Have you ever noticed that after any diet, the pounds inevitably pile back on? Not only that, but people often actually gain more than they lose after finishing a diet. The idea of dieting is fundamentally flawed, with the process frequently being useless, painful and even dangerous to the person following it. In this article we are going to shed light on fad diets and provide you with some recommendations on how to avoid mistakes, and achieve long-term results.
What does an average diet consist of? They vary enormously in terms of the type of food stipulated or prohibited, timeframe, and degree of strictness. However, there are a few common features. Let’s examine them briefly.
All fad diets are low in calories and rely on a nutrients deficiency principle. That means a dieter consumes fewer calories than he or she burns. This usually leads to a certain weight loss, but a series of studies have shown that the drop in body weight usually occurs predominantly as a result of muscle - but not fat - loss. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, the body experiences a significant metabolic slowdown.
All diets are short-term (up to a few weeks). First of all, that does not allow the body to change in the longer term. Secondly, it means that a dieter will soon return to his or her “normal” - often unhealthy or semi-healthy - eating habits. These dietary habits caused weight gains in the past, so it’s fairly certain that the same thing will happen again.
All diets impose strict restrictions on the type and quantity of food consumed. That might provoke not only temporary mood swings and fatigue but also long term hormonal problems. Another consequence can be malnutrition (i.e. a deficiency of some important micronutrients and vitamins). It could impair bodily functions and negatively impact the overall health of the dieter.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper:
Very often calorie restriction in the course of a dietary programme is too extreme, and has no scientific basis. The buckwheat diet, green diet, zero carbs diet, fruit diet and even the lemon-water diet are just few examples of type of diet which are – to put it bluntly - complete nonsense. Do people lose weight on such diets? Yes, they do. Do they gain it back? Yes, and it happens very quickly.
Decreasing calorie intake is another form of dieting. People keep their eating habits unchanged and just reduce the size of the portions or general quantity of their food intake, and exclude “criminal” food such as white bread or refined sugar. At first glance, this approach looks logical. Curbing excessive unhealthy food consumption will inevitably lead to weight loss. However, it is temporary. Having reached his or her target, a dieter reverts to “normal” eating habits, quickly gaining back everything that was lost, plus a little bit more, after every diet.
Another important point is that dieters almost never measure what they eat (we’re not speaking about bodybuilders, who have a different approach). All food intake is approximate and cannot be precisely replicated every day. Eating in public spaces makes tracking exact consumption even more complicated. It is impossible to be certain how purchased meals were cooked, and what additives such as oils, sugar, starches and so on were used. I’ve heard this stock phrase a million times: “I eat healthily but can’t lose fat”. When I start analyzing what people really eat I always see an abundance of hidden salt, sugar and fats in ready-to-eat or processed meals consumed. As a result, a dieter has fluctuating macronutrient intake (proteins, carbs, fats, fibre as well as salt and water) from day to day without any degree of consistency, consuming extra unnecessary nutrients that negatively impact the body in both the short and long term.
Sometimes people stop eating completely for a while (“detox” fasting). This is probably the most terrifying scenario in terms of negative metabolic adaptation and the degree of harm it inflicts on the body.
Juice diets, which are currently extremely popular, are another example of outrageous fad strategies that inevitably cause overcompensating fat gain after the diet is over.
To recap, people do lose weight during diets but mostly due to three key factors:
loss of body water due to loss of muscle glycogen (1 molecule of muscle glycogen retains 3 molecules of intramuscular water keeping the body hydrated),
loss of intestine bulk due to extremely low food consumption.
Now, let’s look in more detail at muscle loss. Why is this factor important? It has been scientifically proven that muscles burn more calories for maintenance than fat. In other words, two 130 pound individuals with the same activity levels but with different body composition (let’s say, the first has 10% of body fat and the second – 30%) have completely different daily calorie expenditure. Who is going to burn more? Obviously the first one, as he has more muscle tissue.
Another interesting fact is that the human body starts burning muscle tissue for energy when calorie intake is insufficient. Fat is used to store nutrients for the body in case of starvation, which is why the human body tends to keep it for as long as possible, even destroying muscle tissue first. It’s a survival mechanism. Only in certain circumstances does it use fat for energy (for example, when a certain heart rate is reached). Muscle loss during fad diets is inevitable even if a dieter continues exercising, and the less muscle tissue the dieter has, the fewer calories he/she burns. That’s why prolonged fad diets provoke muscle degradation and, as a result, significant metabolic slowdown.
Let’s say a couple of words about metabolic adaptation (slowdown/damage). This probably the simplest correlation to explain: The human body is both ingenious, and highly efficient. Survival is its main objective, so the fewer calories consumed, the fewer calories used. The body becomes very efficient and stores everything possible to deal with the possibility of starvation. In other words, the less you eat – the less you burn. And it works the other way around: the more generous the food supply, the less the need of the body to store fat for a raining day. However, don’t forget about food sources. Fat-laden, sodium-rich and sugar-heavy processed food never brings benefits. When boosting your metabolism, always opt for whole foods.
To sum up, when a dieter starves himself or herself for a prolonged period, negative metabolic adaptation occurs. In combination with inevitable muscle loss it causes even more dramatic consequences – a dieter simply starts gaining more and more weight, while eating less and less.
Cortisol is a human stress hormone. Overwork, diets which limit calorie intake, long and exhausting cardio sessions, over-exercising, and lack of quality sleep, sunshine and fresh air are only a few examples from the long list of cortisol boosters. High cortisol levels cause major water retention (in case of some extreme female dieters, up to 25-30lbs). Moreover, high cortisol slows down the metabolism even further.
To diet or not to diet?
Taking into account all of the above evidence, the question must be asked: is it actually worth dieting?
The answer should be obvious: No, if we’re talking about fad diets.
Another, related, question is how can we achieve targeted body correction?
It’s all about long term life-style changes: Short-term diets don’t provide long term results and may be harmful, whereas permanent changes to your eating habits bring long-term benefits.
How to start and what to do
Here are just a few simple tips that could make your healthy eating easier, and more effective.
Always rely on a scientific, fully customized approach! Generic diets and programs work poorly. Don’t copy someone else’s strategy. Most likely it was designed for an individual with a different somatotype, body fat percentage, activity level and other differentiating factors.
Would you perform dentistry on yourself? I didn’t think so. Always rely on professionals. Hire a qualified nutritionist to design the right strategy for your needs and guide you through the journey. It’s not going to be easy, as any life-style change requires complete focus, dedication, patience, and competent support.
Never starve yourself. Remember, fad diets are harmful.
Accept that finding healthy food in public places, or around your office, is pretty much impossible. Make it a habit to carry around a few little Tupperware boxes containing your freshly made meals. You will definitely be hungry at some point. Take care of yourself and don’t allow hunger to force you eating rubbish, or to starve.
Try to avoid processed food. This step alone will be hugely beneficial in the long-term.
Always put your health first.
Fast food and junk food cravings only exist in your head. The normal human body does not need junk food at all. Believe it or not, our brain can work perfectly on complex carbs. The human body is able to produce endorphins and serotonin without eating mountains of sweets. Our ancient ancestors never knew McDonalds or Nutella and lived happily without them – the biggest monster lives in our own heads. Stop feeding it!
Take your time. The human body needs a far longer time to change than we tend to believe. Give yourself time. Be generous. Healthy eating will start working sooner or later. Just be consistent.
Keep calm and eat your chicken (or broccoli/spinach/cod – whatever suits you!). Stress slows down the metabolism, making the body store more fat and retain water.
Sleep well and get enough fresh air every day. It’s a basic rule and you shouldn’t make excuses for yourself.
Just as you can’t be “almost pregnant”, you can’t “almost eat healthily”. You either do it or you don’t. The more you cheat the more you crave. It is better to eliminate junk food from your diet completely. Good luck!