The Hottest (Wackiest) Diets: What Works?

Looking for a magic weight-loss bullet, our testers report from the trend trenches.

By various writers
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Photograph: Yasu + Junko

Pamela Redmond Satran is the author of the New York Times best-selling humor book How Not to Act Old, based on her blog of the same name.

The Gambling Gal's Diet
By Melinda Dodd

What was I thinking? A few months ago, I bet $500 of my own money that I would drop 20 pounds in 10 weeks. I had signed up with a website called LoseItorLoseIt.com, run by two computer-programmer buddies who keep users’ money if they fail to achieve their goal of losing a given amount of weight per week. There are no donations to charity, no higher purpose—the owners just take the loot.

Would the threat of giving two strangers my hard-earned cash be enough motivation for me to shed 20 unwanted pounds? Certainly -vanity alone wouldn’t work. At five foot eight and 163 pounds, I really didn’t mind my rounded belly and bum. But I did want to boost my running performance. I’d entered my first 5Ks a few months before, and as a competitor I yearned for a more athletic, aerodynamic silhouette.

And so the bet was on.

The first day, I snapped a photo of my feet on the scale (weight clearly visible) and uploaded it to the site. If you miss a weigh-in or fail to make weight, you pay one twentieth of the money you invested—in my case, $25 for each infraction. The website doesn’t offer diet or fitness advice. Instead, it tells you to find two “accountability friends” who will monitor your progress by e‑mail and provide encouragement.

As a longtime health writer, I already know all the best ways to lose weight. So I went into the plan with every intention of following a healthful diet, one focused on whole foods like brown rice and grilled vegetables. But I struggled with making it all work on a busy schedule and on a budget. Rather than spend time cooking food and spend money buying expensive out-of-season fruit, I downed calorie-controlled microwavable meals, highly processed low-fat snacks and diet soda, all of which made me feel awful and frankly didn’t taste very good.

When week three rolled around, my scale-photo revealed that I had gained a few ounces—which meant I had to cough up $25. And so I redoubled my efforts. I signed up for salsa classes, rock climbing and a 30-day trial at a gym; I walked 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day in addition to doing regular runs. Before weigh-ins I drastically cut calories, and once I went an entire day without eating. My life became a blur of endless walks and guilt-filled meals. I was constantly anxious about meeting my two-pounds-a-week requirement.

Sofia Rydin-Gray, PhD, a clinical psychologist with the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina, isn’t surprised that the diet consumed me. “Competitive people may go to great lengths to lose weight. It’s very reinforcing to make those numbers go down on the scale,” she says. “But what happens after 10 weeks, when your external motivation is gone?” Good question. But in the short term, LoseItorLoseIt.com did seem to have the upper hand: As of press time, 62 percent of the site’s users had met their weekly weigh-in goals.

I was impressed—and afraid I would not do as well. I found the program spirit sapping, and by week six, despite losing five pounds, I felt as if I couldn’t keep it up. I’d thought I could reduce calories drastically and skate by, but that, I now realized, wasn’t serving my original goal, which had been to get in better shape. To do that, I needed to eat food that would nourish me on every level. So in week seven, I realigned my diet. I started eating fresh foods (such as skinless chicken breasts, grilled sweet potatoes and asparagus for lunch), with fewer preservatives, and nixed salt, sugar, diet soda and other nutrition-empty foods. I made sure to eat regular meals with an energizing mix of protein and vegetables, sticking to 1,200 calories a day (and faithfully recording my food intake on thedailyplate.com). And I stopped being so cheap. Good food often costs more, and I finally accepted that the expense is worth it. For exercise, I signed a yearlong contract with a gym. Most important, I slept more.

First Published May 11, 2011

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