Just the Facts: Here’s the Breakdown on Four Popular Diets

By Jess Kolko – January 3, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series on healthy food choices. Our goal is to help decipher some of the marketing language and tricks used to promote a food as “healthy” as well as demystify both new and established tenets of healthy eating. Paired with each article in the series is a healthy revision of a well-known (and not-so-healthy) dish—a Recipe Redux. 


January always brings thoughts of intention, goal setting, resolutions, and the possibility for a fresh start. Healthy eating often tops the list for many people in the New Year. Here is a comparison of four of the most popular programs for weight loss and overall health.

Eat to Live
The Eat to Live program was developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D., “for the hardest cases and those who have failed to lose the desired weight on other plans.” The focus of Eat to Live is on overall health and wellness where weight loss, and in some cases, dramatic weight loss, is a happy side effect of the program. In his book, Eat to Live, Dr. Fuhrman gives multiple examples of patients decreasing not only their weight but (with the help of a doctor) decreasing medication dosages, dramatically increasing overall health, and significantly reducing chronic disease symptoms. The program’s foundation is the “nutrient density” of foods. Dr. Fuhrman defines nutrient density as Health = Nutrients divided by Calories; foods with higher amounts of nutrients (like phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals), which often have fewer calories, top his list of the most healthful foods. Green leafy vegetables are on the top of the list, followed by solid green vegetables, other non-green vegetables, beans/legumes, fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, and raw nuts. These foods are the focus of daily intake. According to Fuhrman, “your key to permanent weight loss is to eat predominantly those foods that have a high proportion of nutrients to calories.” There is no limit to the amount of these nutrient-dense foods you can eat. He does limit meats, poultry, fish, dairy, and refined oils, restricting these products almost completely for the first six weeks of the plan to achieve the most dramatic effect on health.

Engine 2
The Engine 2 program (E2) was developed by former professional triathlete and Austin firefighter Rip Esselstyn. E2 is a 28-day program based on the scientific research of Esselstyn’s father, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, whose research centers on the prevention and reversal of heart disease. After discovering one of his fellow firefighters had cholesterol levels approaching 350, Esselstyn challenged his firehouse (Engine 2—located near The University of Texas campus) to switch to a routine of vegan, plant-strong eating. The program adage is “plant-strong.” The E2 program coined the phrase “plant-strong” and has even trademarked the term. Esselstyn, along with his father, suggests the elimination of meat, poultry, fish, and dairy from the diet, and outlines two paths towards a plant-strong lifestyle. Thecadet path offers a way to ease into the program, as foods are eliminated on a week-by-week basis. In week four, participants begin the full, meat-free program. The firefighter path starts week one all in–no refined or processed foods, no meats of any kind, no dairy, and no oils. The E2 program is focused on health, wellness, and disease protection with biometric measurements as the marker for progression toward a “disease proof” life. E2 suggests that cholesterol, fasting blood glucose, blood pressure, body mass index, percent body fat, and several other measures be taken as benchmarks at the beginning and the end of the program to track progress. As with Eat to Live, weight loss seems to be a welcome side effect of the health-focused program.

Paleolithic Diet
Commonly called the “Paleo” diet, this program is focused on grass-fed, pasture-raised meats, eggs, wild fish and game, vegetables, fruit, non-starchy root vegetables, and nuts. The program commonly excludes whole categories of foods such as legumes (including peas and green beans), grains, dairy, salt, refined sugar, oil, and processed foods on the basis that these foods may not have been available to our Paleolithic ancestors, since they lived prior to the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry. Foods that are included would have typically been available to the hunter-gatherer population. The Paleo diet is considered to be high in protein, fats, and fiber while remaining low in carbohydrates and refined foods. The main focus of the diet is weight loss, but many advocates of the diet state that overall heath is increased as well. Dr. Loren Cordain, the author of several books on the program, including the popular book The Paleo Diet, has said the program can decrease acne and increase athletic performance. According to Dr. Cordain, the program eliminates categories of foods which are said to contribute to several modern chronic diseases, including obesity, cancer, and high blood pressure. The most recent push in the popularity of the Paleo program has been accompanied by the increasing popularity of the CrossFit exercise program; many in the CrossFit community have adopted the Paleo program as the nutritional component to their intensive exercise regime.

Weight Watchers
The Weight Watchers program was founded in the early 1960s and has been touted as one of the most popular and effective weight loss programs worldwide. The program continues to evolve, most recently as the “Points Plus” system. In this system, foods are given a point value based on their nutritional content. Participants are given point totals to target for the day and then choose their foods according to the point value. Most fruits and vegetables have zero to just a few points per serving. Points for mixed dishes can be calculated using Weight Watchers’ online tool or smart phone application. The website contains a large database of recipes, educational tools, recipe conversion apps, exercise programs, eating out tips and pointers, articles, and a virtual community of support for those who join the program. Unlike the other programs mentioned here, Weight Watchers does have a monthly fee—the standard plan is $48.90 for the first month and $18.95 for each additional month. Access to the comprehensive website and the mobile app is included in the monthly fees. Weight Watchers is a program focused on weight loss and education for making smart nutritional choices that can be sustained for long periods of time. There are inevitable gains in health as well; losing as little as five to ten pounds can significantly impact a person’s overall health. Unlike some pre-packaged food programs, like Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem where meals are single servings, Weight Watchers’ recipes can easily serve a family or provide enough to pack for lunch at work the next day.

No matter what program you choose, taking small steps toward a healthier lifestyle can make a huge impact on your health. Small changes, like switching to a smaller plate at dinner, can lead to other small changes, and multiple little changes can add up to larger and long-term benefits. If none of the programs outlined above seem to fit your taste and you would like a more personalized program, consider contacting a local registered dietitian (RD). An RD can set up a program that is specifically tailored to your goals, lifestyle, and activity level, and an RD can help with one of the hardest parts of making healthy choices—the will to keep trying.

Jess Kolko RD, LD, a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, is currently the Healthy Eating Registered Dietitian and Culinary Educator at Whole Foods Market Global Headquarters. When she is not knee deep in nutrition, Jess also enjoys training and competing in long distance triathlon and running events.



Related Articles