'There is no single best diet – but there is a strategy to help you get ready for summer'
"Summer is now on us and just like we know that Strawberries must be eaten during the Wimbledon fortnight, we can also be as sure that someone somewhere (normally a popular magazine full of semi naked torsos) is going to reveal the latest fad diet that will guarantee you to get lean just in time for your summer holiday. Over the last decade of working in this industry I have seen the low-fat diet, we have been told that some foods are sins, only eat certain colours, then came Atkins, quickly followed by Paleo and now it seems that the most recent is Keto or fasting. All of these diets follow 4 distinct phases that often result in an initial weight loss followed by excessive regain. I will try to explain these 4 phases and suggest ways to avoid falling into the fad diet traps.
Phase 1 – The Energy Restriction Phase
Most of these diets initiate from some form of science. This science can be real or completely made up but if someone says it with enough confidence you will usually believe it. Often the science is taken completely out of context and exaggerated to make you completely scared of some foods. This is certainly the case with low carbohydrate diets where this is some science to make up the story but anyone with a GCSE in science can see that it has been taken completely out of context. But the science creates rules and it is the rules (the stricter the better) that is the key to the diets success. The rules make the diet hard to follow (initially) and because of this we create an energy deficit. A chicken sandwich for lunch becomes a chicken salad which is a far lower calorie option and finding a low carb snack mid-day is often impossible so you don’t have one.
I jokingly once talked about my diet called the “2-20-2 diet”. The idea of this diet is that you only eat 2 meals per day, you chew each mouthful 20 times, and you only have 2 minutes to eat the meal. You could make up all kinds of “science” to sell this and I am sure it would reduce weight because you reduce calorie intake - but it is of course complete nonsense. But given the rules of this “diet” and the fact it would help to reduce calorie intake there is a good chance it could move into phase 2 of the fad diet.
Phase 2 – The Celebrity Endorsement.
If the diet is going to become popular you need a celebrity to endorse it. The celebrity is often a “reality TV star” who we all know must be trained in dietetics or nutrition! Often they have themselves followed a fad diet, lost a lot of weight, some magazine puts them on the front cover, they get lots of exposure for a few weeks and they are now paid to promote the diet. This makes the diet trendy which is essential to move into phase 3.
Phase 3 – I can make some money phase
Phase 3 usually starts with a book. Next time you go into a book shop have a look at how many nonsense diet books there are. The reason as a scientist I tend to dismiss these kinds of books and rather look to journals for my evidence is the simple fact that anyone can write a book and say anything. With journals the evidence has to be reviewed prior to publication. Quickly following the book you will see supermarkets jump on board and this is when the diet fails. The shops are now selling convenient meals and snacks to fit your “rules” and therefore energy restriction once again becomes much harder. I am pretty sure when people first suggested a low fat diet they never thought supermarkets would replace all the fat with sugar and other rubbish. I would think what they meant was trim visible fat from meats, use butter sparingly etc, advice that is still good today. This is the exact same as Paleo ice Cream etc. I am sure caveman never nipped to the shop to buy Paleo ice-cream and biscuits but these days that is very easy. Now that there are foods that allow you to eat within your “rules” and energy intake increases again and weight regain starts. You are still following the rules of the game but the game has changed beyond recognition.
Phase 4 – Goodbye energy restriction and hello weight regain
You now bring to work your food designed for your rules. You have paleo biscuits for your mid-day snack, the chicken salad is now chicken and coconut and nut butter and lots of others calories, you get home to a bigger dinner and finish the night with paleo ice cream. What was once a successful plan to lower the calories is now causing major weight gain and the diet has failed you. It is at this point you read another popular magazine and see the next new fad diet and the cycle starts again. Some people will still be promoting the old plan, and getting results, but these are often the ones that have stuck to the original plan and not added the convenience items.
So what is the answer?
If you are looking to drop body fat ready for summer the simple answer is somehow we need to create a consistent daily energy deficit that works for you. For some people this will be a Paleo style diet, others it will be counting calories or intermittent fasting, even the traditional low fat approach will work. There is no single best diet for everyone so please stop looking for this unicorn. You basically need a lifestyle change and one that is sustainable for a long time. Something in your life has caused you to eat more calories than you expend in energy; this could either be through a change in diet and the addition of energy dense convenience foods or reduced activity through the demands of modern life. It is likely to be a combination of both. You therefore need to find some activities that suit your life and are fun. This could be a dance class, hill walks or joining a local 5-a-sdie football team. For many people traditional treadmill exercise or gym work does not tick the fun box and looses appeal after a few weeks. Combine this increased energy expenditure with an eating plan that allows you to reduce the energy intake but is still enjoyable and gives a feeling of fullness and you are on to a winner.
My biggest tip is try to cook simple fresh meals. You will be surprised how much you can eat if you stick to lean meats, vegetables with rice or potatoes. Avoid the sauces (use herbs to flavour foods) and have quality snacks on hand to stop you making bad choices when hungry. Also I ask people to drink water regularly throughout the day. If you are trying to reduce energy intake a good idea is to not waste calories on drinks. Choosing water, green tea, black coffee leaves those valuable calories for food which helps to stay on top of your hunger.
I really hope this has been of some help and will save you falling into the trap of falling for the next new diet, which not only often leads to failure but can also be pretty demanding on your hard earned money. Good luck!"
Written by Professor Graeme Close