's our list of winners:

The Structure House Weight Loss Plan
Publisher: Fireside

Dont recognize this plan? Thats because for more than 30 years its author, Gerard J. Musante, PhD, has been working quietly and very successfully running the actual Structure House, a Durham, N.C.–based residential treatment center for obese adults. Thats a lot of time spent with patients and a lot of attention paid to the broad factors that affect weight loss—particularly the relationship people have with food.

But can an excellent residential program transfer to an effective at-home plan? The answer, according to our experts, is a resounding “yes,” which is how this below-the-radar plan grabbed highest honors from its better-known rivals.

With top-shelf scores on every aspect of healthy weight-loss, Structure House won an “outstanding!” from obesity expert Tim Church, MD, on its exercise component (often a weak spot in diet programs). And several panelists raved about the plans motivational components. “It focuses on the ‘why behind overeating,” says registered dietitian Maureen Callahan, “and helps dieters learn to put their lives in balance.” Healths senior food and nutrition editor, Frances Largeman-Roth, agrees: “This book takes a holistic approach to weight loss, asking you to fill your life with things other than food—outdoor activities and time with friends and family, for instance. Plus, the recipes, such as Balsamic Dijon Chicken and Classic Pesto, won high marks for tastiness, another factor in long-term weight-loss success.



The Step Diet
Workman Publishing

We all know that walking 10,000 steps a day can really make a huge difference healthwise. But now we also know that the diet inspired by this fundamental, healthy approach to movement and activity is a big winner. And it even comes with a pedometer, a device that studies have shown can be a huge motivator for staying active and losing weight.

Our panelists agree that establishing a lifestyle regimen that combines intentional walking with spur-of-the-moment step-building (parking farther away, taking the stairs) is a healthy, all-ages, all-levels-of-fitness diet prescription. “This is more about calories burned than calories cut,” Healths Frances Largeman-Roth says.

The nutritional approach of the Step Diet, devised by weight-control experts from the University of Colorado, is profoundly simple: Cut food intake to 75 percent of what you currently eat. “This plan is for people who like things simple,” nutrition expert Christine Palumbo says. “Simply cut back on what you normally eat.” With suggestions (not hard-core regimens) for making healthy meals and a food diary for building mindfulness, this plan can work well for dieters who like to have daily control and choices.

Our panelists also noted that the cut in calories combined with the steady increase in activity can lead to a safe, healthy rate of weight loss and a naturally active lifestyle. “This is a doable, concrete approach to adding daily physical activity and losing pounds,” dietitian and fitness expert Samantha Heller says.




Weight Watchers

Its a classic for a reason. It works.

And over the years, this gold-standard weight-loss program that harnesses the power of group support to help motivate dieters has kept up with science, not to mention changing lifestyles. For this aspect, Weight Watchers earned the highest motivational marks (including several perfect scores) from our panel of experts, who also lauded the plans overall healthy weight-loss pace and exercise component.

Most noteworthy: Weight Watchers, while maintaining its meetings-based system, has added an online version for those dieters who, in the words of panelist Largeman-Roth, “arent into group hugs.”

Whats more, dieters following the program have flexibility. In late December the company launched its newest program, Momentum, which is designed to allow consumers to control their hunger and tailor Weight Watchers to fit their lifestyle. Momentum combines elements from previous food plans like Weight Watchers' famous points-based Flex Plan and the Core Plan. The Flex plan is packed with major education on making wise and healthy food choices and gets kudos for providing both motivation and a simple framework for success. The Core Plan focuses dieters on eating nutritious, satisfying foods—without counting calories.

The Weight Watchers program offers strategies that will work for every dieter. And the support specifically for men was a real bonus, as was the ability to get tasty, already-prepared (and points counted) meals at your local grocery store.



The EatingWell Diet
The Countryman Press

This new entry into the field in 2007 has built beautifully on the latest understanding of the broad approach necessary for effective weight loss. Author Jean Harvey-Berino, PhD, RD, developed the fundamentals of the EatingWell Diet at the University of Vermont, where she chairs the department of nutrition and food science. The focus on behavioral changes—including finding and facing eating triggers, eating and shopping mindfully, and cultivating regular, joyful exercise habits—combined with a 28-day mix-and-match menus gained the highest overall rankings on calorie-intake and weight-loss-rate criteria from our panelists.

“Hallelujah,” says registered dietitian Maureen Callahan. “Heres a diet plan that tells the truth about weight loss. Dieters lose about 21 pounds in six months, or about a pound a week. This kind of steady weight loss is the real thing, the kind that stays off.” Another nifty extra: a Diet Food Diary that includes a calorie-count chart.



The Volumetrics Eating Plan
Harper Collins

Nutritionist Barbara Rolls, PhD, has tapped into a fundamental human quality: We like to feel full. This may sound obvious, but its based, in fact, on extensive work Rolls has done as director of the Laboratory for the Study of Human Ingestive Behavior at Pennsylvania State University. Rolls says youll eat better and lose weight if you focus on the energy density of foods. And her Volumetrics plan explains how low-density foods like fruits and vegetables, as well as soups and stews, fill you up without overloading you with calories.

This diet scored highest for its safe weight-loss-rate and nutritional components because its “based on sound nutrition principles and overall healthy food choices,” judge Samantha Heller says. And our panelists found the plans 150-plus recipes appealing. Another plus, judge Christine Palumbo says, is Volumetrics creative approach of showing photos of low- and high-density foods side by side—a simple way to help dieters visualize good choices.

Though exercise plays a secondary role in the Volumetrics plan, it is required. And a guide for logging 30 to 60 minutes of daily activity provides motivation. But Healths Frances Largeman-Roth wondered if some dieters would need more exercise challenges and support.




The Best Life Diet
Simon & Schuster

Bob Greene is forever linked with superstar (and dieter) Oprah Winfrey. And his high-profile guide, which offers a sane, healthy approach to overall lifestyle changes, earned consistently high marks from our experts. Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, who looked at the motivational elements of each diet, was impressed by the realistic goals embraced by the Best Life plan, as well as the weekly menus and recipes offered on its Web site (which also features message-board support groups, a good source of dieting motivation).

Best Life has three phases that each dieter is encouraged to embark upon at his or her own pace, a strategy that leads to slimming, nutritional eating and increased physical activity. Dietitian Christine Palumbo gave this staged approach a perfect 10: “For people who like to ease into lifestyle changes in order to get used to them oh-so-gradually,” she says, “this is a good bet.”

Greene doesnt advocate keeping strict track of calories, which may make the Best Life more challenging for rule-loving dieters, yet panelists applauded his holistic approach to healthy eating. “Hes emphasizing healthy foods in reasonable portions,” nutrition expert Maureen Callahan says.

“Dieters shouldnt feel deprived on this plan,” Healths Frances Largeman-Roth says. “However, the fact that this diet doesnt have ‘magic foods or promise rapid results may make it less attractive to dieters looking for a silver bullet.” And that may be its best recommendation of all.



The Solution
Collins

“This program excels at helping people figure out why theyre overeating,” Callahan says, “and thats whats going to keep the weight off.” Squarely facing the emotional and behavioral underpinnings of overeating, dietitian Laurel Mellins method is based on The Shapedown Program, a successful weight-management plan she created for overweight children and adolescents in the late 1970s. Mellin views obesity not so much in terms of diet and exercise but as another expression of the interaction of mind, body, and lifestyle. And The Solution, designed for dieters of all ages, targets five root causes of weight problems: unbalanced eating, low energy, body shame, setting ineffective limits, and weak self-nurturing skills.

The food aspects of this program center on four “light” lists—grains, proteins, milk foods, and fruit and vegetables. And Mellins guidelines and food suggestions got high marks on healthy balance from our panelists. Largeman-Roth liked the variety of the plan, as well as its overall moderation. And Palumbo awarded it a hat-trick of perfect 10s in all nutritional aspects.



You: On a Diet
Free Press

“No wonder Dr. Oz is Oprahs favorite doctor!” Palumbo raves, hailing the friendly diet book that is the centerpiece of the “You” docs Mehmet C. Oz and Michael F. Roizens mini-empire of healthy lifestyle guides and products (including a very interactive Web site). This diet, Palumbo adds, “teaches and motivates about weight (and waist) loss with a sense of good humor and fun.”

Indeed, the book offers a lot of education amidst the menu plans, which include recipes for Stuffed Whole Wheat Pizza, Grilled Peanut Shrimp with Sesame Snow Peas, and Sweet Beet and Gorgonzola Salad. Panelist Samantha Heller praised its easy-to-understand nutrition information, while Dr. Rajapaksa gave points for its good explanations of how the body works. The weight-loss trajectory centers on cutting about 500 calories per day, and panelists liked the easy calculations that help readers figure out their own calorie needs.

Palumbo also credited the plan with adding to the healthy (but not terribly exciting) 30 minutes of daily walking some equally valuable recommendations of stretching, metabolism boosting, muscle building, and strength training. Added benefit: Illustrations show how to do the exercises sans a trip to the gym.



The Sonoma Diet
Meredith Books

Theres an undercurrent of celebration in this best-selling diet that continues to inspire with delicious recipes using staples of Mediterranean eating: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, and nuts.

Dietitian and PhD Connie Guttersens plan opens with a strident 10-day jump-start phase called “Wave One,” designed to purge habits of eating sugar and highly processed foods, which judges Maureen Callahan and Samantha Heller caution may be a little too calorie-restrictive for some beginning dieters. But subsequent phases—active weight loss and maintenance—garnered high marks from our panel. Exercise is encouraged but not actively prescribed, a missed opportunity in the minds of several judges.

Overall, our panelists loved the creative recipes and menus. And they applauded the plate-and-bowl approach to portion control, a hallmark of long-term, sustainable eating habits. “This diet teaches you to eat slowly and savor your meals,” judge Palumbo says.



The Spectrum
Ballantine

Famous in the 1990s for advocating a program to combat heart disease, Dean Ornish, MD, has been criticized for prescribing nutritional edicts that are just too hard to sustain. The Spectrum, Ornishs newest diet, both broadens and softens his program by moving along four separate paths to health—nutrition, exercise, stress management, and personal relationships.

Our panelists liked the plans holistic approach, particularly rewarding its counsel on reducing stress and giving it high marks for including a meditation DVD with the book. And our nutrition judges were glad to see that Ornish has tempered his tough stance on fats to a more sustainable level, but one panelist feels hes still too strict. “Theres no reason not to eat nuts, seeds, and avocados; use maple syrup and honey; or have a glass of wine, periodically,” panelist Heller says. She notes, though, that Ornishs whole-body approach, which includes a vegetarian lifestyle, stress management, and exercise, is on target in terms of health, disease prevention, and reaching a healthy weight.

Judge Palumbo awarded Ornishs plan some of her highest scores. “This ‘diet plan addresses the lifestyle diseases of the 21st century,” she says, “such as diabetes, certain cancers, and cardiovascular disease. This book is ideal for people who are looking for an intelligent, thoughtful, science-based weight-loss program.”