Whether it’s to lose weight, feel better, or prevent disease, the intentions may be good, but research shows that diets do not work. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999–2006), only 1 in 6 overweight and obese adults report ever having maintained weight loss of at least 10% for 1 year. Yet time and time again, people try to go on a new diet or fad to lose weight. As a Dietitian, I see this all the time. Everyone wants that “quick fix” to help them lose weight, when in reality, what helps in the long run is an overall lifestyle change.
Let us break down the common Diet Fads and offer up some research-based reasons they may not be the healthiest for you. Then, we’ll certainly share our favorite tips for a healthier lifestyle come the new year, because we know this WORKS!
Why Diets can be Harmful, and Why We Always Recommend a Healthy Lifestyle Instead
- Fad Diets can be dangerous!
They often lack vital nutrients and cut out entire food groups, possibly causing nutritional deficiencies. Take the “Paleo” diet for example, which cuts out dairy, grains, and sugar, all necessary for our bodies to function optimally! Research shows whole grains can slash cancer risk, help prevent Diabetes, and aid in weight control, yet this diet cuts them out completely. Fruit comes packaged with important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And moderate consumption of protein-rich dairy has shown to help protect against developing Type 2 Diabetes. As for diets that cut out most carbs, this could lead to confusion/fuzzy thinking, constipation, and other problems due to lacking complex carbs and fiber. Focus on consuming all foods in moderation and avoid cutting out any entire food groups to maintain an eating pattern that is varied and also healthy. No need to cut out all carbs – simply focus on including healthy fiber-rich complex carbohydrates to fuel your brain and muscles like sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, whole fruit, & more!
- Fad diets could wreak havoc on your hormones.
Fad dieting can cause our hormones to go out of whack, and hormones are a major piece of the puzzle when it comes to weight loss/weight management. One research study found that those who followed a “Very Low Carb” diet had a decrease in the active thyroid hormone T3, a major component of our metabolism. Another study found that T3 levels dropped by 47% over 2 weeks in people consuming a no-carb diet. Following a ‘Very Low Carb Diet’ also puts added stress on the body. It showed that the hormone cortisol was increased upon following the Very Low Carb diet compared with a Low Fat and a Low Glycemic Diet in a research study comparing the three diets. The hormone Cortisol tells our body to hold on to fat – preventing you from losing weight.
- Strict Dieting and concern with weight could lead to disordered eating.
According to The South Carolina Department of Mental Health, it is estimated that 8 million Americans (seven million women and one million men) have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are debilitating, sometimes fatal, mental health conditions that require intensive treatment with a team of physicians, registered dietitians, and therapists. According to Time magazine, 80% of all children have been on a diet by the time they’ve reached fourth grade. 20-25% of ‘dieters’ progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
- Lack of long-term research on many fad diets.
For many fad diets, we simply don’t have the research yet to determine the long-term safety and efficacy. Take the Ketogenic diet for example, we know that all the research conducted on the Keto diet, both good and bad outcomes (may effect cholesterol levels, cortisol and thyroid hormones, etc.) are all short-term, and even the dieters were closely and safely instructed to go back to resuming a normal diet, once again showing that this is just a short-term approach. We only know what could potentially happen in a few weeks, but what would happen in a few years? That’s completely unknown.
- Diets may encourage weight-cycling and ‘yo-yo dieting’, as you aren’t learning any sustainable eating behaviors.
Diets usually focus on cutting out certain foods, cutting calories, and limiting what you consume. They don’t necessarily focus on food quality or healthful long-term eating behaviors that include moderation and all 5 food groups. This can lead to yo-yo dieting – which essentially means going on a strict diet, “falling off the wagon”, then starting up a new restrictive diet. A total of 19 studies examined the effects of weight cycling on metabolic risk factors for obesity. Of these, more than half (58 percent) found an association between weight cycling and increased weight and body fat, specifically belly fat, subsequently increasing the risk of obesity. Not only may weight-cycling increase your risk for increased weight gain, it can also have an effect on your health regardless of weight. According to the American Heart Association, yo-yo dieting may increase the risk for heart problems, such as coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death in post-menopausal women.
How to Quit the Dieting and Focus on a Healthy Lifestyle Instead
- Don’t cut out your favorite foods. You want your eating habits to be sustainable long term – is it really realistic that you’ll never ever eat bread again? Instead, swap out your favorite foods for healthier alternatives (i.e. add plain Greek yogurt to a baked potato instead of sour cream, add creamy butternut squash to a cheese sauce for added fiber and vitamins, try purchasing a healthier dessert from our local Rosewood Market & Deli or 14 Carrot Whole Foods). Instead of having your favorite unhealthier foods frequently, treat yourself to them maybe once per week, and truly savor it!
- Meet with a Registered Dietitian – Dietitians are trained in nutrition counseling, where we can work with you one-on-one on changing behaviors and focusing on a healthy lifestyle rather than fad diets. Getting a personalized plan is always great for success – we are your personal cheerleader and can help you specifically with what you struggle with, not anyone else. Book a nutrition consult here.
- Make small, measurable, specific goals. Instead of feeling overwhelmed with one big general goal (“I want to lose weight” for example), make small steps at a time. It takes 3 weeks or more to form a habit – so small steps are necessary so our bodies get used to healthy behavior changes! For an example, try adding in just one more vegetable to your day for a week. See how that goes, and then it you did well, try adding in an additional serving. Make small steps that you can measure – and they will surely add up and STICK!
- Try focusing on eating more whole foods and less out of a package. Quality of food is important – focus on cooking more at home, eating in a relaxed state, and eating with others. This can all help promote a healthy body & mind overall. Include a variety of foods from each food group with a focus on fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil. Slowly cut down on added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat – which is easy to do if you cook more from scratch at home!
- Avoid the “all or nothing” approach. Often it can be tempting to get fed up and swear that you’ll “go to the gym every day this week” or “completely cut out all desserts” from now on. This is often done in a desperate state – but it usually never lasts long.. It’s not sustainable to cut out all your favorite foods or live a regimented lifestyle. This can lead to that yo-yo approach as mentioned previously, which is not healthy. Focus on small, manageable changes, like decreasing your intake of sweets to just 1 night per week if you’re used to many nights per week. Or focus on the positive changes you can add, rather than what to avoid or cut out. Some examples could include increasing your water intake, getting more steps in throughout the day, or hitting the 5-9 servings goal of daily fruits and veggies.
- Set up your environment for success with small fixes. A healthy lifestyle is long term, and it’s all about changing your lifestyle in a holistic way – so set up your whole lifestyle for success! Need more sleep? Focus on supporting good sleep by turning off electronics early. Use smaller plates, bowls, and cups to eat less. Stock your fridge with healthy foods like colorful fruits and veggies, water, whole grains, and lean protein. Maybe change your desk to a standing desk, or walk a little more each day when you run errands. Make small shifts throughout your whole day-to-day life, THIS is a healthy lifestyle change that can work in the long haul.