What Dietitians Think About 3 Popular ‘Crash Diets’
Plus, what real women have to say about trying the styles of eating (and how to commit to a plan that's way more realistic and sustainable—read: no crashing).
By now you likely know that there's no such thing as ‘the best crash diet.' Eating in sustainable, maintainable, healthy ways is the best way to feel and look your best (and lose weight if you're trying to do that). But if you've ever been curious how exactly some of the diet plans out pan out IRL, you're not alone. That's why we asked four different women to report their experience on four different ‘crash' diets and then had dietitians weigh in on the results.
Here, their results, what the experts say, and the healthier ways to rev your metabolism and feel your healthiest (sans the sluggishness, hunger, irritability, and other side effects of crazy crash diets).
The Raw Food Cleanse
This crash diet is a three-, seven-, 14-, or 28-day plan that claims to reset your digestive tract. It's based on the theory that cooking depletes foods of nutrients, so you should eat fruits and vegetables in their raw state. There are recipes for fruit and vegetable juices, soups, and salads. Daily intake is around 1,200 to 1,400 calories, estimates Andrea Giancoli, R.D., a dietitian based in Hermosa Beach, CA.
What Worked: "Smoothies—a pint of strawberries, half a pint each of blueberries and raspberries, and coconut water—were filling and easy to make for breakfast," says tester Sarah Davis.
What Didn't: "I've never thought so much about food-planning, chopping, and blending—yet I was always starving by the end of the day. You really need a juicer, but I wasn't willing to spend the money, and the recipes call for pricey exotic ingredients, like crystal manna flakes. I quit after four days, because I didn't like the lunch and dinner options—for instance, juice made with spinach, celery, and apples. My social life was nonexistent!"
The Pro's Take: Upping your produce intake is a good thing, but a balance of raw and cooked is best. Cooking makes it easier for your body to absorb certain nutrients, like lycopene in tomatoes and carotenoids in carrots. "You need to add a substantial lunch of lean protein, cooked veggies, and whole grains, like a tofu and veggie stir-fry with brown rice," Giancoli says. A cup of spinach, for example, packs just 41 calories, making it a great side dish option. It may be light on calories and carbs, but it's rich in more than a dozen stress-fighting antioxidants. (Try it sautéed in 1 teaspoon olive oil with chopped red bell pepper, minced garlic, and a dash of chili oil. Or serve it in a salad topped with strawberries, minced red onion, and a few pecans.)
As for the claim that a raw diet resets your digestive tract? "It doesn't need resetting. With a diet of juices, it becomes a couch potato," she explains. That said, these surprising things could be secretly destroying your digestion.
The 17-Day Diet
According to the doctor who created this crash diet, it takes 17 days for your body to recognize a diet as a habit and slow your metabolism in response. He claims that three 17-day cycles keep your metabolism revved. The first cycle allows about 1,200 daily calories of unlimited lean protein, non-starchy veggies and, early in the day, two low-sugar fruits. In cycle two you add two healthy carbs and alternate 1,200- and 1,500-calorie days. In the third cycle, fruit's okay anytime, as is one alcoholic drink a day. To maintain, you follow these rules during the week.
What Worked: "No calorie counting and I'm not starving, because I can eat as much as I want of certain foods, such as chicken and carrots, and I can have a snack anytime; my go-to is a rolled-up slice of turkey. My favorite recipe is the pasta primavera made with spaghetti squash," says tester Dawn Menkes.
What Didn't: "The first cycle is too strict. I didn't miss grains much, but I hated the 'no fruit after 2 p.m.' rule. It's also tough that there aren't any cheat days until cycle four."
The Pro's Take: Science doesn't back the claim that 17-day cycles reset metabolism. "The reason you lose weight is simply that the diet is low-calorie," Shiloah explains. The restrictions in the first two cycles are unnecessary: "All fruits and whole grains can be part of a healthy diet, and it doesn't matter when you eat them," says Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Younger Next Week. (Related: Sweet and Savory Meal Ideas to Make with Summer Fruit)
Even more: Vitamin C (abundant in fruits and vegetables) helps produce carnitine, an amino acid that helps you use fat for energy. If there is too little carnitine in your tissues, your body will use carbohydrates or protein for fuel," says Carol S. Johnston, Ph.D., R.D., a professor and associate director of the nutrition program in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University. "Not only does this reduce the amount of fat you burn, but you're also more likely to feel fatigued when exercising." Johnston advises aiming for at least 100 milligrams daily, about the amount in 10 large strawberries, one small red pepper, one large orange, or 1 cup of cooked broccoli.
Ignoring the carb limits in this diet and sticking to a 1,400 to 1,600 daily calorie count would make the plan more doable, too.
The Dukan Diet
Pay attention; the Dukan Diet is *complicated* (it's also one of the worst diets out there, according to U.S. News & World Report). There are four phases: (1) two to seven days during which you eat low-fat protein (think chicken, turkey, fish, and tofu), drink water, and take one and a half tablespoons of oat bran a day to keep you regular. (2) Every other day, add low-carb veggies until you reach your goal. (3) Add one piece of low-sugar fruit, two slices of whole-grain bread, and one serving of cheese each day—plus a once-a-week cheat meal. (4) In maintenance, you can eat anything if you follow these rules: three tablespoons of oat bran and 20 minutes of walking each day and one pure-protein day a week.
What Worked: "Protein seems to keep me full better than carbs do. I'm rarely hungry, because the diet allows me to graze. Breakfast is two hard-boiled eggs or nonfat Greek yogurt, lunch is sliced turkey with mustard, and dinner is white fish with lemon, plus the oat bran. It's not exciting, but it works," says tester Emily Dull.
What Didn't: "Phase one was rough; trading cereal and greens for all protein was hard on my digestive system. I crave blueberries and watermelon, and I want them before phase three. I also miss wine, but booze is a no-no."
The Pro's Take: "There are no 'bad' fruits," says Shiloah, who disapproves of the restrictions on fruits and grains, because carbs give us energy. You need to balance protein with healthy carbs at each meal. "Half of your plate should be veggies, a quarter should be protein and a quarter should contain whole grains."