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Guidelines on Overweight and Obesity: Electronic Textbook
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Dietary Therapy

In the majority of overweight and obese patients, adjustment of the diet to reduce caloric intake will be required. Dietary therapy consists, in large part, of instructing patients on how to modify their diets to achieve a decrease in caloric intake. A key element of the current recommendation is the use of a moderate reduction in caloric intake to achieve a slow but progressive weight loss. Ideally, caloric intake should be reduced only to the level required to maintain weight at the desired level. If this level of caloric intake is achieved, excess weight will gradually disappear. In practice, somewhat greater caloric deficits are used in the period of active weight loss, but diets with very low calories are to be avoided. Finally, the composition of the diet should be modified to minimize other cardiovascular risk factors (142).

The centerpiece of dietary therapy for weight loss in overweight patients is a low-calorie diet (LCD) (800 to 1,500 kcal/day). This diet is to be distinguished from a very low-calorie diet (VLCD) (250 to 800 kcal/day), which has been unsuccessful in achieving weight loss over the long term. The LCD recommended in this report also contains a nutrient composition that will decrease other risk factors, notably, high serum cholesterol and hypertension.


Evidence Statement: LCDs can reduce total body weight by an average of 8 percent and help reduce abdominal fat content over a period of approximately 6 months. Evidence Category A.

Rationale: A decrease in caloric intake is the most important dietary component of weight loss and maintenance. LCDs have been shown to reduce total body weight by an average of 8 percent over a period of 6 months, accompanied by significant reductions in waist circumference. When weight loss occurs, the loss consists of about 75 percent fat and 25 percent lean tissue (556,557).  A deficit of 500 to 1,000 kcal/day will produce a weight loss of 70 to 140 grams/day, or 490 to 980 grams/week (1 to 2 lb/week). A deficit of 300 to 500 kcal/day will produce a weight loss of 40 to 70 grams/day, or 280 to 490 grams/week (1/2 to 1 lb/week). A patient may choose a diet of 1,000 to 1,200 kcal for women and 1,200 to 1,500 kcal for men.

VLCDs (less than 800 kcal/day) are not recommended for weight loss therapy because the deficits are too great, and nutritional inadequacies will occur unless VLCDs are supplemented with vitamins and minerals (558).  Moreover, clinical trials show that LCDs are just as effective as VLCDs in producing weight loss after 1 year (437).

Although more weight is initially lost with VLCDs, more is usually regained. Further, rapid weight reduction does not allow for gradual acquisition of changes in eating behavior. Successful behavior therapy is the key to long-term maintenance of weight at a reduced level. Finally, patients using VLCDs are at increased risk for developing gallstones.

Successful weight reduction by LCDs is more likely to occur when consideration is given to a patient's food preferences in tailoring a particular diet. Care should be taken to be sure that all of the recommended dietary allowances are met; this may require use of a dietary supplement. Dietary education is a necessary ingredient in achieving adjustment to an LCD. Educational efforts should pay particular attention to the following topics:

  • Energy value of different foods;
  • Food composition: fats, carbohydrates (including dietary fiber), and proteins;
  • Reading nutrition labels to determine caloric content and food composition;
  • New habits of purchasing: preference to low-calorie foods;
  • Food preparation: avoiding adding high-calorie ingredients during cooking (e.g., fats and oils);
  • Avoiding overconsumption of high-calorie foods (both high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods);
  • Maintaining adequate water intake;
  • Reducing portion sizes;
  • Limiting alcohol consumption.

The Step I Diet in ATP II provides an appropriate nutrient composition for an LCD. The composition of the diet is presented in the Table below.

Table IV-3: Low-Calorie Step I Diet

Nutrient Recommended Intake
Calories1 Approximately 500 to 1,000 kcal/day reduction from usual intake
Total Fat2 30 percent or less of total calories
Saturated Fatty Acids3 8 to 10 percent of total calories
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids Up to 15 percent of total calories
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Up to 10 percent of total calories
Cholesterol3 300 mg/day
Protein4 Approximately 15 percent of total calories
Carbohydrate5 55 percent or more of total calories
Sodium Chloride No more than 100 mmol per day (approximately 2.4 g of sodium or approximately 6 g of sodium chloride)
Calcium6 1,000 to 1,500 mg
Fiber5 20 to 30 g
1. A reduction in calories of 500 to 1,000 kcal/day will help achieve a weight loss of 1 to 2 lb/week. Alcohol provides unneeded calories and displaces more nutritious foods. Alcohol consumption not only increases the number of calories in a diet but has been associated with obesity in epidemiological studies (559-562) as well as in experimental studies (563-566). The impact of alcohol calories on a person's overall caloric intake needs to be assessed and appropriately controlled.
2. Fat-modified foods may provide a helpful strategy for lowering total fat intake but will only be effective if they are also low in calories and if there is no compensation of calories from other foods.
3. Patients with high blood cholesterol levels may need to use the Step II diet to achieve further reductions in LDL-cholesterol levels; in the Step II diet, saturated fats are reduced to less than 7 percent of total calories, and cholesterol levels to less than 200 mg/day. All of the other nutrients are the same as in Step I.
4. Protein should be derived from plant sources and lean sources of animal protein.
5. Complex carbohydrates from different vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. A diet rich in soluble fiber, including oat bran, legumes, barley, and most fruits and vegetables may be effective in reducing blood cholesterol levels. A diet high in all types of fiber may also aid in weight management by promoting satiety at lower levels of calorie and fat intake. Some authorities recommend 20 to 30 grams of fiber daily, with an upper limit of 35 grams (546, 567, 568).
6. During weight loss, attention should be given to maintaining an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. Maintainance of the recommended calcium intakes of 1,000 to 1,500 mg/day is especially important for women who may be at risk of osteoporosis (569).

Rationale: Many studies suggest that the rate of weight loss diminishes after about 6 months. Shorter periods of dietary therapy usually result in lesser weight reductions. Therapeutic efforts should be directed toward behavior therapy as well as maintaining LCDs (486, 570, 571). 


Evidence Statement: During dietary therapy, frequent contacts between professional counselors and patients promote weight loss and maintenance. Evidence Category C.

Rationale: Frequent clinical encounters during the initial 6 months of weight reduction appear to facilitate reaching the goals of therapy. During the period of active weight loss, regular visits of at least once per month and preferably more often with a health professional for the purposes of reinforcement, encouragement, and monitoring will facilitate weight reduction. Weekly group meetings can be conducted at a low cost, and can contribute to favorable behavior changes. However, no clinical trials have been specifically designed to test the relative efficacy of different frequencies of encounters with physicians, dietitians, or others on the weight loss team (487).


Evidence Statement: The amount of time spent with the patient favorably affects weight change in overweight or obese adults given dietary therapy. Evidence Category D.

Rationale: Training of health professionals in techniques of weight reduction, especially in behavior therapy and dietary principles, is expected to facilitate weight reduction. Further, adequate time must be made available to the patient to convey the information necessary, to reinforce behavioral and dietary messages, and to monitor the patient's response. Despite these judgments, none of the studies reviewed were designed to specifically address the type or qualifications of the health professional who implemented the various weight loss approaches. Many of the studies differed in the types of dietary intervention provided. Most programs involved dietitians and nutritionists as primary therapists and used group therapy rather than individual sessions. The length of time spent during each session and the nature of the practitioner/patient interaction tended not to be provided.

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