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

Longtime UCLA nutrition researcher David Heber, MD, PhD, claims that most diets overemphasize weight loss and underemphasize body fat percentage. So his 14-day program, outlined in The L.A. Shape Diet: The 14-Day Total Weight Loss Plan (Regan, 2004), first guides dieters through an analysis of their shape (a.k.a. where body fat is located) and a discussion of body fat percentage versus lean muscle mass. The diet calls for one or two meal-replacement milk shakes per day and emphasizes protein. Technically it's not a high-protein diet, but it does recommend a little more protein than most folks usually eat. When not drinking shakes, dieters focus on eating "good" carbs and less fat. Rather than predict how many pounds dieters will lose each week, Heber talks about achieving a healthy percentage of body fat and a more healthful shape.

The L.A. Shape diet covers all the bases when it comes to weight loss, including advice on exercise, behavior, and food choices. The use of supplements seems rather intensive, since dieters are supposed to not only eat lots of fruits and veggies but also take supplements containing some of the same phytochemicals found in these fruits and vegetables. The plan also calls for green tea extract and herbals as well as larger amounts of familiar nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. In addition, to be honest, the information about the relationship between body shape and diet strategies is a little confusing. Heber advises readers with an "apple" shape to take a different diet approach than pear-shaped folks who have extra weight mostly in their hips and thighs. Yet the book tells dieters to use their current weight, not shape, to determine protein levels. And another thing: Some new research suggests dieters might benefit from higher protein levels to promote weight loss, but this approach is still considered preliminary.

Basic principles:

The diet downplays simple sugar and fat and focuses on eating protein and building muscle. As a dieter's lean body mass increases, the number of calories he or she burns at rest also increases. One pound of lean body mass, or muscle, burns 14 calories a day, Heber says. He also contends that body shape is important, both for dieting purposes and for overall health. Too much fat around the belly can set the stage for a whole host of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. Fat around the hips and thighs is less of a health risk.

How the diet works:

There are two diet phases. The first phase is a 7-day quick-start plan that calls for dieters to down two "Empowering Shakes," one for breakfast and one for lunch. Supper is a regular meal of "good" carbs, fruits and veggies, and lean meat or fish. By phase two, dieters are increasing food amounts and eating replacements along with seven servings of fruits and veggies and 25 grams of fiber. Supplements including herbals, green tea extract, and added antioxidant nutrients are encouraged. The diet breaks down to 29 percent protein, 20 percent fat, and about 51 percent carbs.

What you can eat:

A lot of those "empowering" shakes. Dieters use a blender to whip up different varieties of these homemade meal replacements with fruit, nonfat milk, and protein powder (the recipes are Heber's). For the first week, dieters drink two meal-replacement shakes per day and eat a nutritious supper of 3 to 6 ounces of lean meat or fish, 2 cups of steamed veggies, and 4 cups of salad dressed with vinegar. Dessert is fruit. Eventually, dieters use meal replacements at breakfast only.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

Probably, although Heber doesn't offer clinical studies to show that the methods he outlines are effective.

Is the diet healthy?

Most likely. With such a strong emphasis on eating more fruits and vegetables and less fat, the diet can't help but be nutritious.

What do the experts say?

"It's a perfectly solid plan," says weight control researcher James O. Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "I wouldn't have any trouble recommending it to patients." Joan Carter, RD, an instructor at Baylor College of Medicine, isn't keen on the long list of recommended supplements, particularly herbals and antioxidants. "The science is still a little weak in this area. Do they work, or do they not work? We don't know yet." Overall, though, there's a lot of good information here, Carter says. It's just a little hard to follow. As she puts it, "The book jumps all over the place."

Who should consider the diet?

Dieters who like structure. A good blender and a love of fruit smoothies are key since the plan requires daily homemade protein shakes.

Bottom line:

Heber offers a lot of good behavioral strategies and exercise advice, but meal-replacement milk shakes aren't the best approach for everyone. Dieters who enjoy the satisfaction of chewing and savoring real food might prefer a weight-loss regimen based on a variety of nutritious foods.
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