If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. How many times have we heard that warning? As with many things in life, if a weight-loss promise sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “Lose 10 pounds in one week!” “Eat what you want and still lose weight!” “Try the Chocolate Diet!” We’ve all seen the claims, but which can be counted as real weight-loss diets and which are fads?
Jared Rice, MS, RD, HFS, a Washington, D.C. area-based nutrition expert warns, “So many times I see people getting pulled into so-called fad diets simply because others are saying and thinking they’re healthy.”
The definition of a fad diet is one that over-emphasizes or bans one food or food group, guarantees rapid weight-loss and promises quick and easy solutions. If you have ever lost weight and maintained it, you know that lasting results are anything but quick and easy. Here’s a review of the current top 5 fad diets and why their long-term use can not only derail your weight-loss efforts, but may even be harmful to your health.
Protein is an essential nutrient that helps repair muscles, aids in recovery from injury, and maintains healthy hair and nails, but consuming too much can be unhealthy. A high-protein diet can stress your kidneys, the organs responsible for metabolizing protein. While some protein-rich foods, like lean meats, non-fat yogurt, edamame and almonds, are well-balanced and health-promoting, other protein-rich foods like beef jerky, bacon and some protein bars, contain extra sodium, sugar and saturated fat, which can increase your risk for heart disease and negatively impact cardiovascular health overall.
In addition, higher protein intake – no matter the source – pushes out other healthful foods from your diet like whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, thereby reducing the nutrition in your diet overall. Nutritionists see specifically, lower levels of fiber, folate (a B vitamin known for its role in preventing neural tube defects) and vitamin E with high-protein diets. And here is one more reason not to O.D. on protein – nutritionists say that excess protein gets stored as fat.
Instead of focusing on one element of a diet, Rice encourages a balanced approach. He suggests, “Including a moderate amount of protein with each meal to satisfy hunger and sustain energy, while balancing that with fiber-rich carbohydrates and healthy fats.”
What’s missing when you start juicing? Not only protein and fat, two macronutrients not present in fruits and vegetables, but also the fiber! Fiber is found in the membranes and skins of many fruits and vegetables. This key nutrient is essential to weight-loss and health. It not only slows digestion and helps make your stomach feel full, but has also been shown to lower “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and reduce blood sugar levels. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines nutrition recommendation for fiber is 14 grams per 1,000 calories. For example, most active women need about 1,500 calories per day to maintain weight and therefore should be eating at least 21 grams of fiber per day. So skip the juicing and reach for whole apples with the skin, raspberries, artichokes, and broccoli, all of which are considered good sources of fiber.
Here’s another good reason not to juice – researchers at Purdue University found that calories that we drink do not register as making us feel full. That means that feelings of satiety will be hard to come by if you are drinking all of your calories instead of eating them. Again, focus on whole foods and healthy, common-sense eating that you can stick with for the long-term.
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). A gluten-free diet excludes the protein gluten. While eating a gluten-free diet helps people with celiac disease (where gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines), its relationship to weight-loss is not as clear cut. Rice notes, “The gluten-free diet is a good example of folks adhering to a diet for the wrong reason. Gluten-free does not equal weight-loss.”
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that, “Many health experts say there is no proven benefit to going gluten-free except for a small sliver of the population whose bodies can't process the protein. Indeed, according to nutritional food labels, many gluten-free foods contain fewer vitamins, less fiber and more sugar.” The take-away message: buyers should beware.
Gluten is found in many nutrition super-stars that should be part of a healthy, calorie-controlled diet - examples include whole-wheat breads, wheat-germ and barley. By excluding gluten from your diet, it’s easy to fall short on essential nutrients such as iron, B vitamins, and fiber. It’s no surprise that many studies have found that whole-grains foods, as part of an overall healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
So instead of eliminating gluten from your diet, be selective when it comes to carbohydrate-rich foods like bagels, pasta and cereals. Seek out whole-grain foods rich in fiber and health-promoting nutrients like folate and vitamin E.
Advocates of the Raw Foods Diet believe that when you cook food and break down its natural enzymes, the food loses many of its nutritional benefits. This diet avoids foods that are cooked or heated above 116 to 118° Fahrenheit. While this may sound restrictive, the plan also allows you to eat as often as you want – and as much as you want - as long as it is raw and vegetarian. Fruits, vegetables and soaked grains are relatively low in calories, so if you love your veggies, this may be the plan for you, so long as you are aware of the nutritional short-comings of the diet.
According to WebMD.com, “…there are drawbacks [to a raw foods diet]. You have to make sure you're getting enough protein, calcium and minerals like B12. Because most people who eat raw foods exclude animal products, you may need to take vitamin supplements to make up for any gaps in your diet.”
The Mediterranean Diet has been around for decades and isn’t really considered a fad diet at all, but rather a distinguished style of eating that is tough to compete with from a taste and nutrition standpoint. Rice says, “The Mediterranean way of eating really encompasses healthy foods shaped by what’s available in that part of the world. I would definitely recommend it.”
Volumes of research back-up the heart-healthy claims of this diet. Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health call the Mediterranean Diet “possibly the best diet ever.” Now that’s high praise!
The countries close to the Mediterranean Sea provide a good amount of seafood and fish, as well as whole grains, nuts and legumes; a small amount of meat and cheese; a healthy dose of olive oil; and red wine in moderation.
So what’s the bottom line? Any diet that restricts calories will most likely work for short-term weight loss, but for the long-term, don’t succumb to fad diets. Instead find a healthy, sustainable eating plan that works for you and your lifestyle. Whether it’s a meal service, like Diet-to-Go, or just making time to shop for and prepare healthy meals yourself, it’s a wise investment for your waistline and your health!
Author: Kristen Ciuba
Kristen is a Nutritionist at Diet-to-Go, based in Lorton, VA. She tries to “practice what she preaches” by fitting in healthy foods and cooking, challenging exercise, and quality time with family and friends every day!