It’s that time of year again. We are being bombarded with new diet books and celebrity fitness DVD’s cashing in on people’s self loathing after the Christmas and New Year indulgence. If you’re thinking of going on one of these diets, new or old, I urge you to reconsider. Why? They do not work. And worse, they may harm your health in other ways.
Here are some facts I find disturbing:
- 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight within 5 years
- 35% of ‘normal dieters’ will progress to pathological dieting (1)
- 75% of women have disordered eating- research by University of North Carolina
- 1 in 4 women are on a diet at any given time
These are just a few I picked up on and I think they tell us some interesting and sad facts about our attitudes towards ourselves and food. To me, these statistics say firstly, we don’t enjoy food. How could you when you are constantly either starving or restricting yourself. They also tell me quite clearly that diets do not work, and that they can lead to serious disorders which will blight your life and endanger your health. What concerns me most, is the affect that dieting mothers have on their children, particularly young girls. Dieting now begins in girls as early as 8 years old- before puberty. This starts a lifelong struggle with food and body image. It is also horrifyingly dangerous to physical development. Inadequate nutrition will have an even greater impact on the health of young girls than it does to adult women. All parents should consider how their behaviour and attitudes around food and dieting affects their children, especially parents of girls.
But why aren’t these diets working? The short answer is really quite simple. Any diet that isn’t a long term change, that isn’t sustainable, will only give you short term results. When you return to normal eating, the weight will come back, and often you put on more weight than when you started. In addition, most fad diets involve severe calorie restriction for fast results, which actually slows our metabolism and jeopardises overall health due to lack of essential nutrients.
We need to understand metabolism in order to help us maintain healthy weight, and healthy attitudes. The term, metabolism, refers to the energy taken for all functions of the body. Your metabolic rate, referred to as your BMR ( basal metabolic rate ), is the energy or calories required by the body at rest. That means, all your normal bodily functions if you were to lie completely still all day! This is not referring to the calories needed for your day-to-day activities, that will be a much higher figure. I would like to point out here that severe calorie restriction on some diets will mean you are not getting even the calories you need at rest. As an example, my own BMR is somewhere around 1,300. So if I were to go on one of these 1,000 calories a day type diets, I would not even get enough fuel for all the essential functions of my body before I even got out of bed! I hope that puts it into a bit of perspective.
Metabolic adaptation happens when changes in input or output occur. That is when you either increase or decrease your calorie consumption or energy expenditure. The body adapts to survive. You could not expect it to react the same way if you kept cutting calories. When you reduce calories, you slow your metabolism (2). This is because your body is trying to achieve stability. This is also why, when you return to your normal calorie intake you gain weight. Your metabolism adapted to the reduced calorie intake, and considers this ‘normal’. So does this mean you shouldn’t reduce calories? Is this an utterly hopeless scenario? No, I promise you it isn’t. What I am trying to point out, without going into thyroid function and cortisol levels which might confuse you unnecessarily, is that you must reduce calories slowly. Small weekly weight loss, over time, in a way your body can sustain and accept is far healthier and easier to maintain. The widely agreed sustainable weekly weight loss is 1.5- 2 lb.
Instead of going on an extreme diet which would mean massive changes to the way you eat, focus on one or two dietary tweaks at a time, creating healthy lifelong habits.
Start with the basics, such as increasing your water intake. It may take you 2 or 3 weeks just to get into the habit of drinking plenty of water, but you will feel better for it and may see changes in your weight from this alone. You could then start to ‘switch’ some of your foods. Changing from white refined foods to whole foods is a great place to start. You will get all the amazing nutritional benefits of unrefined whole foods which include fibre, something a lot of dieters lack. Fibre helps you feel more full, so you will naturally eat less without thinking too much about it. Include a new superfood to your weekly shop, one of the ‘super seeds’ for instance- flaxseeds ( also known as linseed) or chia seeds are packed full of fibre, protein and many vitamins and minerals. I like to focus on positive things I can do without beating myself up about the ‘bad things’ I should’t do. Studies show that people who are more flexible when trying to lose weight are more successful. So do allow yourself treats, but just remember they should be in moderation. Again switch up your sweet treats and you will find less issues with cravings. As an example, refined sugar is massively addictive and offers no nutritional benefit. One week you could make that decision to stop buying refined sugar and start looking into alternatives like agave nectar, stevia and coconut sugar.
These are just a few suggestions, it will depend greatly on your existing diet. I often keep a 2 week food diary so I can take an honest look at how I’m doing. I also include how I sleep and what my energy levels are like when I do this. Writing a list or a plan may help you stay focused. I read an article a few months ago about creating ‘mini habits’, making a list of very small daily habits that are easy to achieve. Small changes means you are more likely to achieve your goals and in fact surpass them, and feel better in the process. Don’t forget that exercise is an important part of health and wellness. If you don’t regularly exercise already, the same principles apply. Start small, keep at it and look for things you can maintain your entire life. I always find it easier to exercise if its something I naturally enjoy, and if I can fit it in to my daily routine. Cycling, running or walking instead of commuting by car or public transport is the most obvious change.
By combining small dietary changes you intend to keep to, with regular exercise suited to both your body and your lifestyle, you will see improvements to your overall health and to your weight. Shift your focus from your weight, to your health and quality of life. If you eat well you will have plenty of energy to exercise too. A strong, healthy, fit & glowing body looks and feels far better than a malnourished & unhealthy thin body.
My final thought, be kind to yourself. Even if you are overweight, don’t be too hard on yourself. There is no need to succumb to the pressure and starve yourself thin. It isn’t healthy, it isn’t pleasant and it will be worse in the long run. Make health and happiness your goal for 2014!
And remember: Eat real food and enjoy it!
For more on how to create a healthy diet read my post on balancing your plate .