new name, old diet

Don't get clobbered by the boomerang effect.

BRITISH MONARCH William the Conqueror had a problem: He'd grown too stout to ride his horse. Determined to trim down, he put himself on a diet consisting solely of alcoholic beverages. The year was 1087.

Diets have existed for as long as people have overfilled their britches--and, in some form, so have most of today's hottest plans, says Laura Fraser, author of Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry (Plume Books). Had William the Conqueror lived today, his regimen might be called the Low-Food Diet, and it would probably sit atop the best-seller lists.

"The low-carb diets keep coming back again and again, with different names and gimmicks," says Julie Miller Jones, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Atkins diet, Miller Jones says, bears a striking resemblance to the eating plan published by London casket maker William Banting in 1864. It preached abstinence from starches and sugars and was wildly popular. Low-carb re-emerged in the mid-1960s with Irwin Stillman's The Doctor's Quick Weight Loss Diet, which restricted dieters to meat, eggs, and cheese.

Other approaches have also made numerous appearances, including liquid plans (not just William the Conqueror's but Slim-Fast's) and diets emphasizing single foods (the grapefruit and cabbage diets). Some ideas, mercifully, have not had a renaissance, like the tapeworm diet of the early 1900s or the "bland" diet devised in the 19th century by Sylvester Graham, of graham cracker fame. Graham promised that foods without spices would not inflame the senses and therefore would prevent overindulgence when it came to eating or other bodily pleasures.

Tapeworms aside, most of these plans share a simple trick: They limit you to a few food groups. The reliable result: You lose weight, at least in the short run. This raises the million-dollar question: Do any of these gimmicks--or sensible strategies, for that matter--work well enough for women to stomach long-term? Our Diet Face-Off aims to find out how four popular diets (Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and The Way to Eat) perform in real life. Any day now, our volunteers will finish their 6-month stints on their diets. In our May issue, we'll tell you what some of them have to say about their experiences. Stay tuned.

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By Christie Aschwanden

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