Diet Detectives: Spotting Sensible Diets
One week you are stuffing your face with protein. The next week, a new diet urges you to dump the protein and load up with carbohydrates. Talk about redefining yo-yo dieting.
So do you continue with your current diet? Or will friends who have lost dozens of pounds on this new diet sway you over? All you know is that you are desperate to lose weight. If that new diet works, then it is worth a try.
Before you dig into another diet, step back and evaluate it. Just as you would not buy a car without knowing anything about it, you should not jump into a diet without scrutinizing its claims. And before you continue your string of yo-yo dieting, you should learn what successful weight loss is all about.
The Keys to Successful Weight Loss
Weight loss does not happen overnight. Nor should it happen to the tune of ten pounds a week. Instead, successful weight loss means losing 1-2 pounds per week, says Debra Wein, MS, RD, sports nutritionist and co-founder of the Sensible Nutrition Connection in Hingham, Massachusetts. "When you lose more than 1-2 pounds per week, you lose more than just fat mass," Wein says. Instead, you start losing part of your lean body mass, including muscle—the mainstay of your metabolism. Muscle, after all, uses more calories than fat and is a major contributor to helping increase metabolism.
It is helpful to think of weight loss as a way to also achieve good health. Losing 5%-10% of your starting weight may lead to improved health if you are overweight. If you choose to lose weight, no matter how much, it is a good idea to work with your doctor and/or a registered nutritionist.
There are 3,500 calories in a pound, so to lose one pound a week you need a 500 calorie deficit per day, which is ideally achieved both by cutting back on calories and through exercise. Regular exercise is an important component of weight loss success. "You need to get a balance between caloric intake and caloric expenditure," Wein says.
For weight loss to be successful, you have to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. "You need to get a balance between caloric intake and caloric expenditure," Wein says.
You may also need to change some of your eating patterns. For example, are you always eating in front of the television without realizing how much you have eaten? Do you eat when you are depressed, sad, or angry? Ideally you should pinpoint what triggers you to eat, and if it is not hunger, develop new, more healthful, responses to these triggers.
Why Diets Fail
Inevitably, diets do—and most likely will—fail. Consider, after all, how many times you have been in this situation. You go gangbusters on one diet only to fizzle out after a few weeks. Then slowly but surely, the weight you have lost creeps back onto your body. What went wrong?
One reason as to why diets often do not work is that they are temporary interventions and do not address the issues really at hand: what is causing a person to eat a certain way and why? Most diets, for instance, prescribe certain eating habits that you follow for a specific period. Yet once that period ends, you are left to battle with your old eating patterns. Although you may have lost weight, you did not learn anything about nutrition, nor were you taught how to modify your old eating habits to maintain the weight you have achieved.
Some diets may also be too restrictive or unrealistic, Wein says. "Someone may be eating so few calories that they just can't function well," she explains. Or the diet may require giving up going out to eat with friends or even eating certain food groups.
How to Spot a Healthy Diet
So how can you choose a diet that will help you lose weight sensibly and keep it off? By taking the time to evaluate diets and not believing every claim you read or hear. Before you start a diet, talk with your doctor or a nutritionist about your intentions. Then ask these questions when analyzing a diet:
- Who is the author of the diet? Make sure that the author has credentials to back her expertise. Even if a diet book is written by a doctor, find out that doctor's area of interest and look for motivating factors that might have prompted him to write the book.
- Are the diet's claims backed by research? Do some digging to find out whether research has been performed, preferably at the university level, Wein says.
- What are the health risks associated with this diet? Make sure a diet lists the health risks involved—even the most sensible diets can be risky for certain groups of people, such as women who are pregnant or people with diabetes. If a diet seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Are all food groups represented in the diet? "If you cut out a whole food group," Wein says, "you miss out on valuable nutrients." Without the right balance of nutrients, you will feel sluggish and will perform poorly throughout the day. Also keep in mind that the key to losing weight is to cut back on calories, not to focus on a particular nutrient. Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health studied four groups of dieters; each group followed a diet that emphasized different nutrients (eg, a low-fat/low protein/high-carb diet). Weight loss was the same for all of the dieters, no matter which diet they followed. The key to weight loss was sticking with whichever diet they were assigned to.
- Does the diet severely restrict calories? Severe caloric restriction should send up a red flag, Wein says. Women aged 19-50 who are physically active, may require 2,200-2,400 daily calories. Active men aged 19-50 require at least 2,800-3,000 calories every day.
- Does the diet recommend something other than a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat? If so, consider finding another diet.
- Does the diet claim that weight loss will be immediate? Remember that slow and steady sheds the weight. Talk with your doctor or nutritionist to find out the ideal amount of weight loss you should achieve weekly.
- Does the diet reveal how many pounds the average person loses? Before and after photographs can be enticing but deceiving. The weight loss industry is largely unregulated and thus appealing photographs do not represent average weight loss.
- Does the diet encourage exercise? Exercise is a vital part of weight loss and management and should at least be recommended.
- Does the diet propose a maintenance plan once you have lost weight? Losing weight is easy for many people, but developing a plan to keep the weight off is key to long-term success. This is why extreme or radical diets generally do not work—they just are not maintainable in the long run.
A Life Change, Not a Quick Fix
As Wein is quick to point out, there is no quick fix and no magic pill or supplement that will make you lose weight. ""The bottom line is that to lose weight," she says, "you have to eat well and exercise."
American Council on Exercise
American Dietetic Association
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Aim for a healthy weight. Guide to behavior change. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/behavior.htm. Accessed May 9, 2011.
United States Department of Agriculture and United States Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, December 2010.
Weight loss: finding a weight loss program that works for you. Federal Citizen Information Center website. Available at: http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/health/works4you/weightloss.htm. Accessed October 17, 2007.
4/14/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Sacks FM, Bray GA, Carey VJ, et al. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. N Engl J Med. 2009;360:859-873.
Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Last updated Updated: 5/9/2011
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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