Though the plan focuses on food, physical activity, and weight management, the biggest emphasis is on making smart menu choices. (Kick-start your new, healthy routine with Women’s Health’s 12-Week Total-Body Transformation!)
Since researchers at the National Institutes of Health developed the plan in 2001, the American Heart Association has endorsed it, and it’s backed by solid science laid out in a lengthy online guide.
To find out if the TLC diet is something you should try, take a look at our cheat sheet.
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What’s on the Menu
This is ot a deprivation plan. The TLC diet calls for filling your plate with a variety of plant products and low-fat animal protein sources based on what makes your taste buds happy:
• Fruit: two to four servings per day
• Vegetables or dry beans/peas: three to five servings per day
• Grains, such as rice and whole wheat: six or more servings per day
• Low-fat or fat-free dairy, like 1 percent milk: two to three servings per day
• Lean meat, fish, or poultry: five or less ounces a day (about the size of two uncracked eggs)
• Unsaturated fats/oils: in moderation according to your calorie needs
• Dessert: Yes! But only low saturated-fat sweets, like fro-yo and Jell-O.
Sticking to this menu plan can raise your HDL cholesterol level; this is the “good” cholesterol that keeps your risk of heart disease in check. You’ll also lower your LDL cholesterol, the harmful kind that can put you in line for heart disease, she adds. It’s important to remember that the point of the TLC plan is to manage cholesterol, and though dropping pounds is often part of that, not everyone needs to shed lbs to make that happen.
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Like most diets, the TLC diet requires keeping an eye on calories, which is a no-brainer if you’re trying to lose weight. However, the exact calorie range you should try to hit per day depends on your height, weight, and activity level.
Everyone who goes on TLC does need to crunch numbers though. The main rules: Only 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fat. Less than 7 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat sources (like butter, cheese, and meat), and you’re limited to no more than 200 mg of cholesterol per day—that’s a little more than what’s in one large egg (178 mg). The TLC diet “is very specific, and requires a lot of label reading and calculations, which may be challenging to stick to,” says Moon.
On the other hand, the exercise requirements are super straightforward: a minimum of 30 minutes of moderately intense (a.k.a. you break a light sweat) physical activity, like brisk walking, on most days of the week.
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What To Avoid
Steer clear of saturated-fat offenders like red meat, butter, cheese, and whole milk. The same goes for foods high in trans fat, such as fried fast food, many pastries, and processed cookies and crackers. Both saturated and trans fat kick up your LDL cholesterol count—not to mention your overall calorie intake
Alcohol is also on the watch list because too much is linked to high levels of triglycerides, another type of fat that plays a role in heart disease. On this plan, women should top out at one drink per day.
Finally, the TLC diet calls for slashing sodium to fewer than 2,300 mg daily, or about a teaspoon of table salt. Seems drastic, but it’s actually in line with the recommended intake for most adults across the board, per the American Heart Association. Sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, which in turn boosts the odds of heart disease. And if you’re trying to lose weight, dropping your salt quota can help squash bloating and help you drop some water weight.
Why It Could Work
While the TLC diet sounds similar to other popular heart-healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet, it offers more flexibility in terms of what you can consume. “It’s broad enough that it can be customized to different preferences for vegetarians or people who need to follow a gluten-free diet,” says Moon.
And though shedding pounds isn’t the primary goal, TLC “tends to be a low-fat diet, which has been shown in clinical trials to lead to weight loss,” says Moon. “However, there’s more than one path to healthy weight loss.” In other words, even a high-fat diet can cause you to downsize as long as you’re controlling for calories.
The emphasis on a wide variety of fiber-rich plant foods and low-fat protein options makes it healthy and filling, keeping hunger pangs at a minimum. And once you get the hang of reading food labels and adding up calories and nutritional counts, it isn’t too challenging. By tracking calories and getting in those 30 minutes of activity, you can lose weight the slow and steady way, which keeps it off. “It can certainly be a healthy way to eat even for those without cholesterol issues,” says Moon.