One of those mysterious urban dieting legends, the grapefruit diet has been around since about the 1930s. And while no one claims responsibility for its invention, the weight-loss strategy continues to attract legions of fans who usually pass along the details by word of mouth. Interested people will find it tricky to nail down a specific plan as there are a host of versions now circulating online, each with its own set of menus and food lists. And a new book called The Grapefruit Solution (Linx, 2004) takes yet another approach. The one common theme throughout these plans: Dieters eat grapefruit, drink grapefruit juice, or swallow grapefruit capsules at or before every meal.

Grapefruit is chock-full of vitamin C, fiber, and small amounts of other nutrients and disease-fighting chemicals-so there's no doubt that it's a great food choice. But touting it as a magic fat burner is premature. Would that it were so easy to melt fat away and keep it off by eating one single food. Of course, that hasn't stopped thousands of dieters from signing up for the plan over the last 70 or so years.

Basic principles:

The theory goes that grapefruit contains a special enzyme that burns fat. No one has explained exactly how this works, or if it holds true for other citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons, but that's the premise. Most of the grapefruit plans call for specific menus that dieters must follow to the letter. Folks using the book, The Grapefruit Solution, must also stick to an intensive exercise program.

How the diet works:

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the old plans now available online have something in common besides grapefruit: They all prescribe a small amount of food or limit choices from certain food groups. Such skimpy options set the stage for what is just another low-calorie diet-with the twist that you must have grapefruit at every meal. Unlike the old plans, The Grapefruit Solution allows dieters to follow any popular eating plan (such as Atkins or South Beach) that they wish.

What you can eat:

Whether you choose to follow one of the old plans or go by the book, you'll be having grapefruit three times a day at every meal. For example, one of the old diets calls for grapefruit, 2 eggs any style, and 2 slices of bacon for breakfast. Lunch or supper includes grapefruit, any amount of meat, and a salad (with any dressing) or cooked veggies. Followers of The Grapefruit Solution simply need to eat grapefruit (or down a grapefruit capsule) and follow the weight-loss plan of their choice.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

Hard to say. A small 2004 study at the Scripps Clinic in San Diego, California (funded by The Florida Citrus Department) finds that eating half a grapefruit or drinking 4 ounces of juice with meals-without changing eating habits-results in an average weight loss of more than 3 pounds in 12 weeks. Researchers have a hunch that grapefruit reduces insulin levels and so may encourage weight loss, but they aren't certain.

Is the diet healthy?

Probably not. Many of the old plans provide less than 1200 calories a day, which is not enough food for good health. The Grapefruit Solution book promotes a healthy pyramid-style approach to eating, but dieters may also choose to follow troublesome popular diets including low-carb plans like Atkins.

What do the experts say?

"Grapefruit has no special properties when it comes to weight loss," says Elisabetta Politi, RD, nutrition manager of the Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center. "You lose weight when you expend more calories than you take in." One small study, such as the one done by the Scripps Clinic, isn't convincing enough, she adds. Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports-medicine nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, thinks the weight-loss benefits of grapefruit are overblown. "Researchers have looked at compounds in grapefruit that have health-promoting properties, particularly in terms of cancer reduction. But weight loss? This is really a stretch." And forget the grapefruit capsules, she says. "There's no way that what's in that pill is going to mimic the same phytochemical makeup of a grapefruit."

Who should consider the diet?

No one.

Bottom line:

What a waste of time. Grapefruit is a great food, and eating one before each meal probably helps fill you up and may help you eat less. But it's no magic fat burner.
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