By Kate Jonuska
There's good news in recent research on several big-name diet plans: Popular plans like Atkins, the Zone and Weight Watchers do lead to measurable, if modest, weight loss. Head-to-head, people lost an average of 4-10 pounds in one year according to dozens of weight-loss trials compared in the journal "Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality & Outcomes" in November.
But the bad news that came with this study cancels out some of the good. Over longer periods of time, diet participants often regained some lost pounds. So while appealing for their speed and simplicity, restrictive or fad diets alone are likely not the key to weight-loss success in 2015.
It's good food for thought for those planning to diet after the holidays or make a New Year's resolution to lose weight and eat well. In fact, if you want that resolution to stick, a little bit of planning ahead can go a long way.
Learn your starting point
"It's easy with fad diets or diet books or anything all-inclusive to think that they work for everyone, and that's just not true," says registered dietician Megan Forbes, of Forbes Nutritional Consulting in Boulder.
Because of individual differences in genetics and metabolic needs, selecting the right diet plan might start with testing. Modern tests can check for nutritional deficiencies, or give you a better picture of the health of your microbiome — the balance of "good" and "bad" bacteria in your digestive system.
For example, for some, a low-carb diet can provide immediate results by reducing water weight and inflammation because the plan helps balance their particular microbiome.
"If you're able to look into those things to see where your microbiome lies and what genetic factors you're up against, that data can help you plan for the future and make a diet plan that works for you," Forbes says.
Some health-insurance plans cover this type of testing through doctors' offices or companies such as Genova Diagnostics.
Physiological testing can also offer helpful information. For instance, a fuel-utilization test can let you know how well your body metabolizes fat, thus indicating whether a low-carb-ohydrate diet will work well for you right now.
Some nutritionists and health centers, like the Human Performance Lab at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center and the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, offer this type of testing.
Use a two-part plan
If done in a healthy way, fad diets can have their place, says Dr. Holly Wyatt, associate director of the Health and Wellness Center at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. In fact, quick initial weight loss can be motivating, she says. But the key to real and lasting weight loss is dividing the process into two distinct parts: weight loss and maintenance.
"As many people know, losing weight often isn't the hard part," says Wyatt. "The reason people fail, why they regain weight and yo-yo, is that they never separate what they need to do to lose weight and what they need to do to maintain the loss. It's not same thing."
During the weight-loss period, diet is crucial, she says.
"For weight loss, physical activity is in the backseat. It's along for the drive, but if there's not a diet driving, you're not going to lose weight," Wyatt explains.
Adherence to strict diets usually starts to fall off about four to five months into the program, she says, at which point diet — perhaps counterintuitively — becomes less important.
"Then those things switch places," she says. "The diet is in the backseat and the physical activity should be driving. They all need to be there, but without the physical-activity card, you're not likely to be successful long-term."
Her recommendation is to plan for that ramping up of physical activity and accept that it's an inevitable part of permanent weight loss.
In fact, people who keep off significant weight report engaging in an average of 60 minutes of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) per day.
Know the habits of those who keep it off
That exercise statistic is just one tidbit from the National Weight Control Registry. Since 1994, the NWCR has tracked the results of people who have lost significant weight (at least 30 pounds) and kept it off for at least one year — though many have lost much more and for longer periods.
"We publish about the characteristics and habits related to success in hopes of being useful to folks working on the same weight-loss problems," says Dr. J. Graham Thomas, co-investigator at the NWCR.
And on the whole, how are those "keeper-offers" eating, even years after they've lost the weight? Very few are still fad dieters, according to Thomas. "In general, we continue to find that the majority of the individuals in the registry follow a low-calorie, low-fat diet, though there are highly vocal minorities within the registry."
Many of their other results are unsurprising, proving points dieters have heard for years, such as that the majority (78 percent) of successful weight losers usually eat breakfast. More than half of NWCR's successful dieters also self-monitor, meaning they weigh themselves at least weekly and/or journal their food intake. Other findings are more unexpected.
"One of the things I find particularly interesting is that they tend to limit their diet variety," says Thomas. He explains that our current food environment is full of calorie-dense foods that are widely available, cheap and taste good. Successful long-term losers "are limiting or not exposing themselves to the same food environment that causes those problems."
Translation: Eat more at home and from a list of healthy foods that you also enjoy.
Resolve to plan
Perhaps the best resolution to make for weight loss in the New Year, though, is basic one: Commit to meal planning.
"The plan is the key," says registered dietitian Suzanne Farrell, owner of Cherry Creek Nutrition. For starters, planning promotes mindfulness in your eating. Dieting and losing weight aren't easy, so planning can also help you prepare for difficult moments in advance.
"We talk a lot about the environment doing the work for you," Farrell says. "That's when we're talking about your refrigerator at home, the snack drawer at home and work, and setting yourself up with foods you want to eat. Healthy eating can be really convenient, too, with pre-planning."
She advises starting with plans for three or four meals a week to cook at home, and says they don't have to be complicated.
"What we're looking for is balanced and sustainable," says Farrell, adding that sustainability is the fad diet's Achilles heel, even if they are initially effective. "Certain diets can lead to faster weight loss, but after about six months, they're no faster than eating a well balanced diet."
Important information to keep in mind — if you'd like your New Year's resolution to last past June.