Dieting, What is it Good For?
When was the last time you weren’t on some kind of diet? Also, when was the last time you were perfectly satisfied with your body and weight? For many of us, we’ve been dieting for so long, we can’t remember a time in our adult lives when being on some form of a weight loss regime wasn’t a given.
For centuries, men and women have been trying to mold their bodies (and clothes) to fit in with the perceived beauty standard of their time. At one point in human history, being plump was a sign of health, beauty and even wealth. Then the 90’s happened and it seems we’ve just been getting skinnier ever since. Never in history have people spent more time and money trying to be thin than they do today and yet this is the fattest and unhealthiest we’ve ever been. It doesn’t seem to make sense does it? Every new diet is purported to be “the one and only, best way to lose weight” as the previous “best diet ever” conveniently is never mentioned again. Remember the Atkins diet when carbs were the Devil and it was supposedly healthy to cut them out completely and eat pounds of red meat every day? More recently, we have the Paleo diet which was modeled after a time when people lived to about 30 years old, and let’s not forget about the Lectin Free Diet where vegetables your mother has been forcing you to eat as a child are suddenly all toxic. Wait what? The list of diets seem to be never-ending and ever-devolving into a rabbithole of confusion. Most of the time, the same four diets are in circulation but slightly re-branded and re-named and 99% of them have one thing in common - misery and starvation.
Bizarre Diets and Diet Cults
Let’s not forget all of the bizarre diets out there that have seduced so many - like the “Ear Stapling Diet” where you literally put a staple through a pressure point in your ear to supposedly curb your appetite - or the “Banana Diet” which involves only having a glass of water and a banana for breakfast, blended, squished, sliced, grilled, frozen, baked, and sometimes even straight out of the peel and then eating whatever you want for rest of the day.
It sounds a bit culty if you ask me. Which reminds me of my favorite story of the german nudist August Engelhardt (far right), who started a spiritual cult in the south pacific which believed that coconuts were the sacred pathway to Coco-nirvana. Unfortunately for him and his followers, he died at the age of 44 of ulcers and extreme malnourishment. But I digress. My point is that diets are a lot like religious cults, and conspiracy theories. Though some may have some truth to their core, the human ego eventually requires that it is novel, and special, and especially prophetic and its scripture must be followed through the desert.
The Science Behind Dieting
The sad truth about dieting is: DIETS DON’T WORK. Oops. Yup, I said it - diets don’t work and there are plenty of actual scientific studies that support that statement. Like any radical idea, they work for a brief time, but in the long run, most diets will fail. In the vast majority of cases, there is an initial significant amount of weight loss that happens when you stick to basically any diet on the market for at least 6 months but over time, people gain the weight back and often do some damage to their body and/or metabolism in the process.
According to Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology and lead author of a study about the efficacy of diets, “You can initially lose 5 to 10 percent of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back. We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more. Sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants, while complete weight regain was found in the majority. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people.”
One study of dieting obese patients followed them for varying lengths of time. Among those who were followed for fewer than two years, 23 percent gained back more weight than they had lost, while of those who were followed for at least two years, 83 percent gained back more weight than they had lost, Mann said. One study found that 50 percent of dieters weighed more than 11 pounds over their starting weight five years after the diet, she said.
Is Sustained Weight Loss Possible?
Based on the information I’ve provided so far, you might be tempted to throw in the towel and stop trying to lose weight all together. The silver lining is - diets are no fun and are often stress inducing and socially isolating so maybe it’s time for a permanent break-up. Maybe you don’t mind dieting but then at least know that it’s much less about which diet you decide to go with and more about actually sticking to something - until death to us part kind of deal. So, at least pick a diet that allows you to eat foods that you enjoy eating.
Although difficult, sustained weight loss is possible. The key is that it’s not about the latest fad diet, it’s about a permanent lifestyle change. It’s about choosing to take care of your health first and having weightloss be a byproduct. It’s also about being honest with ourselves about what a realistic weight is for our bodies. If you’re 40, trying to squeeze into your 18-year-old selfs’ jeans - it might not be the most realistic goal. Our bodies change and we generally gain some weight as we get older - especially if we have had children. Be kinder to yourself. If being a size 4 or 6 means that you have to live the rest of your life feeling like you’re starving to death, ask yourself, is it really worth it?
Personally, it begins with a change of perspective. The question isn’t “how do I look” but rather “how do I feel?”
Do I feel good cramming donuts down my throat? No, but I don’t like abstaining absolutely either. In the end, I believe it comes down to two very simple principles: getting my foods as close to nature as possible, and becoming conscious of when I am no longer hungry.
Quality over Quantity
Instead of focusing on a specific diet, I would put the emphasis on quality. As close to nature as possible. Before you put it in your cart, ask yourself, “who made this?” If the answer is Kelloggs, it’s probably going to be counter productive to your goal. If the answer is “Earth” - then you’re probably on the right track. I say this only because the supermarket will try to fool you with Keto, low Fat, low sugar, high protein, and all the rest of the dieti-gious slogans. “A calorie is a calorie” is another one of those propaganda pieces that belongs in a diet museum, and will only further confuse you. So let me break it down:
High-quality foods include unrefined, minimally processed foods such as vegetables and fruits, legumes, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy sources of protein.
Lower-quality foods include highly processed snack foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined (white) grains, refined sugar, fried foods, foods high in saturated and trans fats, and high-glycemic foods such as potatoes.
Researchers in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health indicates that the quality of food plays a factor in maintaining and achieving a healthy weight and that the notion of “a calorie is a calorie” is only half of the picture.
What is the “Best Diet”?
Despite my secret dreams of becoming your new guru and starting a diet cult on an island like my friend August Engelhardt, I think I’ve made myself pretty clear that there isn’t a “best diet” out there. The best diet is a mentality, a system, a level of consciousness. It is not a practical regiment or goal, but rather a list of pretty obvious habits that will not be mindblowingly original. It begins with not doing the things we know we should not do, and doing the things we know we should. The human mind loves new fads because it allows us to start fresh, with hope on something new we’ve never tried, and for that matter never failed at. The perfect diet is a moment to moment clarity of choice, and commitment to feeling clean, light, and healthy.
Having said that, I can, however, give you my personal recommendation on how to maintain a healthy weight as there are factors other than diet that can have a big impact on weight. They are simple, and true, and a good reminder to all of us who have told ourselves ‘I tried that! It didn’t work.”
Be Active. Take long walks. Get in at least 10,000 steps a day. Being active is in our DNA, it is what has kept us alive for thousands of years. Get up and go for a walk, stretch, dance, find a form of exercise that is maintainable and fun for you so that you don’t get burned out. Sleep. I will write a whole blog about why sleep is key to maintaining your weight, but for now I’ll give you a hint. Cortisol levels. Look it up, and then get your 8 hours of good sleep. (Preferably before midnight.)
If you're still about ready to dive into a vat of cheese and bread, and absolutely must have a specified diet, I will once again call upon the ancient wisdom of our most recent ancestors who got a lot more than just diets right. The Mediterraneans. Call it what you will, the Plato, the Socrates, the Wisdom diet or most commonly known as The Mediterranean diet.
It is among the best studied, best performing diets when compared with others, and has been shown to have long-lasting effects on LDL cholesterol levels. I also personally just really love mediteranean cuisine so the food tastes delicious to me and I can enjoy what I eat while also staying healthy.
I also wrote a blog about intermittent fasting, which isn’t a diet at all but rather just a lifestyle shift that I believe to be very effective. You don’t have to diet with intermittent fasting - instead, you just eat within certain windows of time during the day so that you aren’t constantly making your digestive system work and pumping insulin into your bloodstream which studies have shown prevents weight loss.
So to sum up my tips:
don’t diet because diets don’t work in the long term
shift your priority to health rather than weight loss
create realistic goals for yourself while remaining honest and conscious with your choices
eat more high-quality foods and less low-quality foods like processed snack foods and sugar-sweetened drinks
find healthy foods that you love to eat and incorporate them into your daily meal plan
Move your butt (10,000 steps)
get 8 hours of sleep
try intermittent fasting :)
I hope that we can all move on from dieting and the yo-yoing of weight loss and weight gain that comes along with it. Life is too short to starve yourself - there is a balance in all of it and I’m here trying to find it just like everyone else. If one day, I too, like Mr. Enghelhart, claim to have found the holy grail of diets and convince you all to join me to partake in the fruit of the gods - I sure hope it’s not on an island full of coconuts, but rather on a winery in south of france.
Until then, we’ll keep searching together…
Dr. Alexes Hazen