As a health coach and fitness trainer, I hear all sorts of dieting stories, most of which involve calorie consumption far below a person’s resting metabolic rate (RMR) over an extended period of time, which is generally a recipe for disaster. The scenario is always the same; a person reaches a point of desperation regarding weight and/or body image, and clings onto the latest diet fad as their saving grace without actually researching how weight loss works and whether or not what they’re signing up for is effective or safe over the long term. The Master Cleanse. The Hollywood Diet. The HCG Diet. The Cabbage Soup Diet. The Baby Food Diet. The Five Bite Diet. Extended Juice Cleanses. Pills and Cigarettes. The protocols and promises may be different, but they share a common result: rapid weight loss over a short period of time followed by weight gain, depression and a disordered pattern of eating as soon as the individual inevitably veers off a plan that was unsustainable in the first place. I know this all too well not only because of what my clients share with me, but because I ran on this hamster wheel myself, desperate to stay model-thin in my teens and twenties at all costs, even if it meant counting each little pea on my plate or subsisting solely on liquids for weeks on end (I did both, and the end result was not cute).
If women knew how ineffective these diets are over the long term and how they actually contribute to stubborn weight gain down the road, many would think twice about even trying them in the first place. Unfortunately, aggressive diet marketing taps into our fears and vulnerability; before we know it, we’re telling ourselves that maybe this new fad will be the answer. Here’s the fact: when you decrease your food intake well below your resting metabolic rate over a period of weeks or months, you are robbing your body of the essential nutrients it needs to function properly and supplying it with very little energy, which can lead to myriad unpleasant conditions and side effects. Much of the initial weight lost on these diets is not from fat, but from water. Because of this quick shift in water and electrolyte balance, potentially fatal heart disturbances can occur. Cardiac arrhythmias due to catabolism of cardiac tissue during low calorie consumption periods have also resulted in widely documented fatalities. Additionally, major protein loss from muscle and organ tissues is also common, as well as blood sugar instability- that’s almost guaranteed. Is fitting into that dress really worth putting your body through this torture while setting yourself up for failure down the road?
If you’re looking to lose weight safely through dieting and exercise and keep it off over the long term, you must mentally prepare yourself to be patient with the process. We all know that quick fixes usually spell DANGER in the long run. Not sure if the diet you’re considering is legitimate? Here are some things to watch out for:
- Marketing buzz words like “celebrity,” “endorsed,” “detox,” “cleanse,” “new,” “miracle,” “magic,” or “recently discovered” should trigger warning bells. If there’s no legitimate scientific data from a respected and accredited organization proving effectiveness, it’s probably not worth it.
- Rapid weight loss claims of more than 0.9kg (2 lbs) per week. In these cases, much of the weight lost is usually muscle and water weight, which can lead to medical complications. It’s also important to note that the number on the scale is just one measurement of weight loss- and not a very good one at that. You are better off setting weight loss goals based on losing inches and body fat percentage, not weight. As a personal example, I can tell you that I lost nearly 11% body fat and dropped two dress sizes… but I also gained five pounds.
- A strict menu or plan with very limited choices that must be followed daily with little or no wiggle room. Are you really going to do this for the rest of your life? What types of nutrients might you be missing out on?
- Reliance on meal supplementation (shakes or bars, for instance) and/or nutrient supplementation (pills, powders) in order for the diet to be effective. These types of diets can be extremely hard on your kidneys, and prohibitively expensive over the long term. What’s worse, regulation of supplement content is lax at best- do you really know what you’re putting inside of your body?
- A diet that promises fantastic results without any exercise. People who exercise regularly- incorporating both cardiovascular activity and strength training- are more successful at keeping off the weight than dieting alone. Perhaps more importantly, exercise boosts self-esteem and self-care, which appears to be the springboard to success in any life shift.
So, what does an effective diet and nutrition program look like? Here’s my ten-point checklist:
1. You should be able to maintain the NUTRITION PLAN over the long-term. Let’s scratch the word “diet” right here, since it generally implies a short-term solution or quick fix.
2. The nutrition plan should be affordable and all foods should be easily accessible.
3. The nutrition plan should be proven effective through scientific data by credible sources that are not mainly profit-driven.
4. The nutrition plan focuses on the incorporation of whole, natural foods rather than processed, engineered foods.
5. The nutrition plan does not require you to maintain a caloric intake well below your resting metabolic rate over a long period of time.
6. The nutrition plan does not involve juicing or fasting over more than a few days (and even then, think twice. Fasting and juicing can both have major drawbacks).
7. The nutrition plan is interesting and keeps your taste buds stimulated. You’re not bored to death with it.
8. You’re able to maintain the nutrition plan on a daily basis, which means that it accounts for the times that you may eat out at a restaurant or have a meal prepared by someone else at a function or party.
9. The nutrition plan is tailored for your life, your body, your preferences and your goals. There’s no “one size fits all” solution.
10. You feel great when you're following it- healthy, vibrant and strong!
When you embark on any new journey requiring behavior change, remember to be patient with the process and gentle with yourself. There are no miracle cures or insta-fixes worth your time or effort. The process is where you’ll find the greatest rewards, like increased self-efficacy and self-esteem. Take it one step (or bite) at a time, and don’t forget to breathe!