Go to the health section of any bookshop and you’ll find a vast array of best-selling weight-loss books. Take a closer look and you’ll see that each one claims that their new diet is not only revolutionary, but will help you lose weight and feel great for life. Don’t believe the hype! The dieting industry is big business. Every year, millions of hopefuls invest time, money and emotions into the latest diet craze or product. The great irony is that despite this, people are actually getting fatter. If you are one of those dieters who have tried almost everything on the market- you are probably seriously disillusioned and hopelessly confused. First you were told to eat loads of grains and fruits, and then you were told to avoid them. Fat was the enemy and then it became your best friend. For the most part, these radical dietary guidelines have turned out to be half truths and lies that are, ironically, making us bigger and bigger as we battle to find the perfect diet plan.
What’s probably even more frightening is browsing the supplement section at the pharmacy. There are literally hundreds of weight loss products from pills, to powders, to shakes and drops all stacked next to each other beckoning out to you with promises of looking like the skinny model on the packaging (who has probably never needed to use such a product). The truth is that there is no magic bullet for weight loss. Yes, some well-designed products may assist in some way, but many of them will just dehydrate you or mess with your metabolism.
The high protein, low carbohydrate diet developed by Dr Atkins in the 70’s has become one of the most popular-and most criticised-diet books to date. The Atkins’ diet and many others that followed, like Enter The Zone and The Carbohydrate Addicts Lifestyle Programme, go against the grain by advocating a lower-carbohydrate, higher fat and animal protein way of eating. Proponents of these diets claim that it’s insulin-stimulating carbohydrate, and not fat, that packs on the kilograms. Very low carbohydrate diets lead to a process known as ketosis, where the glucose-starved body starts to burn its own fat for energy. Sounds good in theory, and this type of ketosis is relatively benign at first but in the long term can prove rather hazardous. High protein diets are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol and can negatively affect calcium balance and kidney function if maintained. They also cause constipation and bad breath. These diets may well be a great kick-start to a weight loss programme but are generally not so successful in the long term.
A study published in The Archives of Internal medicine in 2006 grouped the results of 5 major diet trials comparing the effects of low-carbohydrate diets without restriction of energy intake versus low-fat diets that include carbohydrates. After 6 months, individuals assigned to low-carbohydrate diets had lost an average of 3.3kg more weight than those on the low fat diet. However, this difference was no longer obvious after 12 months. So, the low-carbohydrate diets are as effective as the low fat diets after 1 year. In addition, those that followed the low-carbohydrate diet also had higher mean LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol and total cholesterol readings at 6 and 12 months. On the plus side, the low-carbohydrate diet resulted in lowered triglyceride (another bad fat) levels at 6 and 12 months.
At the same time, high carbohydrate, low-fat diets are not without consequences. We know now that insulin-stimulating carbohydrates can in fact cause alterations in blood sugar and insulin hormone levels that can lead to weight gain. We also know that fat, and especially the so-called essential fatty acid, are an important part of any healthy diet. Omega 3 fats, for example, like those found in fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds help promote optimal cognitive function and mental health, improve vision, helps reduce inflammation in arthritic conditions and can help prevent and manage cardiovascular disease. Omega 9 fatty acids, which formpart of the Mediterranean diet (like those found in avocado, olive oil and nut and seeds) can also help prevent chronic disease. Fat also help keep us satiated and adds palatability to an otherwise bland diet.
Having said all of this, I think it becomes obvious that the ideal diet, perhaps, lies somewhere in-between the extremes. The truth is, almost any diet will work if it is at least a better way of eating then you had previously been following. The problem is, most of these diets are too extreme, so you end up failing on the maintenance side and putting the weight back on- often with interest!
So what works then? The best way to lose weight is to change your lifestyle. Find a way of eating and exercising that matches your preferences and needs and that is practical, maintainable and sustainable. A balanced diet, where you are at least eating less or better than you previously were, which is based on vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, lean proteins and good fats and that limits sugar, fried foods and processed foods that is combined with regular physical activity is the best way to lose weight, and keep it off- without having to spend money on books and potions.
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Ashleigh Caradas hold a bachelor’s degree in Science from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Medical honours degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Cape Town. She has been in private practice as a Nutritionist and Dietician since 2000. Ashleigh is also a freelance health journalist and her articles have appeared in Longevity, Me!, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Shape and Essentials magazines. She also writes regular features and columns for Living and Loving Magazine and the Business Day Health News (a supplement to the Business Day Financial Mail). Ashleigh also gives regular talks and workshops on wellness in the corporate environment. Ashleigh is passionate about almost anything to do with health and wellness and is a self-confessed health junkie and yoga nut.