Reviewing the facts behind the fads.
Words by James Tonin
According to a recent Time magazine poll, losing weight and getting fit is the most commonly broken New Year’s resolution. Even so, you can succeed where many people fail with the right combination of self-education and a positive outlook. Given the major role, your diet plays in weight loss, taking on the right eating habits can be a make-or-break proposition.
Millions of dieters adopt so-called fad diets, hoping to kick-start their quest to get fit by shedding a lot of weight in a short period
of time. Fad diets are quick-fix solutions that promote certain “magic” foods or food groups while severely limiting or excluding others; the Atkins diet’s blacklisting of complex carbohydrates is the quintessential example. While many fad diets will deliver short-term results, mounting evidence shows that the vast majority of people who follow them experience rebound weight gain when they revert to their regular eating habits.
Your body requires an optimized balance of three key food components—carbohydrates, proteins and fats—to maintain good health. Each of these components plays a different but equally important role in nutrition. Carbohydrates provide your body with easily absorbed fuel, while proteins help your body build and maintain cells. Fats help you absorb nutrients from other foods, protect your organs, and assist in hormone production and regulation.
Health Risks Posed by Fad Diets
After coming off a fad diet, people generally regain the weight they lost fairly quickly; in some cases, they may even gain back weight even more rapidly than they lost it, prompting them to go back on the fad diet to lose the regained weight. Clinicians describe this phenomenon as “weight cycling,” and it can lead to a host of serious health problems, such as increased risks for heart disease, heart attack, and eating disorders. There’s even a significant link to obesity.
Because practically all fad diets favour an increased intake of one or more of these components at the exclusion of others, they throw your metabolism off balance. The negative effects of altering your metabolism become magnified when you revert to your regular eating habits, which is one of the major reasons many people gain back as much or more weight than they originally lost.
Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Fad Diets Usually Don’t Work
By and large, fad diets are built around rigid, calorie-reduced eating programs. While cutting back on calories is an essential part of any weight-loss strategy, fad diets tend to achieve it by limiting or eliminating entire food categories, such as complex carbohydrates and/or fats. Suddenly depriving your body of specific food components has ill effects on your health.
It’s true that dramatically reducing your carbohydrate intake will force your body to turn to your reserves of stored fat for quick fuel. In turn, this accelerates both fat loss and weight loss. However, the vast majority of low-carb or no-carb dieters experience intense, even overwhelming cravings when they reintroduce carbs to their diets. This, combined with the fact that the body will quickly store excess calories from carbohydrates as fat after being deprived of them for so long, tends to lead to weight gain.
Fats are targeted by many fad diets because they are calorie-rich; one gram contains nine calories, whereas carbohydrates and proteins both contain four calories per gram. Thus, in theory, reducing or eliminating fats is the quickest, easiest way to reduce caloric intake. However, cutting out fats compromises your body’s ability to absorb and deliver nutrients, which heightens your risk for developing potentially dangerous nutritional deficiencies. You are also highly likely to experience strong cravings for fatty foods when you start eating fat again, similar to what typically happens when you reintroduce carbs after going without them for an extended period of time. Because fats contain more than twice as many calories as carbs or proteins, the yo-yo effect is usually even more pronounced.
Tips for Successful Dieting
Among nutrition experts, it’s unanimous—it’s better to make sensible, permanent adjustments to your eating habits than it is to hop on a fad diet bandwagon for a few weeks or months. If you’re intent on trying a fad diet in spite of the large body of evidence that suggests they don’t provide a long-term solution, there are a few important guidelines to follow. First, make a gradual rather than sudden transition into the diet and out of it. For example, if you’re going to go on a low-carb diet, spend a few weeks gradually cutting back on your carbohydrate intake before adopting the fad diet’s eating guidelines. Then, when you have reached your weight-loss goal, gradually increase your carbohydrate intake week by week until you are back to the recommended daily intake range.
Don’t rely on dieting or calorie restriction alone to reach your weight loss goals. Combine it with regular cardiovascular exercise, and keep your exercise regimen intact when you come off the diet. This will help you avoid any rebound weight gain you may otherwise experience.
According to good eating guidelines, adult women should take in about 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day, while adult men should eat between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day. The exact figure depends on your basal metabolic rate, which is determined by a calculation based on the healthy body weight for a person of your height. In any case, your calories should be made up of 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and grains), 10 to 35 percent protein, and 20 to 35 percent fat.
In recent years, thinking has shifted somewhat in respect to this balance. For example, Sweden recently became the first country in the western hemisphere to officially adopt lower-carb, higher-fat healthy eating guidelines. Clinical evidence also suggests that successful dieters—defined as people who have lost weight and kept it off—tend towards carbohydrate intakes at the lower end of the spectrum.
As a rule of thumb, eat five to ten servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every day, choose whole-grain breads and pastas, and if you’re not a vegetarian, stick to lean meat. Limit saturated fats in favor of unsaturated fats found in foods like plant oils, nuts, seeds, legumes and fatty fish. Drink alcohol only in moderation, and constrain your consumption of fried, sugary, or processed foods.
Implementing sustainable, healthy eating habits is better than any fad diet out there.
James Tonin is a GTA-based yet globetrotting freelance writer. When he’s not contributing to Spirit of the City, you can find him flexing his brain by writing screenplays.