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A cardiologist and nutritionist give their take on the study and how people can apply the results to their weight loss.

At least 2 Chicagoans didn't need a study to jump-start their weight loss

by Beth Furtwangler and Jane Park
March 12, 2009

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Beth Furtwangler/MEDILL

The four types of diets used in the study varied in percent of calories from fat, protein and carbohydrates.

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Beth Furtwangler/MEDILL

An example of a menu given to participants of the study. The amounts of condiments, such as oil on the salad or mayonnaise on the sandwich, could be altered depending on which diet was being followed.

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Beth Furtwangler/MEDILL

The above chart shows the average percent change in the amount of nutrients the participants consumed at the end of the two-year study, compared to prior to the study.  


Photo courtesy of Joanne Demmin

Joanne Demmin, 46, weighed in at 272 pounds before starting her weight loss plan on the Zone diet.


 Photo courtesy of Joanne Demmin

After losing 80 pounds, Demmin plans to continue with her diet until she hits her goal of 140 to 150 pounds.  

A recent study found that cutting calories could be the key to weight loss, no matter what the type of diet.

But that's not news to Joanne Demmin, who has lost 80 pounds in one year simply by revamping her usual diet with lean protein, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats.

The Elgin police sergeant, 46, follows the Zone diet and is a member of the Facebook group The Zone Diet for Life along with 328 other people in cyberspace.

"You're substituting healthier foods, not depriving yourself," Demmin said of the Zone, which stresses a moderate intake of carbohydrates, protein and fat in smaller portions.

For John Eischen, a construction worker from Morton Grove, simply limiting carbohydrates has helped him go from 265 to 230 pounds in six months. Eischen is a member of the 832-member Atkins Diet Fan Club group on Facebook.

He isn't a strict follower of Atkins, but had heard from friends that cutting carbs had helped their weight loss. Eischen said his weight loss can be attributed to getting calories from sources such as fiber instead of carbohydrates, but his total calorie intake has probably not gone down very much.

Demmin and Eischen were two of several people we found on Facebook in our quest to find how Chicagoans have lost weight and compare their stories to the outcomes of participants in the recent Harvard School of Public Health study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

More than 800 overweight adults were randomly assigned to one of four diets, which had varying proportions of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. At the end of six months, they lost an average of 13.2 pounds. After a year however, they regained some weight. The weight loss at the end of two years was an average of nearly nine pounds for participants in each of the diets.

Nutritionist Megan Campbell noted that the weight loss was moderate at best.

"It's my understanding that people need to lose at least 10 to 15 percent of their body weight," she said, for overweight people to start to see other improvements in their health. She also expressed concern that it appeared the participants weren't able to keep the weight off.

“The main take-home message was that just so long as you are very compliant with the diet, then the diet will work for you,” said Catherine Champagne, a professor of research at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, who created more than 600 menus for the study.

But Eischen remains skeptical that any diet can yield his kind of success.

"It's been very effective for me," he said of his diet. "It's not calorie counting, it's carb counting."

Another difference between Demmin and Eischen and the study participants was a lack of professional guidance or counseling.

All the participants were required to attend group and individual instructional sessions for the two-year period, and results showed a link between attendance and weight-loss. They also kept food diaries and logged their progress on an online Web site.

Dr. David Montgomery, a cardiology fellow at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said counseling did play a positive role in the study.

"The study’s not designed to focus on counseling, but they did have that added benefit," he said. He said making drastic lifestyle changes could be difficult for people to make on their own.

"There's so many other things that you have to take into consideration," he said.

"A high-fat diet is bad for the heart because it changes your cholesterol profile. Carbohydrates are linked to diabetes. A patient that is on dialysis because of kidney failure should not be taking high levels of protein," he said.

Eischen said he had limited contact with his physician, talked to people and did some Internet research on the Atkins diet. Demmin said she read The Zone, author and creator Barry Sears' guide to the diet.

With little professional guidance and few mathematical calculations, Eischen and Demmin have both seen more drastic results than the average study participant.

Montgomery and Campbell said while calorie reduction is important, so is eating a balanced diet and including regular exercise.

"The data are not surprising to the medical community, to the cardiovascular community, and that is quite frankly that the bottom line to weight loss is calorie reduction," said Montgomery.

But the base for any heart-healthy diet is complex carbohydrates, which are the preferred source of energy for your body, said dietitian Megan Campbell. Lean protein and a limited amount of healthy fats round out a diet.

"With protein, you want to be choosing those lean proteins, like taking the fat off the meat," Campbell said. And also "remembering to choose non-animal sources of protein, and choosing beans and legumes." For fat, you should avoid saturated fats such as whole milk and fat from meat, she said.

To truly lose and maintain weight, it's important to keep active, Campbell said.

"You can really only cut back so many calories, your body needs calories to run efficiently," she said. "Exercise is a way to burn off some calories so you can essentially eat more."