It’s not uncommon for me to be asked ‘what’s an easy way to lose weight?’ Unfortunately, however, I don’t have an answer. And even more unfortunately, I think that is because there isn’t one. There are so many diets available promising anything from the sublime to the ridiculous which can be alluring. So what are the good, bad and ugly sides of fad diets and what should you watch our for?
The good side of fad diets: They are sexy. They lure you in with promises of rapid weight loss. They are trendy and a good talking point. Celebrities endorse them, which is appealing when they are slim with glowing skin and glossy hair. In the short term, they might be easy to follow as you are told exactly what you can and you can’t eat; having clear boundaries may be helpful for some people at the start.
Gweneth Paltrow: the ultimate celebrity diet endorsement
The bad side of fad diets: We have a problem engrained in our culture which I touched upon with #fatkini; we talk about weight like its a purely aesthetic issue. It’s not. It’s a health issue. It may be tempting to lose a few kilos if you are going to a party and want to wear a tight dress, or going on holiday and want to have a beach-ready bod. However, there is a concept called adiposity rebound, which I think is helpful to understand why fad diets quite simply won’t work long-term. Our bodies like to stay at particular set levels (a theory called ‘homeostasis.’) Take temperature for instance; if you are cold, you put on a jumper or shiver to warm yourself up. If you are hot, you take off a layer, become flushed as more blood comes to the surface of your body to lose heat and you sweat. Weight is no different; if you try to rapidly lose weight, the likelihood is that it will come straight back when you stop dieting, as your body is trying to hold on to it’s ‘set level’ of fat stores. Slow, steady and maintainable weight loss is the best way that we currently know about to avoid this. Where maintaining your weight is a way of life, not a ‘quick fix,’ fad diets promising speedy weight loss are doomed from the start.
Weight is not purely an aesthetic issue, it’s a health issue.
The ugly side of fad diets: Cutting out one particular food group is not safe in the long-run. We need a variety of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate and protein), vitamins and minerals to maintain normal function; cutting out a food group (for example in the paleo diet, the juice diet, the raw diet, intermittent fasting (the 5:2), Atkin’s) is simply not safe. You wouldn’t go to a doctor and be happy if you gave you a random, unmarked and untested pill; choosing a diet is no different. Stick to something that is evidence-based and safe (this pretty much excludes all diets you read about in the tabloids). This means finding a diet that includes a wide range of foods and is enjoyable!
So what should you look out for?
- Being a celebrity does not make you a diet expert. Just because they look healthy in the advert, doesn’t mean they are. They might just be airbrushed.
- Suggestions of a ‘magic bullet’ solution, magical fat burning effects or a secret that the health profession has yet to discover. If a ‘magic bullet’ existed, we wouldn’t be facing an obesity epidemic.
- Promote avoidance or severe limitation of a whole food group; this includes dairy products and wheat which I know are popular to avoid but based on little or no evidence. Fad diets may suggest replacing the foods you are avoiding with expensive supplements or promote eating mainly one type of food.
- Promise rapid weight loss of more that 2 pounds (1 kilo) per week. This probably means you are restricting your dietary intake too much, which is unsafe. You are probably loosing water (which makes up 60% of our bodies and is vital to our body functions) and glycogen (the store of carbohydrate we have in our liver), rather than fat. Speedy weight loss will all bounce straight back at you, as I explained above.
- Suggest being overweight is related to a food allergy or yeast infection. If you are concerned about a specific allergy, speak to your GP rather than going on a spurious diet.
Avoid, avoid avoid!
So what next? If you are ready to embark on a safe, sustainable weight loss journey, go and see a dietitian. Have a look at the British Dietetic Association ‘food fact’ sheets which are evidence-based and reliable. NHS Choices also has some useful information. Take up exercise; Cancer Research Race For Life or the NHS and Change4Life Couch 2 5k are brilliant resources available online or as smartphone apps. Learn to cook; there are many free or discounted public health initiatives or social enterprises that have classes. Eat a variety of foods in the correct proportions; this includes upping your fruit and veg intake and cutting back on your intake of fatty foods. Control your portion sizes. But most importantly, enjoy it. If the diet is a chore on day 1, you will struggle make it past the end of the week. Please share below your experiences and ideas about fad dieting – I would love to hear from you!