Features August 2007 Issue

Which Diet is Healthiest For Your Heart?

Forget about fad diets—the best eating plan is one you can stick with that cuts calories and limits fats and cholesterol.

Atkins, Ornish, South Beach, Zone—these are just a few of the diets that have gained enormous attention and popularity in the past several years. Earlier this year, researchers published "The A to Z Weight Loss Study," which compared four diets and found that the Atkins diet produced the most weight loss. But if you have cardiac problems or you’re trying to prevent them, which diet is right for you?

"We’re finding you can lose weight on almost any diet if you create a calorie deficit," says Andrea Dunn, RD, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic. "But you have to choose a style of eating you can stay with in the long run to maintain the weight loss."

Study results

In "The A to Z Weight Loss Study" (Journal of the American Medical Association, March 7, 2007), 311 overweight or obese, nondiabetic, premenopausal women between the ages of 25 and

Diet Books
50 were randomly assigned to follow one of four diets: Atkins, Ornish, Zone, or LEARN (Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships, and Nutrition, based on national guidelines). Over a 12-month period, researchers measured weight loss, lipid profile (cholesterol levels), body fat percentage, waist-to-hip ratio, insulin and glucose levels, and blood pressure. After 12 months, the women on the Atkins diet had lost an average of 10.3 pounds, while the other three diets produced losses from 3.5 to 5.7 pounds. In all other areas measured, the Atkins diet either did not differ significantly from the other three diets or had more favorable outcomes.

The difficulty with some of these popular diets is eliminating certain foods. For example, you might find the Atkins diet attractive if you love meat, butter, and other high-protein, high-fat foods, but if you also enjoy a lot of bread and potatoes, you’re out of luck. "Trying to work in what you like is going to be a struggle sometimes with those restricted diets," says Dunn.

If you’re considering a diet that radically changes your eating style, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor first. Once you’ve been dieting for 6-8 weeks, get a blood test so your doctor can check your lipid profile and make sure your cholesterol levels haven’t changed for the worse.

Weight-loss basics

"To lose a pound a week, you have to create a calorie deficit of 500 calories a day," says Dunn. One way to create that deficit is to reduce your daily food intake by 250 calories and burn an extra 250 calories with exercise. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Web site, a person weighing 154 pounds will burn 165 calories in 30 minutes doing light yard work, dancing, or playing golf (walking and carrying clubs), or 295 calories in 30 minutes running 5 miles per hour or bicycling more than 10 miles per hour. And the more you weigh, the more calories you will burn (the reverse is also true).

If you’re averse to exercise, remember that regular exercise offers many other benefits. "Exercise will preserve your muscle mass, helps reduce blood pressure and stress, and increases endorphins (brain chemicals that create euphoric feelings). And remember, the heart is also a muscle, and it needs to be exercised to stay healthy," says Dunn.

Specific strategies

Forget about forbidding yourself favorite foods—you’ll only end up feeling deprived. You don’t have to carry around a calculator to count every calorie either. Instead, Dunn suggests that you look at your overall eating habits and "fine-tune" them.

For example, if you go out for fish, choose baked, grilled, or broiled. Have a glass of water or unsweetened iced tea rather than a high-calorie soda.

Another healthful strategy is what Dunn calls "planned eating." Think about your eating patterns, including the frequency and times of day that you eat. For some, three meals a day is fine; others may find that eating five or six "mini-meals" keeps them more satisfied and energized. Keep healthy snacks handy, such as fruits and vegetables, and include nuts, whole-grain crackers, and low-fat cheese in small amounts. Stay away from "convenience" snack foods, like chips and cookies, that are high in fat and sugar and low in nutrients.

And don’t skip meals—your body needs nutrients to function optimally. "Skipping meals isn’t good, because fasting actually causes the body to reabsorb cholesterol. Eating actually helps lower cholesterol," explains Dunn. "And eating only once a day overloads your entire system by giving it too much at one time."

While crafting a healthy eating plan might take more effort than following a diet book, you’re likely to have more long-term success. "Remember that for most, D-I-E-T is a four-letter word and often a short-term approach. For heart health, you want something that’s going to work for the next 30, 40, or 50 years. Enjoy foods you like within a sensible, healthy style of eating," Dunn says.