Monday, November 16, 2009

The 5 Factor Diet: Can It Work for You?

Celebrities like Jessica Simpson are said to be losing weight on the 5 Factor Diet. But will it work east of Beverly Hills?

If you're like most folks, hearing the words "Hollywood" and "diet" in the same sentence leaves you thinking the word "gimmick" can't be far behind. As any serial dieter will tell you, the sheer number of celebrity quick weight loss fixes can make your head spin! Enter stage left: The 5 Factor Diet, the latest weight loss plan reported to help stars like Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Eva Mendes, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, Kanye West, and more get their million-dollar bodies.

But is the 5 Factor Diet, from the book of the same name by celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak, just another Hollywood diet gimmick?  Experts are divided on its value.

"I don't see any real science behind the 5 Factor Diet -- no studies to show it works, plus it doesn't seem to address a major problem linked to obesity, which is emotional overeating," says weight control psychologist Abby Aronowitz, PhD, director of

Others, however, see it as a refreshingly sound and nutritious approach to weight loss, one that can help dieters reign in their appetites and lose extra pounds.

"The 5 Factor Diet puts a new spin on what has been the traditional advice of every major nutrition organization for years," says Angela Kurtz, RD, a nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. "It's a well-balanced eating plan that includes all the food groups, doesn't leave anything out, and in a very subtle and very clever way also helps us change the eating behaviors that caused us to gain weight in the first place."
What Is The 5 Factor Diet?

The "five" in the 5 Factor Diet comes not only from the number of elements each meal should include -- protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, fat, and fluids -- but from the recommended five meals a day, with recipes that contain no more than five ingredients, or take no more than five minutes of prep time and five minutes of cooking time. 

There is also a five-day exercise plan, which -- no surprise - consists of five exercises you do for 5 minutes each. And, there's a "cheat day" once a week, when you can eat anything you like.

Like Kurtz, nutritionist Cathy Nonas, MS, RD, believes this approach hits all the right notes for orchestrating successful weight control for many people.

"This is a healthy plan that incorporates all the food categories in appropriate proportions. The exercise is a combination of cardio and strength training, and you don't need any expensive equipment to do it," Nonas writes in her review of The5 Factor Diet for the American Dietetic Association. 

Aronowitz agrees the diet is nutritious, but still sees some serious flaws in the plan.

"Yes, it's good nutrition, but outside of the Hollywood community I don't believe there is any evidence to show that eating five meals a day is a secret formula to weight control. In the end, it's just calories in and calories out, and it doesn't really matter when you eat them -- and to try to convince us otherwise is somewhat misleading," says Aronowitz, author of Your Final Diet.

5 Factor Diet: How It Works

The basis of the 5 Factor Diet is the five daily meals, each a balanced mix of lean protein (like chicken, fish, or low-fat dairy); complex carbohydrates (like fruits and vegetables); fiber (like whole grains); healthy fats (like monounsaturated olive oil); and water or another sugar-free beverage. 

But Kurtz tells WebMD that what sets this plan apart is that the recommended food choices have what's known as a "low glycemic index." The glycemic index is a method of rating foods according to their ability to affect blood sugar levels in the body after eating.  Why is this important to weight loss?

Kurtz explains it this way: "Foods that have a low glycemic index help to regulate the amount of insulin that we release or produce after each meal -- and our appetite and hunger is directly related to insulin levels," she says.

So, for example, when we eat foods with a high glycemic index -- simple carbohydrates like cake, white bread, cookies or even certain fruits like grapes -- we release larger amounts of insulin, and our appetite is soon affected, Kurtz says.

"The higher insulin peaks during a meal, the lower it's going to drop within three hours after a meal -- and the hungrier you are going to feel and the more likely you are to overeat, either at your next meal or between meals," says Kurtz.

But when we eat foods low on the glycemic index (like lean protein or vegetables), plus fiber, which further helps slow insulin release, and eat them every three to four hours, insulin levels become more stabilized, Kurtz says -- and hunger is easy to control.

"It's like built-in portion control, and that can help you lose weight," she says.

But does it?

Aronowitz says that if your problem is emotional overeating, then this is not going to do much to curb your appetite.

"If people only ate when they were hungry, then we would not have the obesity epidemic we see today," she says.

She says that for many people, emotions -- not a drop in insulin levels -- trigger eating.  "For these people, controlling insulin is not going to mean much in terms of controlling how much they eat," she says.

Moreover, a new study from Tufts University shows that what matters most in weight loss is cutting calories -- and that both foods high and low on the glycemic index have pretty much the same effect.

In the study, conducted in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health, Tufts researchers compared a diet of high-glycemic foods with one of low-glycemic foods, looking for differences in weight loss as well as hunger and feelings of satiation or fullness.

The conclusion: "Participants in our pilot study achieved and maintained comparable weight loss after one year regardless of whether they were on a low glycemic-load or a high glycemic-load diet," wrote study researcher Susan Roberts, PhD, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Centers Energy Metabolism Laboratory.

In both dieting groups, she said, it was the reduction of calories that seemed to matter most. The study showed that when both groups restricted calories by 30%, both lost an average of 8% of their body weight after one year -- without any reported differences in hunger or fullness.

Perhaps more important, though, the study found a greater tendency to regain weight among those who ate the low- glycemic diet. This, they say, suggests that a lifelong reduction in food intake may be harder to sustain on a low-glycemic diet.

The 5 Factor Diet: Can It Work For You?

While there's no shortage of celebrity testimonies in the book, among the "real people" criticisms noted on book review sites was the inconvenience of eating five times a day -- essentially every three to four hours. Critics also noted that it can be difficult to gain access to the snacks and meals the plan recommends, particularly for people who work outside the home.

Indeed, while it may be healthy to snack on the suggested smoked salmon mousse or roasted asparagus tips with turkey, these foods are expensive -- and not readily available in the workplace cafeteria or vending machine.

That said, Kurtz reminds us that while some of the recommended foods may not be applicable to "real life," once you get the hang of choosing meals with the correct ingredients, it's easy enough to figure out what to choose in a restaurant, or even the workplace cafeteria.

Further, the book provides some recipes for foods that can be made at home and brought to work as you would any other lunchtime fare.

Finally, it's important to note that while some experts believe that staying on the plan for the recommended five weeks can help you lose weight, most agree that the real value may come from being able to master the plan's unspoken rules -- smaller portions, fewer calories, and appetite control -- for life.

As Nonas noted in her review: "Ironically, the only drawback [to the 5 Factor Diet] is that the author presents this as a five-week plan. In fact, it is really a lifelong plan for a healthy lifestyle."

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