Fad Diet Follies

How is that low-carb diet working out for you? Perhaps you are on a low-fat diet, or you may be using a meal-substitution plan, going to a support group, or taking a dieting supplement. By now it’s no news flash that Americans are fat, and we are getting fatter. Two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and this new epidemic is spreading to every demographic, even the young.

In the last few decades, the “weight-loss industry” has been bulging right along with the American waistline, with a plethora of products and plans catering to the desperately chunky. Despite the widespread use of diet plans and supplements, Americans have continued to grow larger, with a subsequent increase in diseases related to weight, like heart disease and diabetes.

There is plenty of blame to go around, and the American lifestyle is first in line. Americans are more sedentary than ever, glued to their TVs and computers and spending less time in physical activity. We also eat more: Americans have a legendarily gluttonous, positively supersized diet. Both sedentary time and food-portion sizes have increased, as Americans get predictably fatter despite bookstore shelves filled with weight-loss self-help books.

But it seems reasonable to put a portion of the blame on the weight-loss industry itself, which fools people with bad advice and products that simply do not work. The problem is that the advice and products peddled to consumers are not in line with the scientific advances that have been made in nutrition and weight loss over this same period. In the marketplace, pseudoscience tends to prevail, offering simple answers to complex questions–and easy, quick fixes to hard problems. What America really needs is some hard-nosed, no-nonsense, evidence-based tough love. So here it is.

The scientific secret to successful weight loss and long-term weight control is…eat less and exercise more! That’s it. There is an unavoidable formula that determines our weight–calories in versus calories out. Calories are simply a measure of energy, and we get our energy from the fat, protein, and carbohydrates (sugars) in our food. We store most of our excess energy in body fat (and some in protein and carbohydrates). Our bodies burn calories to carry out basic life-sustaining functions and to perform physical activities. Your weight is therefore ultimately a function of math–subtract the calories you burn from the calories you eat, and that is how many calories (therefore how much fat) you have gained or lost.

The problem with most weight-loss fad diets is that they ignore or minimize this fundamental, inescapable truth. They emphasize instead the types of calories that are eaten–fat, protein, or glucose. The Atkins, South Beach, and Zone diets promote a low-carb, high-fat and -protein diet. The Pritikin diet promotes a low-fat diet. All either directly claim, or strongly imply, that by adjusting the type of calories, rather than the amount, the fat will effortlessly melt away. However, there is a large body of clinical research that clearly shows total calories are all that matter. In fact, by focusing on type rather than amount of calories, the fad diets are likely counterproductive. (As an aside, the types of food we eat are important to overall health, and can limit the risk of specific diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, but for weight loss, calorie type is trumped by total calories.)

To make matters worse, the mainstream media outlets and promoters of specific diets have done a poor job of getting accurate information to consumers. During the Atkins craze, many were quick to hype that studies have shown that the low-carb diet “works.” What those studies actually showed is that weight loss was very modest and related directly to total caloric intake. Low-carb diets do seem to be related to less hunger, and therefore less eating, but this effect is modest and short-term, lasting only three to six months. There is no study showing a long-term advantage to a low-carb (or any particular) diet.

And that brings up the other major point missed by the fad-diet promoters–short-term advantages or effects are meaningless. What we need are strategies for long-term sustained weight control. Fad diets almost always fail in the long run, because most people find the monotony unsustainable. People want their fat and carbs.

It’s time for Americans to face the ugly truth: There are no easy weight-loss miracles out there. Weight management is hard work. You have to be aware of what and how much you are eating, eat less than you may want or are used to, monitor your weight, and get regular exercise. We have to shed the nonsense before we can shed the pounds.

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