Bodies are not one-size-fits-all, and weight-loss plans aren’t either. Here’s how to find a personalized diet that fits your goals, health needs, and lifestyle.
Weighing the options
In theory, losing weight should be easy: Eat fewer calories than you burn, and—presto!—the pounds will start to fall off. But as anyone who has ever tried to slim down knows, the reality is far more complicated.
“Humans are bio-individuals. Of course, we are all the same species, but we have vastly different nutrition and health needs because of varying factors such as age, gender, medication use, supplement use, physical activity level, medical conditions, sleep habits, allergies, intolerances, cultural preferences, schedules, budgets, and so on,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, RD, a nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition and founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami. “Choosing a dietary pattern that is appropriate for someone else may be wildly inappropriate, foolish, or downright dangerous for you.”
One of the best ways to find the right weight-loss plan for you is to take some time before you dive in to consider your goals, needs, and lifestyle. In order to do that, Amanda Montalvo, RD, a nutrition expert for Kettlebell Kitchen, suggests asking yourself some questions:
- How much time and energy do you have to dedicate to a lifestyle change? Is a drastic overhaul realistic?
- Do you have any health issues that might make it dangerous for you to experiment with dietary changes? (When in doubt, consult your physician.)
- How physically active are you?
- Is eating and drinking a big part of your social life, and are you willing to change that if a new diet requires it?
- Do you have any dietary restrictions (food allergies, moral desire to be a vegetarian or vegan, etc.)?
- Once you have a better grasp of these factors, you’ll have a better sense of how these popular weight-loss plans will work for you.
If you hate the idea of cutting portion sizes
A low-carb, high-fat plan, the keto (ketogenic) diet started out as a short-term approach to help reduce seizures in children with epilepsy and manage blood sugar levels in people with poorly-controlled diabetes, says Gabby Geerts, RD, a dietitian at Green Chef. By cutting carbs and replacing them with fat, your body ends up in “ketosis”—a metabolic process in which the body must burn stored fat for energy.
Pros: People on the keto diet often report losing weight quickly, at least in the beginning. There’s no need to eat “low-fat” diet foods; in fact, you’ll likely be eating more fat than you were before. Burning fat for fuel has been successful helping diabetics control their blood sugar.
Cons: Trying to eliminate carbs can be difficult or dangerous for some people. If you exercise very intensely, steer clear, says Geerts. Children and pregnant women should also be cautious: “Extreme growth, repair, and energy are needed in these life cycles/stages, making carbohydrate restriction difficult,” she says.
If a back-to-basics approach sounds appealing
The general principle behind the Paleo diet is that modern humans have strayed too far from the diet we evolved eating, and all these newfangled processed foods are making us sick and fat. The Paleo diet—aka Paleolithic diet, ancestral diet, caveman diet, Stone Age diet—entails eating meat, fish, produce, nuts, and seeds. If your pre-agricultural ancestors could obtain a food by hunting and gathering, it’s on the menu.
Pros: Studies have shown that people who follow the Paleo diet tend to lose weight while improving their blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels.
Cons: Most research on the Paleo diet has been limited to six months or fewer. Not only are most processed foods off-limits, but so are whole grains, dairy, legumes, and white potatoes. If you’re a vegetarian, this plan probably isn’t for you, says Geerts, because you’ll struggle to get an adequate variety of nutrients.
If you love animals and you like to cook
While veganism—which entails shunning all animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey—was never intended for weight loss, going vegan has been shown to have a myriad of health benefits, including weight loss.
Pros: Some research has suggested that people who become vegan lose more weight than those who opt to follow other types of weight-loss plans. By eliminating animal products, you automatically cut out most sources of saturated fat. Going vegan can also have a positive impact on the environment, and, obviously, the welfare of animals.
Cons: “A vegan diet can require more at home preparation and planning,” says Geerts. “Also, if you travel regularly or eat out often, vegan options are usually less available.” Moreno adds that a vegan diet can be too restrictive and, in turn, trigger or mask an eating disorder. If you decide to become vegan, Moreno suggests consulting with a registered dietitian for help getting proper nutrition during the transition. There’s a tendency for vegans to run low on certain nutrients like Vitamin B12, which is found mostly in animal products.
If you’re a seafood lover
Consider: Mediterranean diet
Plenty of produce and lean protein (especially fish), along with some olive oil, whole grains, and a little red wine are staples of this plan.
Pros: Numerous studies have shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet is among the best in the world when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Since it’s very well-balanced, most people find it satisfying. Major health organizations support it, and U.S. News & World Report named it number-one on its list of “Best Diets Overall” (for nutrition, not weight loss) out of 41 diets. People who stay committed to it tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) as well as less abdominal obesity.
Cons: If you aren’t a fan of seafood or vegetables, you’ll likely have trouble sticking with it. Certain components of the diet, such as fish, may be expensive. Don’t expect rapid or major weight loss.
If you’re super busy
Depending on the plan, you’ll skip one or more of your “regular” meals a day and sip a special shake or eat a bar instead. These replacement products are generally designed to keep you full while providing some essential nutrients.
Pros: A weight-loss plan that involves meal replacement products may be relatively easy to follow, especially if you’re someone who’s always eating on the go. If you’re substantially overweight, it might also serve as a way to jump-start your loss. Studies on Medifast have shown that the program is usually well-tolerated.
Cons: Despite the convenience factor, most nutrition experts aren’t fans. Relying on imitation “meals” might deprive you of adequate nutrition, plus it tends to be a short-term fix—the approach is hard to sustain in the long-run. Geerts has a suggestion: “Aim to keep these replacements to one per day, or, use them for emergency use only,” when you’re extra short on time. “I’ll always encourage real food over blended!”
If you have hypertension
Consider: DASH diet
Short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, the DASH diet was initially created to help people with high blood pressure. It emphasizes fruits and vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, fish, poultry, nuts, and some whole grains,. The standard DASH plan also limits sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day; a lower sodium option cuts it off at 1,500 mg daily.
Pros: As with the Mediterranean diet, most nutrition experts are fans of the DASH diet because it’s an overall healthy approach to balanced eating. If you have hypertension or diabetes, it will likely help with those issues, says Geerts.
Cons: Following the DASH diet may help you shed some pounds, but it’s not an official weight-loss plan. Don’t expect to lose a lot of weight on it, at least not in the short-term.
There’s also a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diet called the MIND diet (which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). The Mind Diet is said to slow the cognitive decline of aging and reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
If you tend to eat your emotions
Consider: Mindful/intuitive eating
This isn’t an eating plan, per say, but rather an approach that has been embraced by a growing number of health experts. One place to start is with guidelines from The Center for Mindful Eating: Key principles include making deliberate food choices, eating slowly and consciously (no scarfing down food while standing in front of the refrigerator), and engaging all of your senses while eating.
Pros: You can use this approach by itself or in conjunction with other plans. “Even if you want to eat in a way that leans a little more Paleo or keto, you will need to understand the underlying nutritional, emotional, and social aspects to our eating culture,” says Ilana Muhlstein, RD, who serves on the Executive Leadership Team for the American Heart Association and has created a mindfulness-based program for Beachbody called 2B Mindset. If you often devour a bag of potato chips yet barely taste half of them, this type of plan might help you get back in touch with your innate hunger and satiety signals.
Cons: Mindfulness alone won’t tell you what to eat or not eat. If you’re someone who flounders in the absence of strict rules, trying mindful eating by itself might not work for you. Here are some tips to help you take control of your emotional eating habits.
If you have trouble stopping once you start eating
Consider: Intermittent fasting
There are a few different types of intermittent fasting (IF) plans, but the general gist is the same: You restrict eating to a certain period of time each day, or you fast for 24 hours a couple of days a week. One of the most popular options, the 5:2 plan, entails eating normally five days of the week and fasting the other two. Another top choice is 16:8, which means you only eat during the same eight-hour window each day (such as noon to 8 PM).
Pros: Once considered a fad, IF diets have gained respectability thanks to scientific studies that show they work for some people. Harvard experts, among others, have suggested that IF can be a reasonable approach if you do it properly. “For some emotional eaters, intermittent fasting is a dream because when the answer is just ‘no’, it’s easier to just stay away,” says Muhlstein.
Cons: Many studies on IF diets have been very small or performed on animals. Muhlstein also warns that this approach can backfire in certain people: “The idea of not eating can instill a lot of fear in a person,” she says, “It makes some people feel like they need to eat ravenously or even binge prior to a fasting window and might increase the level of emotions this person feels surrounding food.”
If you know you can’t do it alone
Consider: WW (formerly called Weight Watchers) or Noom
These plans aren’t exactly alike (and each company offers variations), but both generally encourage followers to closely track their food intake and physical activity. Both plans also offer a social support element, either through real-life meetings, online chat groups, and/or online coaches.
Pros: The “you bite it, you write it” concept is a tried-and-true approach that’s passed the test of time. You could also try food journaling on your own with the help of a free meal planner. Nothing is totally off-limits; you continue to eat many of the foods you enjoy, as long as you’re willing to scale back on portion sizes. And the plans offer social support, which studies have found makes it easier to lose weight and keep it off.
Cons: Followers of these plans still need to make smart choices. “The issue with points and calorie-counting is that it can create a lot of manipulation around food, as people tend to ‘save’ up points or calories to binge on later,” says Muhlstein. Food tracking “can be valuable for a little while to better understand accountability, but it doesn’t allow you the freedom and knowledge to keep control without it.”
If you think going cold turkey is best
This 30-day program is sort of a cleanse—designed to rid your diet of “inflammatory” foods and make you think more critically about how food makes you feel. Added sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, processed foods, and baked goods, are all off-limits. After 30 days, you’re encouraged to reintroduce foods slowly, while you attempt to figure out which foods make you feel great (and those that make you feel lousy).
Pros: This plan encourages you to eat healthy foods, which is hard to argue with. It also gives you the opportunity to learn about how certain foods impact your overall wellness. “Some people’s relationship with food changes when they learn which foods make them feel best,” says Montalvo. And while it’s designed more as a wellness plan than a “weight loss” one, cutting out junk might help you shed some pounds. Identifying problem foods can be very helpful to people who are struggling with mysterious digestive symptoms or trying to fight fatigue.
Cons: It’s highly restrictive, and it eliminates many foods (such as legumes and whole grains) that most nutrition experts think are perfectly healthy. It requires you to eat protein at every meal, which can be tough for some people. Many find themselves Googling Whole30 breakfast recipes that don’t include eggs.