Q: It seems like all my friends are trying one of the trendy diets — one’s on a juice cleanse, another’s going gluten-free (but doesn’t need to be). Is all of this safe and healthy?
A: We constantly hear about the latest, greatest diet that’s sure to, once and for all, help you shed unwanted pounds forever. The allure of quick fixes is hard to resist. They’re espoused by commercial weight-loss programs, the media, famous chefs and even health-care providers. Each new “trendy diet,” as you call them, aims to hook you with a story line concocted around a brand-new discovery about human metabolism that holds the promise of permanent weight loss.
Although the pace of the next best diet has slowed of late (hopefully people have gotten wise to the inner workings of the fad diet industry), there probably are people busy at work weaving yet another tall tale.
You ask whether these trendy diets are safe and healthy. It depends on how extreme the approach is, along with your health risks and medical conditions. “Most people who go on an endless array of fad diets lose weight in the short term, but odds are the pounds make a comeback and then some. These diets are often so restrictive in calories, certain nutrients, and/or foods that they’re impossible to follow for extended periods and in real life, which for most people includes restaurant foods, special occasions, family gatherings and more,” Faye Berger Mitchell, a registered dietitian and eating-disorders expert in Bethesda, Md., said in an e-mail.
It’s time to halt your quest for the magic weight-control formula. “Evidence shows no one diet is better than another for weight loss, especially keeping it off,” Sherry Pagoto said in an e-mail. Pagoto is a licensed clinical psychologist, associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and co-author of a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “A Call for an End to the Diet Debates.” Pagoto’s paper notes that studies repeatedly show low-carb, low-fat and Mediterranean diets help people lose similar amounts of weight.
But what’s more important is behavioral adherence. The best indicator of success for any eating plan is whether you can stick to it forever. Your task: find an eating plan that best matches your current and desired way of eating that you can adhere to in the long term.
“The ‘diet’ mentality focuses on changing habits temporarily to lose weight. . . . Transition, instead, to a ‘lifestyle’ mentality to achieve a healthy weight for the long haul,” Pagoto said. To do this, you will have to accept two harsh realities: 1) Going on and off diets will not result in long-term weight loss, and 2) keeping lost weight off is hard work and a lifelong endeavor.
Lastly, don’t shoot for your ideal body weight, particularly if you haven’t seen that weight on the scale for years. Research continually shows that shaving 5 to 7 percent from your starting weight and keeping that weight off offers a host of health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and glucose levels, improving lipids and sleep, and more.
• Track your food intake and physical activity: Tracking increases your awareness about how much, what and when you eat, and will help you zero in on changes you need to make. But here’s a twist to contemplate when you set about making behavior changes: Change what you want to change, not just what you’ve been told you should change. To successfully create a healthful habit that you can stick to, you have to want it.
• Get regular physical activity and enough of it: Include aerobic activity, such as walking, running or swimming, for 30 minutes nearly every day and resistance training two to three days a week. Research from the National Weight Control Registry shows that if you’ve lost weight and want to keep it off, you’ll probably need 60 to 90 minutes a day.
• Make time to eat mindfully: Sit down for meals and take your time. Eat mindfully without distraction. “If you eat without focusing on your food, you may overeat and be less satisfied,” Berger Mitchell says. Satisfaction counts.
• Don’t overburden your willpower: “If you have a hard time resisting certain unhealthy foods, don’t bring them into your home or go to favorite restaurants that serve them,” Pagoto advises. Keep your distance. Surround yourself with foods that give you a sense of control, and simplify your eating plan. Minimize food choices.
• Practice portion control: Continue to enjoy most foods you love, but in smaller amounts and less frequently, Mitchell suggests.
• Put a relapse prevention plan in place: Weigh yourself regularly. Find a frequency that works for you, and don’t let the lost pounds creep back up.
• Seek and secure support: Losing weight — and, even more so, keeping it off — is hard work. Build a support system around you. Maybe it’s a weight-management program sponsored by your employer or health-care system. Maybe a group of friends who partner to prepare healthful meals and lend an ear or shoulder. Or find a credentialed health and wellness coach or weight- management program for the long term.
Hope Warshaw, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books published by the American Diabetes Association.