by Marion Nestle
Jan 6 2012

US News rates the diets

While everyone is arguing about the effect of high and low protein diets on weight gain, US News has come out with another one of its rankings, this time on diets.

The committee of experts advising US News ranked diets basically on the basis of ease of use, taste, flexibility, and effectiveness. They advised against diets that are too restrictive, require or eliminate certain foods, or are otherwise difficult to follow.

They ranked Weight Watchers #1 as the best weight-loss diet:

Dieters can eat whatever they want as long as they don’t exceed their allotted daily points. No foods are forbidden, occasional treats are encouraged, and the plan emphasizes all-you-can-eat fresh fruits and veggies. Experts liked the optional weekly meetings, since support is crucial to compliance. They also applauded Weight Watchers for being realistic, flexible, and filling. It scored more than a full star above the average in this category and was crowned the easiest diet to follow.

Weight-loss diets must do two things: restrict calories, and provide balanced nutrient intake.  As we explain in Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (publication date April 1), this boils down to “eat less” and “eat better.”

Diets have to allow you to eat foods you love (in moderation, of course).

Food is a great source of pleasure and many of us live to eat.  Not being able to eat the way we used to is one of the great tragedies of getting older.  Alas!

To the extent that any diet plan helps you eat less, eat better, and enjoy what you are eating, it ought to work.





  • In one of Weight Watchers ads … a cupcake …

    While it’s great marketing/sales idea, it’s probably one of the food items to be taken off the list.

    However, I do recommend watching this presentation given at TED by the CEO of WW …

  • As a Registered Dietitian currently based in Greece, I was a bit disappointed by the ranking of the Mediterranean diet, as the information regarding this diet was inaccurate. First of all you shouldn’t compare a diet with real food with a diet program like Jenny Craig that consist of prepackaged meals and announcing them as easier to follow is inaccurate and misleading. What message does this send to the public? Basically if you want to eat healthier buy prepackaged foods?
    As for the Mediterranean diet being pricey, this is just wrong. The article provided tips such as: “Can’t spring for the $50 bottle of wine? Grab one for $15 instead. And snag whatever veggies are on sale that day, rather than the $3-a-piece artichokes.” First of all we need to clarify that the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid was based on the diet people were following on the Greek island of Crete, the rest of Greece and southern Italy in the 1960’s. These people were poor which is probably one of the reasons their diet was healthy: they ate mostly plant foods. Contrary to what is implied, the Mediterranean diet is not about drinking copious amounts of expensive wine and feasting on expensive non-local fish such as salmon. They did not spend 50$ on wine and they ate artichokes only when they were in season. They usually drank their own homemade wine and ate only fruits and vegetables that were in season and local. The “experts” in the article failed to mention that one of the main sources of protein were beans, which we all know are pretty cheap. As for the fish that are being blamed for the expense of the diet, Greeks and Italians were eating cheap fish such as sardines and anchovies. .
    The only ingredient that may be a bit more expensive is the olive oil.
    I write more about this at

  • This description of the rankings seems like the diets were ranked based on how closely they hew to their assumptions, with little to no empirical data to back up their judgments. Based on the readers assesments of each diet, they are way off base in rating effectiveness.

    Looking at the rankings for Weight Loss effectiveness, majorities of readers found only 1. Weight Watchers, 6. Vegan, 9. Eco-Atkins 16. Vegetarian & 23. Dukan.

    Only small fractions of readers had success with the experts 2,3,4 and 5 picks.

    We desperately need more science, less superstition on this issue.

  • PS @Marion, Are you going to weigh in on the Tara Parker Pope article from the NYT this past weekend?

  • any diet that can allow people to sustain health and is intuitive to follow is great imo. cannot imagine carrying around a WW points calculator with me the rest of my life. do you need a scale too?

    people need to educate themselves how real food can help them get healthy and stay that way. take personal responsibility for your health and gain the knowledge of food our ancestors used to pass down over generations. western society has become to reliant on others for their food and for their health knowledge.

  • @Chuck: I think the structure and the social aspect of the meetings is a big part of the WW success. Also, the motivation to redeem the sunk costs of the investment . . . although that model does exactly hold for gym memberships.

    Different people respond to different nudges and narratives. We are all inspired, acared, motivated, by different things. Some people love a check list. Other are inspired by reconnecting with the natural and authentic.

    WW doesn’t appeal to me and they may be working from different assumptions than I do, but if they are helping large numbers of people improve their health, I’m more interesting in seeing what I can learn from their success than dumping on it.

  • Margeretrc

    There are so many things wrong with those rankings, it would take me a really really long, long comment to hit them all. Suffice it to say there is no real science behind the rankings–only the usual low fat, calories in calories out propaganda that has been undermining the health of this country for the past 4 to 5 decades–it’s why we need diets in the first place! If you stick to real food and center you diet around fat rather than carbohydrates–as do the French and other real Mediterraneans, for example, you won’t need to diet. If you do need to diet–thanks to all this nonsense, go with the only one backed by science for long term success: low carbohydrate, high fat. Ditch the sugar and starch, eat a normal amount of protein and get your energy mostly from natural fats. It’s that simple. Forget about what the “experts” say and go with what the science says:
    “Why We Get Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes
    “The Obesity Epidemic” by Zoe Harcomb
    The documentary “Fat Head” by Tom Naughton
    I could go on, but these’ll get you started.

  • Peggy Holloway

    In 1999, my sister, who is a school teacher, pledged to lose weight over her summer vacation and set out to devote the summer to that cause. She religiously followed the Weight Watchers 25 point plan (the lowest point plan) and walked 4 to 5 miles a day. At the end of the summer, she had gained 10 pounds and received her diagnosis of “type II diabetes.” The problem with Weight Watchers is that the program buys in to the disproven “calories in, calories out” theory. Weight management is not a result of creating that magical calorie deficit in which you increase activity and decrease food intake. The type of calorie is extremely important since hormones such as insulin play a huge role in fat storage. For my sister, the high-carbohydrate content of the Weight Watchers Diet was inappropriate for her genetic type. The result was high levels of blood sugar and insulin that prevented her from burning her fat stores and caused her to store more fat from the high glucose load in her insulin-resistant body. I am shocked that Marian continues to spout off the “calories in calories out” nonsense. Have you read Gary Taubes? Or lived one day in an insulin-resistant body?

  • MargaretRC

    Those rankings are not based on science. They’re based on the usual low fat, calories in calories out paradigm that is not backed by the latest science–or any science. The best “diet” is one that emphasizes real food and doesn’t skimp on satisfying, nourishing natural fats. To lose weight, forget what the “experts” say and just cut the sugar, starch, and vegetable oils. Makes life a lot simpler!

  • If everyone spent a year rotating around the top 6 diets, the country would be a healthier and happier place, subject to:

    1. walking more
    2. spending more time with family and friends,
    3. petitioned for Marion Nestle to get the top job at the USDA

  • a man should keep himself fit and healthy then there is no need of dieting…./

  • I disapprove Weight Watchers because number one their food plan It doesn’t regard carbs. Therefore if one is diabetic both insulin and non insulin WW won’t consider one’s diabetic needs. Plus if you happen to miss a few weeks you need to pay the initial price. That is even if it isn’t your fault for not going weekly. I suspect USNWR rated it so highly because of WW’s advertising campaign.
    I found the Mediterranean diet both reasonable in food choices and prices. OTOH reasonableness in pricing in most anything is based one a person’s income. Therefore reasonableness is opinion.
    Lastly some qualms concerning restrictive diets. Vegan is very restrictive with no animal products yet users of it are satisfied both in food choices and nutrition. Besides some restricting of foods in necessary for religious, or health reasons.

  • Charlie L

    Since graduating college, I’ve done two several month long stints with Weight Watchers (WW), having success both times, but having re-gained the weight loss and then some, once I stopped paying the money to attend weekly group weigh-in/coaching sessions. My blood sugar issues made it difficult to stay on plan long-term (plus, it was expensive) as I was always battling low energy levels after eating and constant hunger, even with using the flex points allotted, to stay dutifully on plan. Even though it was a struggle, I also exercised a lot to accelerate my results. I will say though that the peer pressure from attending these live meetings helped me stay on plan for as long as I was able to both times.

    Even after I continued to gain weight post-WW, my 12+ hour fasting blood glucose tests never showed me as diabetic, but on learning that I have a family history of Type 2 Diabetes, my doctor decided to give me an oral glucose tolerance test, which showed I was literally a point of two away from being diagnosed as pre-diabetic after the 2-hour mark. From there, he sent me to a Registered Dietician, who basically showed me how to read fat on a nutrition label and recommended that I try to stay under 50g a day. I followed her advice for awhile, which is pretty close to WW which I had done twice earlier, but once again battled the constant hunger and crashing energy levels after eating whole wheat pasta spaghetti, for example, and gave up another time, attributing my failures on low-fat dieting to lack of moral discipline. I often wonder how many of those who are overweight and try WW multiple times experience what I did.

    Anyway, long story short, I eventually switched over to an Atkins-type approach, which is almost opposite of WW (why try the same thing over and over but expect different results, right?), which solved my low energy levels (i.e. staying even throughout the day) and constant hunger because of how restricting carbs can control my blood sugar levels without any need of medications. 14 months later, I’ve lost 141 pounds (from 350 down to 209 now) and 34% body fat (from 50% down to 16% now). Once I figured out the hunger and energy level issue, it’s been effortless to go from dieting to a permanent lifestyle change.

  • Margeretrc

    @Charlie L, Your experience mirrors that of a lot of people I know. Glad you finally found an approach that works. Regardless of its low rating by USNWR, the Atkins type approach (i.e restricting sugar and starchy carbs, not fat) is by far the best for long term success–and the only approach for someone with blood sugar issues, as anyone who has actually looked at the science will tell you. Clearly, the USNWR “experts” have not. Both of their “best diabetes diets” are recipes for failure and a need for ever more medication–too high in grains and other sugar laden foods. Even whole grain products have a relatively high glycemic index! I’m betting your blood lipid profile is much better now, too, though you don’t say.

  • Charlie L

    @Margeretrc- Yeah, my triglycerides have been consistently 50-60s. Cholesterol was 171 total; 50s for HDL, 110 for LDL. The blood glucose was like in the 70s.

  • Margeretrc

    @Charlie L, those numbers are great. Congratulations! With a triglycerides/HDL ratio around 1, your CVD risk is nice and low. Yet most in the mainstream would say you are killing yourself with your lifestyle. But your numbers are not unusual–people who switch to restricting carbs rather than fat consistently see their blood lipids and BG numbers improve, while the need for medications is greatly reduced or disappears. I find it shameful that this approach, which gets good results over and over again, is not endorsed by the likes of USNWR “experts” and others who supposedly care about our health.

  • Kathy Dempsey

    I urge you to reconsider the advice to “eat less”. The key with successful weight loss is to consumer fewer overall calories while not going hungry – hunger defeats the “success” in maintaining any weight loss. In my case, this means eating more food – but lowering the calorie density and increasing fiber. This is why Weight Watchers and other successful (& healthful) programs encourage an increase in consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains.

    For myself, I lost 60 pounds with Weight Watchers 8 years ago and have continued to maintain. I base my diet on vegetables, furits, starchy vegetable, whole grains and legumes. I consider this an ideal diet for human health, but even more important for me, I don’t go around hungry!

  • Anthro

    No one can consume “all the fat they want” and expect to lose weight.
    No one says to not eat ANY fat.
    A BALANCED diet is the only way to get all essential nutrients.
    If you eat more CALORIES from any source than your body can use, you will gain weight. The opposite applies.

    Margaret, why do you read this blog? You disagree with Marion’s expert opinion, obviously and you have been refuted numerous times, yet persist in sharing your “fat is good” view. You never clarify how much fat a person can supposedly consume and not gain weight. You also refer repeatedly to “discredited science” that no one else but you, Gary Taubes and the like seem to know about and that is at odds with the preponderance of published, peer-reviewed science.

    I have had similar results to Charlie L., with the approach given to me by my physician and a Registered Dietician. It is basically Michael Pollan’s advice to, “eat good food, not too much, mostly plants”. Of course I consume fat, but in very small quantities–1 to 2 tblsps/day olive oil and small amounts of nuts; 4 oz salmon once or twice per week, a pat of butter now and then, a little half and half (tsp) in coffee, and a sinfully rich chocolate dessert on my birthday. Larger and younger people may be able to have more, but only in proportion to their own proportions.

    Please go back and look at yesterday’s post for some additional input from Marion on this. She is far more qualified than Gary Taubes to speak to these issues.

  • Margeretrc

    @Anthro, actually you CAN eat all the fat you want and not gain weight. The key is in the phrase “all you want.” People who aren’t afraid of fat naturally limit the amount of fat they eat to what they need to meet their energy requirements. In other words, it is very difficult to eat more fat than necessary to maintain weight–if you are not eating a load of sugar and starch with it. I know I can’t. Instead of debating with me, prove me wrong with an experiment you can do yourself. Eat a high fat meal–see how much of it you can actually eat before your stomach says “enough already.”
    “If you eat more CALORIES from any source than your body can use, you will gain weight. The opposite applies.” True enough, but that begs the question of WHY people eat more calories than their bodies can use. Other animals don’t. No doubt you think it’s gluttony/sloth. I submit that it is because most people’s diet is UNbalanced on the side of high glycemic carbohydrates, which stimulate the body to produce insulin, which promotes fat storage and inhibits fat burning (a known biochemical fact). And why is their diet unbalanced on the side of high glycemic carbs? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but I’ll give you a hint. If you are told by pretty much everyone that eating too much fat will give you a heart attack/make you fat and so you decide you can’t eat much fat, what do you eat instead? In countries/cultures where there is no fear of fat, people eat (usually) a balanced diet and there are much lower rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
    Gary Taubes is a scientist and eminently qualified to speak to these issues. I’m not saying Dr. Nestle isn’t, but he is, too. Perhaps his degree isn’t in Biochemistry, but he has done more than a decade of research–closer to two by now, analyzing (peer reviewed) studies, talking to scientists, immersing himself in the science. One doesn’t need a degree to be qualified to address a subject. Neither Gregor Mendell nor Charles Darwin had degrees in their respective scientific fields of study.
    And for the record, I never mentioned “discredited science.” Flawed science, yes. Once. When I mentioned Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries Study. Discredited, no. It’s about LACK of scientific evidence against fat, not discredited science. And I have provided plenty of references. Here is more: And from the Journal of American College of Cardiology: These are just a few of many others besides Gary Taubes and me who are finding the evidence against natural fats, including saturated fat, lacking.

  • Benboom

    Anthro, why do you think that anyone who does not believe what you do is wrong? If what you does works for you, that’s great. For a lot of us, it is a prescription for disaster, and I speak from personal experience. What works for Margaret works for me; your approach absolutely does not. It must be nice to be the only one who holds the absolute knowledge of what is wrong with the world.

  • Michael Bulger


    Thanks for the links. Remember though, fat does not equate to saturated fat in most scientific literature. Similarly, carbs are a big part of many foods. They can be sugary beverages like Coca-Cola or Pepsi, or they could also come in the form of healthy vegetables and fruit.

    You’re very dedicated to your argument, but I think you communication lacks the nuance that might allow it to be better received by people who are knowledgeable in dietary science and epidemiology.

    I hope this helps!

  • Michael Bulger


    excuse me

  • MargaretRC

    @Michael, “you’re” was correct. I believe you meant “you are”? I’ll do my best not to take umbrage at the implication that I am not knowledgable in dietary science and epidemiology. While it’s probable I do not have as much education as you, Anthro, and Dr. Nestle, I am reasonably educated (MS in Biochemistry) and intelligent enough to understand scientific literature and learn from it. Knowledge is about more than degrees and formal education. I know perfectly well that there are different types of fat and different types of carbohydrates. I have nothing against fruits (for those with a functioning metabolism) and vegetables. I eat a lot of non starchy ones. And to the best of my knowledge thus far, saturated fat as found in natural, sustainably raised animals, is no more linked to CVD than mono or polyunsaturated fats. And yes, I’ve read the link you provided. Perhaps you are not aware, as I am, that outside of coconut and palm oils (very healthy oils, BTW), most natural fats are a mix of all three types of fat and very few, if any, animal fats have more sat fat than any other kind. Most are less than 50% sat fat and high in “heart healthy” mono unsaturated fat. I will provide a reference below.
    As to my communication skills, I am not asking anyone to take my word for anything. Hence all the links I provide–their communication skills are just fine. I’m suggesting that everyone, no matter how knowledgable, can stand to learn more, and that includes me. Yes, I do read the references you and others provide. Does anyone bother to check the references I provide? Or even bother to look at any scientific literature that goes counter to your dearly held beliefs? I do. Thus far, the evidence against fat, including saturated fat, is quite underwhelming and I believe a lot of damage has been done and continues to be done warning people to avoid natural foods known to contain sat fat in favor of high glycemic foods like sugars and starches, which become sugar in the body.

  • Margeretrc Okay, Beef fat and butter contain slightly more than 50% sat fat, but also quite a bit of monounsaturated fat. I am not saying anyone should sit down and gorge on a stick of butter or a bowl of lard. I doubt if anyone could. I know I couldn’t. I’m saying avoiding good food, and telling others to, without a solid scientific basis for doing so is problematic and could very well be, at least in part, responsible for the epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes taking place in the western world.

  • Michael Bulger

    The “your” I was attempting to correct was as in “…your communication lacks…”.

  • MargaretRC

    Oops. Sorry.

  • Jennifer Feeney

    Obviously this is anecdotal but…

    2 years ago, after 4 children and an extra 30 lbs, I decided to cut out all processed foods. Prior to that, I was dieting, REALLY cutting calories, exercising 1 hour a day. I lost maybe 5 lbs and felt terrible. When I cut out processed foods I kept pasta and cheese, but everything else I started to make. I ditched all of the low fat. Went to whole milk, made my own whole milk yogurt. Started making bread (thank you Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day!) Went to pastured raised meats, which are expensive and more difficult to get, so ended up eating meat maybe 2 times per week. Added tons of fresh veggies and fruits, whole grains, beans, tofu and tempeh. Started raising our own eggs (yes, urban chickens). I NEVER intended to lose weight. I just wanted to cut out the processed garbage. I know for sure that I was eating more calories because my meager 1,700 calorie diet was miserable. Over 6 months I lost 30 lbs. I have kept them off. I have never had more energy. My husband lost 60 lbs. I added full fat dairy last. I had already lost 20 lbs and figured I would gain weight back since I would be increasing my calories. That’s how it works, right? No, I lost 10 more lbs. A friend of mine recently did the same thing and has lost 20 lbs as well.

    In my experience, balance and real food matters for many reasons. Full fat dairy made me fuller and more satisfied. The lack of refined sugars and increase in fiber allowed me to understand fullness. I now feel like my diet before was starving me so my body wouldn’t let me lose the weight. I wonder how much of our processed diet is actually sending our bodies into starvation metabolism and so setting us up for programmed weight gain even if we are dieting.

  • Charlie L

    On a personal level, the ultimate question at the end of the day is “how well has your dietary approach worked for you?” Some succeed on WWs, some find others ways to succeed. But writ large, the question of does the conventional advice of “eat less, move more” and its cousin “low-fat but high-carb” work for most of society, that’s different altogether. I think after three, going on four decades, of this received wisdom, it’s clearly not working for society writ large. Of course, one common explanation is that people are too undisciplined to follow such an approach (a moral issue) or not knowledgeable enough to understand that “eat less, exercise more” or “burning more calories than consumed” is the way you lose weight (a basic education issue). However, the other possibility, is that the advice itself may be flawed for much of the population, which can also explain why it has largely failed.

    Gary Taubes does an excellent job in really resurrecting this latter possibility. It seems that a lot of people discount his contributions to the national obesity debate on account that he is not a medical doctor or nutritionist, but whether his research or arguments are sound is independent of whatever his qualifications may or may not be.

  • Margeretrc

    @Michael Bulger, I’m guessing you did not read the links I posted. They specifically mention saturated fat: “The analysis, overseen by Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, found no association between the amount of saturated fat consumed and the risk of heart disease.” “…there is evidence that saturated fats, which represent the smallest proportion of calories by the USDA food pyramid, may carry little more risk than Carb, the class of food representing the bulk of USDA caloric recommendations (9).” And from “Then, in 1992, in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the third director of the study, Dr. William Castelli, reported: ‘In Framingham, Mass., the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol’ [emphasis in original]… ‘We found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least, and were the most physically active.’” (Arch Int Med 1992;152:1271-2) Perhaps it’s time for those who are “knowledgeable in dietary science and epidemiology” to at least re-examine the evidence. Just saying…

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