Debunking the Diet Myth
It’s that time of year again.
Oh, come on, you know what I’m talking about . . . the dreaded swimsuit season! You’ve seen the magazines near the checkout line. Get that bikini body! Get ripped in no time! Lose 10 pounds in one week! Cut carbs. Increase protein. Good fats, bad fats. Move more. Eat less.
Confused? You’re not alone.
As a student of nutrition, pursuing my master’s degree with the goal of becoming a registered dietitian, the most common question I get asked is, “What diet is best?” Quite simply, no diet is the best diet. HOLD UP—did I really just say that?
Let’s start with the big picture: everyone wants to look good and feel their best. How we go about accomplishing that varies from person to person, but I bet you nine times out of ten it starts with a diet of some sort. Diet, in the true sense of the word, is the sum of foods consumed by a person. As used in our day-to-day lives, though, diet often implies a short-term solution to weight loss, cutting out or restricting certain foods over a specified time in order to achieve this goal. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common diets.
“Keto” seems to be everywhere right now! The ketogenic diet builds its foundation on being very low-carb and high-fat. Originally created in 1923, the keto diet was used as a medical treatment for epilepsy. All ketogenic diets are high in fat, adequate in protein and low in carbohydrates. This combination changes the way energy is used in the body, converting fat into fatty acids and ketones (hence, ketogenic) instead of using glucose as an energy source. Over time, this means your body will utilize fat for fuel, leading to weight loss in the short term. Long-term benefits of the keto diet have not been well documented, and the elimination of several food groups makes compliance difficult. My take: keto is fine when prescribed to treat medical conditions, but for the average person, keto is unnecessary, unsustainable and potentially harmful in the long-term.
The paleo diet is similar to the ketogenic diet. The paleo diet was designed to resemble what our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten thousands of years ago. Whole foods are emphasized, with avoidance of sugars and artificial sweeteners, grains, legumes, dairy and processed foods. What can you eat? Meat, fish and seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and healthy fats.
The Mediterranean diet is another common diet, emphasizing plant-based foods (vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts) and healthy fats (olive and canola oils). Fish and poultry are recommended over red meat, as is swapping out full-fat dairy products for low-fat options. This pattern of eating is less of a “diet” and more of a lifestyle, with plenty of research backing claims that is helps reduce risk of some cancers and increases overall heart health.
Now, taking a step back, let’s be honest with ourselves. If diets really worked, most of us would probably be thin and trim. But the reality is, diets don’t work. Most dieters unfortunately will regain all the lost weight (and more) within one to five years.
This happens because our bodies are built to survive, not to achieve a certain “look.” When food intake is reduced, our bodies respond as if they are in a famine or starvation situation. This reaction to a reduction in calories translates into drawbacks such as slowed metabolism, food cravings, mental fog and nutritional imbalances, just to name a few. Even worse, this “yo-yo” dieting (repetitive cycles of gaining, losing and regaining weight) has been shown to increase risk of heart disease, and have long-lasting negative impacts on metabolism and overall health.
The mental consequences are just as real and serious as their physical counterparts. Dieting often leads to feelings of guilt, shame and lack of control/will power, giving fuel to the diet/binge cycle. This self-defeating pattern of behavior can contribute to the development of depression, obsession over weight and body image, as well as disordered eating behaviors.
This brings me back to my original point: no diet is the best diet. I am a supporter of the non-diet approach for increasing our overall health. The non-diet approach removes the emphasis and pressure to eat for weight loss and embraces the fact that our bodies are capable of self-regulating if we just take the time to tune in and listen. Foods are no longer labeled as good or bad, removing the sense of restriction and with it, the “wagon” to fall from.
The non-diet approach is flexible, accepting and allowing of all foods in moderation. Sure, there are more nutritious food choices (vegetables, whole grains, lean protein), but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy the birthday cake, too. I believe we all can benefit from a diet that includes more vegetables and fruit, lean protein, whole grains, low-fat dairy, more water and less processed foods and sugary drinks.
Our movement should be something we enjoy, not something we feel forced to engage in. Find movement that you look forward to doing! Enjoy running? DO IT! Like to lift weights? DO IT! Prefer to take a spin class? That’s fine too! Whatever form of movement brings you joy is the movement you should be doing.
Make your overall health your priority, not the number on the scale. When you eat well, without restriction, and move in a way that makes you happy, something wonderful happens. You set the stage for a better lifestyle, not a short-term solution (which, let’s face it, isn’t really a solution anyway).
There is no magic pill, no quick fix, no diet that works. What works is finding your fit, whatever that means to you. Small, sustainable changes will, over time, create big differences in shaping a better lifestyle. Like the turtle and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.
By Sara Mattillion | Graduate Dietetic Intern, Northern Illinois University