Resolution/evolution/absolution time is here again! Each year, Americans spend tens of billions of dollars in the weight loss industry. There are hundreds of diet books and programs on the market, and they each seem to have a different twist: low fat, high carbohydrate; high fat, low carbohydrate; high protein; liquid supplements; food combining; eat for your blood type; and many others. Finding a program that is safe, realistic and effective long term is a confusing task.
We have all heard the statistics: 95% of people who lose weight subsequently regain it. This is because the majority of the diets are fad diets that promise quick easy results, but unfortunately end up in weight gain. Most programs do not focus on changing behaviors. So, once you go off the diet, the weight is regained.
So, how do you make an informed diet decision?
1.Look for a diet program that promotes a safe and realistic weight loss of 1-2 pounds a week. Loss of over three pounds a week (or over 1-2 pounds for a smaller person) will consist mainly of water loss. Once you return to your normal diet, the weight will return as well. Slow and gradual weight loss is not as appealing as the rapid loss promoted in many of the fad diets, but it is more effective. Steer clear of those diets promoting quick weight loss.
2.Look for a diet that is not too restrictive in calories. The hazards of a diet too low in calories include slowing of the body’s metabolism so you burn fewer calories. I have witnessed this many times with clients who have put themselves on very restrictive diets. They are unable to lose weight even though they are consuming only 900 calories per day. Once the calories are slowly increased, the metabolism will start to speed up, making weight loss possible.
Also, deprivation on a restrictive diet often leads to bingeing or muscle will be used for fuel when the calories are too low. Muscle is an active tissue that burns calories. However, if you don’t eat enough, your body will use this tissue to maintain itself. The other downside is as you lose muscle, your metabolism will slow down. I would not recommend a diet that is less than 1,200 calories for a woman or less than 1,600 calories for a man.
3.The program should promote behavior changes. Any restriction in calories will promote weight loss in the short term. However, in order to achieve permanent weight control, you should select a program that focuses on your eating and exercise behaviors. Following a specific two-week diet plan may promote a several pound weight loss, but since your problem behaviors have not been addressed, the weight will likely return. Behaviors need to be changed! I strongly support programs that encourage keeping food records. Food logs are valuable tools that can help you become aware of your eating behaviors. Once the problem areas are identified, you can address them one at a time.
4.The program should incorporate exercise. Exercise should be an important component of your weight loss program. A habit of regular, moderate physical activity is a key factor in losing weight. It is even more important in maintaining your weight loss. The benefits of exercise include:
Preserving the body’s muscle. When you lose weight, it comes from both muscle and fat. Exercise helps maximize fat loss while preserving muscle.
Promoting positive psychological benefits (i.e., making you feel good about yourself) as well as many physical health benefits (i.e., decreasing cardiovascular risk).
5.An effective weight loss program includes a maintenance phase. It is very difficult to change behaviors that have formed over many years. Often times, when stress occurs in our lives we tend to revert back to old habits. A program should encourage you to continue getting support on a regular basis even after you have lost the weight. Most programs do not have a long-term support system–or if they do, it is not used by the participant!
6.Make sure the diet is nutritionally balanced. The diet plan should be based on the Food Guide Pyramid and include a variety of foods from the different food groups. [Please see our article on "Basic Nutritional Principles" for further information on the Food Guide Pyramid.] Avoid programs that exclude certain food groups, such as a diet that forbids dairy products, or a diet that allows only "fat-free" foods. Steer clear of the popular diets that discourage intake of carbohydrate, claiming they will raise insulin levels and turn into fat! Low carbohydrate diets are mistakenly believed to be successful because they produce an initial weight loss, which is almost entirely due to loss of water. When the person resumes their normal diet, water is retained again, and a weight gain results. Carbohydrates should not be strictly limited as they provide energy and are important for good health. The key is portion control. Also, steer clear of those diets that promote high intakes of fat and/or protein--neither is good for your health! Worst of all are the high fat diets, as they can increase your risk of heart disease and many types of cancer.
Select a program that promotes variety and portion control, which is the sound, healthy way to eat for the long term. Remember that all excess calories, whether protein, fat or carbohydrates, will be stored as body fat!
7.The diet program should allow flexibility. Avoid diets that have "good" and "bad" foods. This approach is doomed for failure. If you like a certain food, but feel it is "forbidden," you will probably end up eating it. This can cause you to feel guilty, out of control, and eventually lead you to abandon your weight loss attempts.
8.Seek a weight loss plan that does not solely rely on special foods, supplements or pills. Prepackaged foods may be a good idea on occasion, as they are portion-controlled and convenient. However, I would not recommend a program that requires that they be eaten on a daily basis. A program should also teach you how to deal with "real food"–how to make healthy choices in restaurants, how to cook healthy foods for your family, as well as how to learn portion control. In addition, many of these meals are high in sodium and low in fiber. On occasion they are fine–but not for everyday consumption.
I would also not recommend a program that requires you to purchase any supplements or pills. Certain situations might warrant a prescription medication for weight management. This option must be discussed carefully with your physician and dietitian. However, situations requiring medications are the exception, not the norm.
9.Look for a program that is led (or authored) by a qualified instructor. I would strongly recommend that you check out the experience and credentials of the people behind the diet. Not every physician or dietitian has significant experience in weight control. Look for people with the most experience and who have been working in the field for a long time.
10.Choose a program that fits your personality and lifestyle. Do you feel more comfortable working with a nutritionist on an individual basis or do you prefer the support found in groups? Or would you prefer to use a book as a guide so you can go at your own pace? The bottom line is that you need to find a plan that you can live with. And that plan needs to be healthy. It should include all foods in moderation and incorporate regular physical activity.