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The top 10 healthiest diets in America

By Tracey Minkin
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Health

If losing weight is at the top of your resolution list, you're not alone. An estimated 80 million Americans go on diets every year, spending more than $30 billion annually on programs and products.

Relax -- some diets are more about burning calories than counting calories.

Relax -- some diets are more about burning calories than counting calories.

That's 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. Here's the list:

The Structure House Weight Loss Plan (Fireside)

Don't recognize this plan? That's 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, North Carolina-based residential treatment center for obese adults. That's 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 (meet them at right), is a resounding "yes," which is how this below-the-radar plan grabbed highest honors from its better-known rivals. iReport.com: Tell us about your New Year's resolutions

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 plan's motivational components. "It focuses on the 'why' behind overeating," says registered dietitian Maureen Callahan, "and helps dieters learn to put their lives in balance."

Health's 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. Health.com: Lose weight on fast food--- really!

• 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," Health's Frances Largeman-Roth says. Health.com: 5 tips to keep office snacking from derailing your diet

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

It's 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 plan's 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, "aren't into group hugs." Health.com: Diet tricks the stars use to stay thin

What's more, dieters following the program can choose from two distinct weight-loss approaches. The first, Weight Watcher's famous points-based Flex Plan, which is packed with major education on making wise and healthy food choices, gets kudos for providing both motivation and a simple framework for success. The second, 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. Health.com: Reviews of more than 40 popular diets

"Hallelujah," says registered dietitian Maureen Callahan. "Here's 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 it's 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 you'll 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 it's "based on sound nutrition principles and overall healthy food choices," judge Samantha Heller says. And our panelists found the plan's 150-plus recipes appealing. Another plus, judge Christine Palumbo says, is Volumetric's 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 Health's 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 doesn't 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. "He's emphasizing healthy foods in reasonable portions," nutrition expert Maureen Callahan says.

"Dieters shouldn't feel deprived on this plan," Health's Frances Largeman-Roth says. "However, the fact that this diet doesn't 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 they're overeating," Callahan says, "and that's what's going to keep the weight off." Squarely facing the emotional and behavioral underpinnings of overeating, dietitian Laurel Mellin's 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 Mellin's 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 Oprah's favorite doctor!" Palumbo raves, hailing the friendly diet book that is the centerpiece of the "You" docs Mehmet C. Oz and Michael F. Roizen's 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)

There's 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 Guttersen's 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, Dr. Dean Ornish, MD, has been criticized for prescribing nutritional edicts that are just too hard to sustain. The Spectrum, Ornish's 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 plan's 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 he's still too strict. "There's 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 Ornish's 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 Ornish's 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."

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Copyright Health Magazine 2009

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