There's No Perfect Diet, Researcher Says

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Wondering what diet works best for weight loss? Just pick one and get on with it, says University of Massachusetts Medical School researcher Sherry Pagoto.

In a commentary published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, Pagoto writes that even after years of research and thousands of studies on the topic, there doesn't appear to be any one magical combination of proteins, fats and carbs that works best for melting off extra pounds. After six months or so, most diets lead to about the same amount of weight loss as any other.

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Pagoto said the research is conclusive on just one point: Dieters who are better at sticking with a program – any program – lose the most weight. So, whether you go on a meat-loving caveman diet or an earth-friendly vegan diet, any diet will produce weight loss if it means you take in fewer calories than you burn off.

Pagoto said she'd like this to be a "stop the madness" moment in obesity research. It's time to change the public's perception of dieting, she said.

"Spending all these resources on trying to figure out the best diet composition for weight loss has yielded no conclusive answers, and none of it has been game-changing in terms of obesity management," she said. "Weight loss is a behavior issue, not a dietary composition issue."

But Ling Qi, an associate professor in the nutritional sciences division at Cornell University, said he thinks the diet debates are still important.

"I agree that obesity treatment should be more personal involving dietary and exercise counseling in order to be more successful," said. "However, I would add that obesity is also a nutrition problem."

Qi said he believed that looking beyond weight control, what you eat matters when it comes to obesity-related conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. He thinks it's worth noting that emerging research has begun to link diet to the gut bacteria many scientists believe have a profound influence on weight and overall health. And from his own experience, he has found that educating dieters about nutrition helps them make better choices and form the lifestyle habits that lead to weight loss.

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Dr. Holly Wyatt, a physician and clinical researcher at the Center for Human Nutrition, University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, Colo., conducts diet studies and also counsels weight loss patients at the university's Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. She said we probably have carried our national obsession with finding the right diet too far.

"In reality there's lots of data to show there probably isn't one single diet that is best for weight loss or anything else," Wyatt said.

Wyatt said even if research could determine the recipe for the perfect weight loss diet, it wouldn't matter if only a few people were able to stay on it.

"The best hope of losing weight is finding a diet you can live with and then committing to it long term," she said.

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However, Wyatt said she doesn't believe it's time to abandon the completely study of diet composition just yet.

"Our knowledge of weight loss maintenance is less clear. We still don't understand how diet, when coupled with different levels of physical activity, might help keep the weight off, and this is an area [that] could use some research," she said.

Pagoto stressed she is not saying that what you eat doesn't matter at all, only that we should be paying more attention to behavior and motivation. Most people continue to view weight loss as an exercise in personal responsibility, she said, but it's time to take a closer look at the many complex challenges of shedding pounds permanently.

"The million-dollar question is, 'How do you get people to stick to a plan that helps them lose weight?'" she said.

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