Every few years a new diet hits the market and everyone jumps on board, hoping it will be an easy, or at least effective, way to lose a few pounds. First there was low-fat mania, a diet trend that spawned an abundance of low fat and fat-free supermarket products that still show up on store shelves even today. Then low fat was unseated and replaced with low-carb diets, some more restrictive than others. Who doesn’t remember the infamous Atkins Diet where you could have no more than 50 grams of carbs a day?
These days, gluten free and a Paleo approach to eating have taken center stage. To their credit, Paleo and gluten free aren’t really just for weight loss but are promoted as a way to enhance health. Far worse are the fad diets that come and go, diets that focus on “negative calories” or emphasize a single group or a single food to the exclusion of others.
In terms of weight loss, is one dietary approach better than another? A recent study published in Family Practice News compared the most popular diets that people use for weight loss including South Beach, Zone, Atkins, Ornish, Volumetrics, Weight Watchers and others. To do this, researchers looked at 48 well-conducted studies involving more than 7,000 participants looking at these diets.
Based on this review, which only looked at weight loss not overall health, all the diets yielded roughly the same amount of weight loss – about 17 pounds over a 6-month period. In other words, no diet proved to be better than another in terms of weight loss. The study did find side effects were more common with low-carb diets than other types. Low carbers were more likely to experience side effects like headache, constipation, fatigue or muscle cramps.
The Eating Approach that Works is the One You Can Stick With
Based on this study, you can lose weight with any of the popular diets. The one you’ll be most successful with is the one you can stick with. In general, diets that severely restrict one particular food group, like the Atkins diet, are the hardest to adhere to with and, as this study shows, has the greatest potential for unwanted side effects.
One issue many people face when they come off of a weight loss diet is weight regain as their body tries to return to its set point weight. A theory says that each of us has a set point weight that our bodies try to return to once we stop dieting. The more restrictive the diet plan, the more likely you are to regain the weight you lost as you return to a more normal eating style. A major drawback!
The reality is most diets are structured to offer a short-term approach to losing weight. That’s why the weight loss you get is often short-term as well. You’ll enjoy greater long term success if you adopt a healthy eating plan you can live with permanently, one that focuses not just on weight loss but overall health.
Diets have some major drawbacks:
. They don’t always focus on health
. They don’t help you maintain weight once you lose it
. They aren’t sustainable
. Weight tends to “bounce back” to where you were before you started dieting.
A Better Approach
Rather than adopting a diet mindset, focus on making incremental, positive changes to your diet. Your body will rebel less when you don’t change how you eat all at once. Begin by making gradual changes to how you eat. Replace calorie-dense foods with healthier options. Once you’ve adjusted to the change, take further steps to upgrade the quality of your diet. Some small steps you can take:
. Replace sugary beverages with calorie-free options like water and unsweetened tea or coffee
. Eat at home more often. One study showed people eat up to 50% more calories when dining out.
. Purge packaged foods from your cabinet and focus on whole foods.
. Replace starchy side dishes with fiber-rich vegetables.
. Pump up the flavor of foods with healthy spices.
. Eat lean protein at every meal to boost satiety.
. Keep a food journal for 2 weeks to see how many calories you’re really consuming. It’s a good reality check.
. Don’t exclude entire food groups from your diet. Such drastic eating plans aren’t sustainable.
. Have a stash of healthy snacks on hand. Carry them with you to work and everywhere else you go.
Adopt a Healthy Eating Plan, Not a Diet
Yes, you can lose weight by dieting but think longer term. Unless you’ve made changes to your diet you can live with from now on and you’re exercising, the odds are against long-term success. Research shows regular exercise is important for permanent weight loss maintenance. You can lose weight using a variety of exercise approaches but it won’t be beneficial if you bounce back to your pre-diet weight.
When you get down to it, the best diet is no diet. A better choice is a healthy eating plan you can stick with. Just as importantly, choose what you eat based on health rather than how much weight you can lose.
If the idea of a diet plan appeals to you, model your diet after the Mediterranean diet plan, an eating plan that studies have linked with health and longevity. Who can argue with an eating plan that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, fish and moderate amounts of legumes, nuts and whole grains? Research clearly shows such a diet lowers the risk for heart disease and has been linked with longevity.
The Bottom Line?
Diet is a four-letter word. Purge it from your brain and think longer term. Ultimately you want to be lean AND healthy.
Family Practice News. September 15, 2014. page 16.
JAMA. 2014;312(9):923-933. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.10397.
Obes Res. 1994 Nov;2(6):587-99.
N Engl J Med 2013; 368:1279-1290April 4, 2013.
Nutr Rev. 2006 Feb;64(2 Pt 2):S27-47.
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