Making Sense of Different Diets

by | Feb 20, 2016 | Articles, Conditions, Nutrition, Weight loss

With titles from A to Z, there are hundreds of diet plans and the media headlines are full of tips on “this diet” or “that diet”.  The medical literature banters back and forth about the benefits and risks of “low carb” versus “low fat” versus “high protein” as we hyper-analyze measurements such as good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, insulin, glucose, weight and blood pressure.  But which diets really work, what do they have in common, and which ones promote good health?

On my bookshelf sit about 30 books on various diets which I have read over the years, including The Atkins, HCG, Hormone, Jenny-Craig, Mediterranean, NutriSystem, Paleo, Ornish, Pritikin, South Beach, Weight-Watchers, and Zone diets, just to name a few….  Each diet has it’s own “claim to fame”, and there are some common-sense threads that they all share, with a few of them making recent medical news.

Well Known Diets

The Atkins diet promotes weight loss by severely limiting carbohydrates, which are the “ready to burn” food source that converts quickly to glucose, and any glucose that is not burned for energy gets stored as fat.  By eliminating carbohydrates from the diet, the body naturally breaks down stored fat into chemicals called “ketones” which are burned for energy.  Ketones suppress appetite, which also leads to less calorie intake.  In the short term, the Atkins diet usually works for weight loss, but there is much controversy over the long-term health effects.

The South-Beach Diet is a “heart-friendly” version similar to the Atkins diet, but it makes a distinction between good and bad carbohydrates, and between good and bad fats.  Similar to Atkins, reducing carbs is key, but mostly the high-glycemic carbs that so quickly breakdown to glucose.  Unlike the Atkins plan, only healthy fats are allowed.

The Pritikin and the Ornish diets are both centered on a low-fat diet.  As with the South-Beach diet there is a distinction between good and bad carbs or fats.  The Ornish program in particular emphasizes the diet as part of a bigger program including exercise, stress relief, and healthy social connections.  Dr. Ornish has published numerous articles on the success of his program in reversing heart disease, and has succeeded in getting insurances such as Medicare to actually pay for qualifying patients to go through his “intensive cardiac rehabilitation” program.

The Paleo diet, also known as the “caveman” diet, is based on the idea of eating similar to our distant Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors, focusing on a diet that includes wild game, fish, nuts, roots, fruits and vegetables.  Excluded are foods that came into our diet after the age of agriculture and domestication of animals – namely grains, legumes, and dairy.  Loren Cordain, PhD, Colorado State University professor and author of “The Paleo Diet” says even though grains and dairy seem healthful, our “genome has not really adapted to these foods, which can cause inflammation at the cellular level and promote disease.”

The Mediterranean Diet… even the name inspires a vision of warm breezes, crystal blue waters, and fresh healthy foods.  Rich in plant foods and healthy fats the diet has shown some of the best health benefits of any in numerous studies.  The focus is on locally available and fresh seasonal foods, relying heavily on unprocessed, whole plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, olives, and olive oil along with some cheese, yogurt, fish, poultry, eggs, and wine.

Several diet plans emphasize the role of hormones in proper metabolism.   I enjoyed The Hormone Diet as a great review of how many hormones, such as thyroid, cortisol, and the sex hormones, impact metabolism.  This plan emphasizes low-allergenic natural foods, and takes readers through a 3-step program that starts with a detox diet, all the while pointing out that balancing hormones is key to good metabolism and weight loss.

The Zone diet is geared toward eating a balance of foods that lower inflammation and lower insulin levels.  Author, Dr. Sears, recommends lower carbohydrate intake and some protein at every meal in order to blunt the fat storage hormone called insulin, and encourage more of the fat breakdown hormone called glucagon.  The focus is that we think of food not as “a source of calories but as a control system for hormones.”

Calorie Control Programs

The Jenny Craig diet has been around since the 1980s and centers on calorie control with pre-packaged meals being the focus during the initial phases of the diet.  Exercise and lifestyle are also emphasized in the formal programs.  About the only limitation in food type is limiting high-glycemic carbs.

NutriSystems goes back to the 1970s and provides a pre-packaged food system that takes convenience to a new level by shipping complete microwavable meal plans for a month.  Again, calorie control is the focus, and the food ingredients are generally healthy, being low in salt, mostly low-glycemic good carbs, low fat, healthy protein, and high-fiber.

Starting in the 1960s, one of the oldest and most well known diets is Weight Watchers.  As stated on their website it was based on the idea of “changing habits and getting support and encouragement from people who cared” and “the belief that the best way to control weight is to change bad eating habits”.  The program allows most any food and focuses on calorie control using a point system that gives certain foods certain points with a limit on how many points one can eat in a given day, thus leading to an overall method of encouraging the choice of more of the healthier low calorie low point foods.

The HCG diet has been wildly popular in recent years although it has been around since the 1950s.  It is an aggressive weight loss program that centers on using the HCG hormone, normally made during pregnancy, to help the body readily breakdown stubborn fat deposits.  Not a long-term plan, this diet is more about shedding pounds.  Eating a very restricted calorie diet of normal meats, fruits and vegetables, while injecting the HCG hormone, dieters don’t get hungry and usually lose up to a pound per day.  This diet should be done with medical supervision.


Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine.  He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions.  He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado ( and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (   Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.

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