By Maureen Callahan, M.S., R.D.
Updated: April 18, 2008

It looks as if television actress Suzanne Somers is on her way to becoming a diet diva. At last count there were eight of her diet cookbooks on the market. In fact, Somers is producing these recipe-heavy tomes at a pretty fast clip these days-about one per year. First, it was Suzanne Somers' Eat Great, Lose Weight in 1996. Then came Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Food in 1999. That was followed with a diet-dessert cookbook in 2001, Suzanne Somers' Fast & Easy in 2002; Suzanne Somers' Eat, Cheat, and Melt the Fat Away in 2003; and Suzanne Somers' Slim and Sexy Forever: The Hormone Solution for Permanent Weight Loss and Optimal Living just this year. Basically, the message throughout the books is the same, only the recipes have changed. Somers holds with the philosophy that sugar is the bad guy and that eating fat, even saturated fat, can help with weight loss.

These books come off as superfriendly to dieters. And Somers does a good job of talking about the difference between simple carbs (sugar, white bread, white rice) and the complex kind. Still, her strategies seem like a hodgepodge of diet advice cobbled together from other sources. Carrots are taboo (think Sugar Busters), steak with butter is good (think Atkins), and fruit should be eaten solo (think Fit for Life). Basically, her advice boils down to another low-carb, high-protein regimen. This time, however, it's a difficult one to master because of the convoluted food-combining rules.

Basic principles:

Call it a diet version of "good cop, bad cop": Sugar is the enemy, fat is the good guy. Dieters are encouraged to eat a high-protein, low-carb regimen that bears striking similarities to the Atkins plan, but with a few unusual twists. It seems Somers is into combining foods in "a way that aids in digestion and weight control." Fruit needs to be eaten on an empty stomach; protein and allowed carbs are not eaten together.

How the diet works:

There are two levels. Level One is the diet phase of the program, in which carbs are strictly limited. Level Two is the weight-maintenance phase-carbs are still restricted, but not as tightly. You eat at least three meals per day and are asked to abide by seven rules: Avoid funky foods (sugars, white breads, carrots, etc.); eat proteins and fats separately from carbs; eat proteins and veggies together; eat carbs and veggies together; eat fruit alone on an empty stomach; wait three hours between meals if switching from a protein/fat meal to a carb meal; do not skip meals.

What you can eat:

Butter, cream, bacon, steak, seafood-it's all good. In fact, Somers lumps fats and proteins together in the Pro/Fats group since many of the foods that contain protein also contain fat. Most fruits (except for bananas and pumpkin) and vegetables (except for beets, carrots, corn, winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and parsnips) are OK as long as you eat them as prescribed. Avocados, nuts, olives, and soy foods are considered taboo at Level One but are added back during the maintenance phase.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

There's no scientific proof, but Somers' books are loaded with anecdotal evidence. In fact, there are a lot of before-and-after pictures and testimonials from people who have lost weight on her program.

Is the diet healthy?

Questionable. A plus in the diet's favor: Somers talks about the unhealthy nature of trans fats, the heart-unhealthy fats found in solid shortenings, cakes, and foods made with hydrogenated oils. A big minus: There's no limit on saturated fats like butter, beef, and bacon. As with Atkins, it's unclear what the health implications of a high-protein, high-fat, low-carb way of eating are over the long term.

What do the experts say?

"There's no magic in what's she asking people to do," says registered dietitian Jane Kirby, author of Dieting for Dummies (Wiley, second edition, 2003). "It does force people to be more aware of what they're eating. But it's no miracle." In fact, she thinks it's downright misleading for Somers to label some foods as "poisonous." "There's room for everything in the diet," Kirby says. "You just need to watch amounts." Jackie Berning, PhD, a registered dietitian and associate professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says the big problem with the diet is that there is not a stitch of science to show that any of these strategies work. "I'd tell people to throw away the information in the books and just stick with the recipes." What about Somers' liberal attitude toward butter, beef, and an arsenal of saturated-fat-rich foods? "We've got 40 years of research that shows saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease," Berning says. Dieters may have lower cholesterol levels when they first lose the weight, she says, "but that's because cholesterol levels drop when body mass drops." Berning isn't convinced, though, that these numbers will stay down over the long term, and that could spell trouble for your heart.

Who should consider the diet?

Forget it. Dieters wanting to go low-carb can do it more healthfully, and with much less fuss, on the South Beach plan.

Bottom line:

Some folks might like the glamorous photography and the reader-friendly writing style. Too bad the advice is part pseudoscience and part gibberish.
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