The whole concept of going onto a diet is that eventually we will go off of the diet. I find that this sets us up for failure. Often we resort to fad diets to help us lose weight. Fad diets are short term diets that typically exclude certain foods or food groups, promise rapid weight loss and other miraculous claims, and seem like a tempting ‘fix’ to a problem. For example, the Atkins diet resurfaced several years back as a quick way to drop the pounds. It excluded carbohydrates and promoted a high protein (and consequently also a high fat) intake. People would lose weight quickly – though a lot of the initial weight loss came from water weight – not exactly the type of weight we want to lose. However, this diet was not very sustainable. Telling someone they could eat any grains – including bread, pasta, rice, cereals, tortillas, etc., and could only eat foods such as meats, cheese, nuts, and eggs was a little restrictive, to say the least. After the excitement wore off, many individuals returned to their old eating habits, and gained back the weight they had lost – and often times more.
There are many reasons why fad diets are not a healthy approach to weight loss. First, these diets may be deficient in many vitamins and minerals and result in malnutrition. These diets do not set us up for long term success, as seen in the example of the Atkins diet. However, not only have people gone back to their previous weight or higher, but there is some evidence to suggest that this chronic weight cycling – constantly losing weight then gaining it back – can have a detrimental effect on our metabolism. The individual who went from 200 lbs, to 150 lbs, and back to 200 lbs, may require less calories at 200 lbs when they return to this weight than when they were at this weight in the first place. We all know we want our metabolism to be as healthy (= as high) as possible, and so chronic dieting may work against us.
I believe there is a psychological effect as well. I have worked with so many patients that have tried multiple fad diets, and they tell me they ‘fail’ them all. This ‘failure’ seems to be internalized and starts to impact how they view themselves. Consequently, we can feel worse about ourselves after this lack of success, which may make us less likely to be successful with future efforts.
There was a large scale research study that compared many of the popular diets to see which ones were most successful at helping individuals lose weight. Do you know which one had the best results? Whichever one individuals adhered to. The diet that showed the most compliance had the best results regardless of the diet itself (high protein, vs high fat, vs high carbohydrates, etc.). It seems it is less about the specifics of the diet and more about how able we can follow it. So, back to my initial response about which diet is best for me? The one that you can follow. The one you can maintain for life and not feel like you are on a diet.
I believe there are many principles which we can follow that will help support healthy weight loss. First, portion sizes need to be managed. We can be eating all the healthy foods in the world, but if we are consuming too much, we will gain weight. We need to eat less than what our needs are to lose weight. One way to know if we are doing this is to track our intake, such as with websites and apps like MyFitnessPal, that help us to compute how many calories we are consuming versus what our needs are, and help to support our weight loss efforts. Research studies indicate that people who track their intake seem to have greater success with weight loss. A lot of this comes from the awareness we develop about how many calories are in the foods that we consume.
Other habits of individuals successful at weight include eating breakfast regularly (may help us from overeating later in the day), exercising 5-6 days a week, and consuming a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein options, and lowfat/nonfat dairy foods.
Regardless of what dietary approach you choose, think to yourself, five years from now can I be continuing this approach? Can I maintain this approach during the holidays? If so, you are probably on the right track.