Don’t Overthink Your Diet Plan, Say Experts

Most of us who need to lose weight are somewhat intimidated by the idea of choosing a diet plan. Should we count calories? Should we try eating raw? Should we go low-carb, or no carb? Vegetarian or vegan, or gluten free? We often end up spending weeks or months just deciding the best route to take to our weight loss goals. Now a new study suggests it really doesn’t matter.

The study was conducted at the Durham, North Carolina Veterans Administration Medical Center. Researchers found that in the long term, diet plans are similarly effective, although giving dieters a choice seems to help them stick to the plan. Lead author Dr. William S. Yancy, Jr., said of the outcome, “It definitely is counter-intuitive to what a lot of people think…Allowing people to choose their diet, there’s not a big difference clinically.”

The research team randomly separated about 200 obese adults, of whom one-quarter were women, into two groups. Participants in one group were allowed to select the diet they preferred from two options, one a low-carb and the other a low-fat plan. They completed a food frequency questionnaire, and the researchers explained to them if their results indicated a preference for high protein (better for the low-carb diet), or high carbohydrates and sugar (better for the low-fat diet). After three months, the participants were allow to switch if they chose to do so.

Participants in the comparison group were randomly assigned to a particular diet plan, with having the option to choose. They were not given any option later on to switch to another plan.

The participants remained on their diets for 48 weeks, using books and printed handouts for support, along with telephone and group counseling.

Participants on the low-carb diet were restricted to 20 grams of carbohydrates daily, with no calorie restrictions. Those on the low-fat diet were restricted to 30 percent of their daily caloric intake in fats, and 10 percent in saturated fats. They ate 500 fewer calories than their daily maintenance energy requirement.

Almost 60 percent of the choice group selected the low-carb diet, and only five people elected to switch plans at the three-month mark. Fifty-two percent of the comparison group were assigned to the low-carb diet.

At the end of almost a year of dieting, participants in the choice group had lost an average of 12.5 pounds, while those in the comparison group averaged nearly 15 pounds. The authors of the study considered these statistically similar results.

Bradley C. Johnston of the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute in Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who was not involved in the study, had some pertinent observations.

He suggested it would be useful to see how these two groups maintained their weight loss two or three years beyond the study. He recommends avoiding an emphasis on low carb or low fat, and instead consuming healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and lean meats. He also recommends some restriction of calories along with moderate exercise, and accessing a weight-loss partner or community to increase the chance of success.