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Comparing Popular Diets

Despite the plethora of diet books available today, there is a scarcity of scientific research on the health effects of popular eating plans. Researchers decided to compare diets to see how well they reduced weight and decreased cardiac risk factors. The diet comparison included the Atkins diet, which involves carbohydrate restriction; the Zone diet, which balances macronutrients; Weight Watchers, which restricts calories; and the Ornish diet, which restricts fat intake.

To compare diet plans, a total of 160 overweight subjects were randomly assigned to one of these diets during an 18-month study at an academic medical center in Boston. At the end of the study period, the researchers reported that each diet “modestly” reduced body weight and several cardiac risk factors. Each diet also significantly reduced HDL-to-LDL blood cholesterol ratios and positively affected blood pressure and glucose levels. Unfortunately, overall dietary adherence rates were low for all four food plans, despite the fact that increased adherence was associated with greater weight loss and cardiac risk factor reductions in each diet group.

Reporting in the January 5 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the researchers concluded that “adherence level rather than diet type was the key determinant of clinical benefits.” They also recommended future research to “identify practical techniques to increase dietary adherence, including techniques to match individuals with the diets best suited to their food preferences, lifestyle and medical conditions.”

Many health-conscious people incorporate herbal supplements, such as Ayurvedic remedies, into their diets. Longtime staples in India, Ayurvedic medicines are typically manufactured in South Asia but are sold in most large American cities.

Now a recent study warns that 1 in 5 Ayurvedic products sold in the United States contains potentially toxic levels of heavy metals. According to a report published in the December 15, 2004, issue of JAMA, 14 of the 70 products sold within a 20-mile radius of the city of Boston contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury and/or arsenic.

“If taken as recommended by the manufacturers, each of these 14 [products] could result in heavy-metal intakes above published regulatory standards,” the authors concluded. They also noted that in at least half these cases, labels recommended that the remedies be used for infants and children.


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