Diets come and go, all promising revolutionary changes, even though they really don't work. A recent Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of the adult population in the U.S. is on a diet, fueling a $35 billion industry, yet less than 5 percent of people can actually keep the weight off.
In 2003, when the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet was all the rage, research had found that obese men and women after six months on a low-carb diet lost 13 pounds on average compared to a 4.5-pound loss on a low-fat diet. But new research shows that eventually all that weight comes back on, to the point that the people involved weighed more than they did before they began dieting. If you're looking for a quick fix to lose some weight this spring, recognize that fad diets are just that. Despite being hyped by the media, they often eliminate important macro-nutrients, and ignore basic exercise physiology.
"People have been trying to figure out if it's the carbs or is it the fat, when really it's the calories," says Dr. Lona Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "It doesn't matter where the calories are coming from—carbs, protein, or fat—it's the calorie balance. We're trying to get people away from the idea that it's a single food group or a single nutrient that's causing the weight gain."
Melting the myths: fad diets
If a diet promises quick weight loss, has limited food selections, is promoted as a cure-all and recommends expensive foods or supplements, you can be sure it's a fad diet, says Laura Kruskall, director of nutrition sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Being heavy-handed on its use of testimonials or not recommending permanent lifestyle changes are other red flags of a fad diet.
Diets such as Scarsdale, Fat Flush, Carb Addicts, Eat for Your Blood Type, Food Combining, Suzanne Sommers, Zone, Protein Power, Medifast, Slimfast and Sugar Busters all promise quick initial weight loss and do deliver, at first, because they all are low-calorie diets. But do they last? If you are losing more than two pounds a week, it is more likely the result of fluid and lean body mass loss. Aiming for one-half to one pound a week is more realistic.
Watching your calories and regular exercise are also the key. We gain weight because the body's furnace is not burning quite enough fuel to keep pace with how much we are eating. If you're repeatedly gaining and regaining the same 10 or 20 or 30 pounds year after year, you know that fad diets won't help you in the long run. Acknowledgement of the need for lifelong changes, being flexible in your food choices, along with the advice of a registered dietician, Kruskall says, is your key to success.
Low carb, high carb or all protein?
It's a myth that carbohydrates are bad for you. A new study published in the March 2010 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that obese people who followed a low-fat diet were more likely to keep the weight off after three years than those following a low-carb diet. Though they lost more weight in the first year on the low-carb diet, they regained more during the next two years. The lead author of the study, Marianne Vetter, medical director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, said it's really hard to sustain a low-carb diet. Carbohydrates provide valuable nutrients, dietary fiber and volume and should generally make up the highest percentage of macro-nutrient calories when you're trying to lose or gain weight.
The thrill of the initial weight loss on a low-carb diet is due to several factors: You're taking in fewer calories as well as losing fat-free mass, and losing valuable glycogen stores, which also flushes out valuable water. Almonds, low-fat yogurt, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, red and green peppers, whole grain bread, tomato juice, hummus, lentils, soybeans and oatmeal—the list is long and colorful, and are all examples of carbohydrates, all providing the body's preferred energy source. Atkins may work well for some, but the research supports the view that low-carb diets, whether extreme or moderate, don't help you lose weight, says Dr. Frank Sacks of the Harvard School of Public Health.
Those with metabolic syndrome or diabetes should always consult with their physician. Healthy eating following a low-calorie, low-fat diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans or fish will also protect you against disease. A study published in the journal Molecular Neurodegeneration tested the effects of several diets and were surprised to find that eating too much protein contributes to plaque buildup that may make you more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease. The brains of mice fed a high-protein, low-carb diet (60 percent protein/30 percent carbohydrate) were 5 percent lower in weight than those of other mice, posing the question whether particular diets, if eaten at particular ages, might affect susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease.
Instead of stress, food cues, moods, habits, obsessions, advertising and social expectations, let common sense and true hunger be your guide.
For more information, look at these health resource Web sites: