Concomitant with declining health levels (stemming from unhealthy diets) has been an increasing awareness of the impact such a decline is having on the population, as a whole: more sick days and a general lack of productivity, lowered quality of life and life expectancy, and poor body image.
The last of these is possibly the most concerning for the majority of those experiencing obesity, or any undesirable weight gain. Indeed, weight loss for aesthetic reasons rates as one of the highest motivators among the burgeoning number of dieters and gym goers, perhaps because it is the most obvious negative symptom linked to undesirable weight gain.
However, despite an increasing number of people actively seeking to lose excess weight, incidences of obesity continue to rise (NIH, 2005). Granted, there are many who do, and continue to, lose weight. These people are to be commended. However, there are as many, if not more, who fail.
An inadequate diet is one of the more common reasons given for weight loss failure. But aren't diets supposed to enhance weight loss efforts? It depends.
Strictly speaking, a diet comprises anything a person eats, or drinks, over the course of a day. Whatever one chooses to eat, irrespective of whether they have a specific goal, or not can be classed as a diet.
Diets can also be tailored to meet a wide range of physical targets, weight loss being one of the more common of these. In addition, diets can be designed to help a person gain weight (as in an off season bodybuilding diet), or remain at a particular weight (a maintenance diet).
How does one choose the perfect diet, if indeed there is such a thing?
Given the scope of this article, of weight loss and well being, I will present several dietary guidelines and review some of the more common diets of relevance to these. Before doing this, I feel it is important to point out that the diets featured in this article, although successful in some contexts, are not perfect, and should not be taken as the Gospel. Thus, a realistic, workable, weight-loss solution will be featured as an alternative.
What Weight-Loss Diets Should Feature
In the interests of health and well-being, and for successful weight-loss, a diet should include the following.
1: A Tailored Number Of Calories
The problem with many diets, and one of the primary reasons so many fail, is the emphasis that is often placed on calorie restriction. A diet with too few calories might lead to binging (due to the diets low satiety value) and/or a slower metabolic rate.
Both these variables will have a deleterious impact on fat-loss. A diet too low in calories might result in the dieter seeking out more satisfying (often fat-loaded) foods, in order to restore homeostasis (the body's physiological equilibrium).
Indeed, ask any bodybuilder who cheats during a dieting phase and they will probably say their bodies needed the additional calories. If too few calories are consumed, the metabolic rate might also slow to the point where the process of losing any additional body-fat becomes increasingly harder (the metabolic rate controls the rate at which the body burns fuel; eg food).
If the body is not given sufficient fuel, it will retain that which it has stored: fat. Therefore, a good rule, with any diet, is to include enough food to supply the vital calories needed for mental, emotional and physical well-being; in addition to fat-loss. That way, there will be no need to eat harmful foods, and fat stores will be burned at a faster rate.
On the flip side, ultra-low-calorie diets might result in drastic weight-loss, especially if exercise is included.
Try to ensure weight loss of no more than one-pound-per-week, otherwise this weight could be muscle (and muscle is beneficial in terms of helping to burn fat). In saying this, during the first two weeks, weight loss might naturally occur at more than one-pound-per-week due to the initial water loss that accompanies all diet plans.
Too determine the exact number of calories needed for steady weight-loss, it is important to firstly factor in the weight of the dieter and their activity level.
Obviously, a lower number of calories would be prescribed, in addition to a greater emphasis on physical activity, if the dieter was significantly obese and their activity level was low. However, once again, in order to ensure a heightened metabolic rate, calorie intake should not be dropped too low.
The key is to know exactly what types of foods elicit the greatest fat-loss (these will be discussed later). Indeed, there is no real one size fits all approach to fat-loss. It pays to tailor caloric intake to suit the specific needs of the dieter.
2: An Emphasis On Good Nutrition
A diet should be nutritionally balanced, if good health and well-being, in addition to weight loss, is to be achieved. Use a food pyramid to ensure the diet contains all the essential nutrients needed for good health.
There is really no point in trying to lose weight on a diet that promotes ill-health in other measures such as, psychological well-being, muscle, physical performance and internal organs.
Weight-loss should be part of a holistic (all parts of the whole) approach to good health and well-being. As such, a wide range of nutrients should be included in ones diet plan. These include:
Vitamins & Minerals:
Fruits and vegetables will supply these, but it is also advisable to take a good
multivitamin supplement, just to make sure.
Carbs are needed as an energy supply, and to offset fatigue. It is recommended that one eat six-11 servings from the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group. At least 100 grams of carbohydrate are needed daily to maintain good health, and prevent fatigue.
According to The National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases, the average woman 25 years of age and older should get 50 grams of
protein each day, with 65 grams for the average man of the same age.
Again, this could be classed as low, taking into account activity level and size of the individual. Protein is important because it repairs muscles and other cells of the body.
For dieters, protein helps to speed up the metabolism - more so than fat or carbohydrate. Two to three servings should come from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and nuts. More for bodybuilders wanting to lose fat, as they have a higher level of muscle mass to support.
Fiber helps with bowel function and is essential in terms of fat-loss (it is also thought to cleanse fat from the bowel). 20-30 grams per day is the suggested intake.
Although low on the list,
fat, interestingly, is very important for overall health. The type of fat needed to maintain, or improve, health is the unsaturated type.
Saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature, are the ones to watch out for. These will clog up the arteries and contribute to fat gain.
It is suggested that no more than 30 percent of ones calories should come from fat (with no more than 10-percent coming from the saturated type).
Water is a vital element of any diet. It helps with food metabolism and general health. At least 8-10 glasses per day is recommended (more if one exercises).
The suggestions above are based on what would suit the average person. However, given there is no "average" person, these can be used as a guideline.
4: A Fitness Component
With any diet, it is advisable to include a fitness component to assist with weight loss, and the attainment of good health. When choosing the right type of program, it is important to ensure all aspects of fitness are considered.
For example, aerobic exercise and strength training work in tandem to ensure the metabolism functions efficiently, and muscle is gained, while fat is lost.
Flexibility is also important health component as this helps the muscles to recover and enables one to perform at a higher levels regardless of the task (this improved performance also helps with fat-loss).
To diet without regular exercise is a big mistake, because one would need to severely restrict their calories in order to effectively burn fat, in the absence of regular, planned, physical activity.
By exercising, more calories can be consumed (as more will be burned during, and after, activity), making dieting less of an arduous process. The dieter would then be less likely to binge, an act that would significantly set back their progress.
The best type of exercise for fat burning purposes is aerobic (sustained, low intensity activity), and should be performed for at least 30 minutes, three times per week.
Aerobic exercise will directly burn fat, as it predominantly uses fat for fuel. Weight training, on the other hand, will build muscle, which indirectly burns fat due to its metabolically active properties.
Types Of Diet
There are at least five types of diet. If planning to use any of these, it is important to choose one that is in keeping with ones specific requirements.
Whether there be certain allergies, convenience factors, or social context to consider, either of these strategies should be chosen as a workable solution, not something that will inevitably fail.
1: Exchange-Type Diet
This diet is based upon food selection and serving size. As set number of servings (equal in calories) from each of the food groups comprises the exchange-type meal plan.
The good thing about this approach is the emphasis on choice and variety. For example, for breakfast the dieter might choose from either two slices of bread or one cup of oatmeal (as both contain the same number of calories) for their starch component.
Learning the caloric content of foods and knowing which ones to choose from could help one to establish an effective life-long nutritional plan.
2: Flexible Diets
As only one or two dietary components are monitored with this diet, it is up to the individual to make the right choices. For example, the diet might ask for one to monitor only the fat content of their foods. However, it doesn't take into account factors such as serving size or the different types of allowed food choices.
Too many simple carbohydrate calories (a food that is not monitored), for example, could actually result in excessive weight gain. In saying this, the flexible diet can teach one to control cravings for certain types of food (fat for example).
3: Formula Diets
Formula diets are generally quick-fix solutions to a problem that requires long-term management.
With this diet, one or more meals are replaced with a special formula, which contain carbohydrate, protein and fat in specific ratios. The problem with this approach is most people quickly regain the weight after stopping the diet.
Also, a formula diet does not teach one to make correct nutritional choices, given all the guesswork has been taken out of the equation for them.
4: Fixed-Menu Diet
This diet is one of the easiest to follow, as the right foods have been selected, and a list of these foods is used as a plan from which to prepare meals.
On the flip side, there is a lack of variety among foods, making this diet potentially boring, which could discourage adherence. Also, one would need to have access to the precise types of foods featured in this diet - an unrealistic expectation for the majority of people when one factors in travel, and changing social contexts.
As mentioned, a long term solution is needed to keep the weight off. The fixed menu diet does not really teach adequate food selection skills.
5: Pre-Packaged Meal Diet
This diet stipulates that one buy special pre-packaged meals that come in appropriate serving sizes. Many of these diets fail to effectively teach food selection skills and the nutritional composition of food. They can also be very costly. The popular Jenny Craig diet fits this category.
Many popular diets have taken hold over recent years, propelling the industry, and causing confusion for many. The efficacy of such diets is often questionable, and they should be attempted with a open mind, if at all. A few of the more common ones are reviewed below.
1: The Atkins Diet
This diet has garnered more than its share of controversy. It is founded on four general principles: weight loss, weight maintenance, good health and disease prevention.
- Excludes vegetarians and vegans, due to its emphasis on meat.
- Linked to osteoporosis, heart disease, colon cancer and renal disease.
- High in saturated fats and cholesterol.
- Has a low fiber content.
- Is sometimes below the recommended daily values for several vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium.
- Allows the consumption of fat and protein.
- Steady (and sometimes rapid) weight loss.
- Reduces the intake of sugars and processed grains.
- Reduces appetite.
- Is a lifetime approach to dieting.
- An end to starvation diets.
The basic premise of The Atkins Diet is the restriction of all forms of carbohydrates (simple and refined in particular), and an emphasis on fat and protein.
Many feel that it is impossible to keep the weight off using this diet and condemn its emphasis on meat consumption.
In the "carbohydrates are evil camp" it is thought this diet is the best available for fat-loss and maintenance.
For & Against The Atkins Diet.
2: The Zone Diet
Created by Barry Sears PhD, The Zone Diet, also known as the 40-30-30 diet, due to its suggested ratios of carbohydrates, fats and proteins respectively, is thought to control insulin levels thus preventing fat-storage and tissue inflammation.
- The Zone Diet features sufficient amounts of fruits, low starch vegetables, and is low in saturated fats.
- Restricts low nutrition (refined) carbohydrates.
- If followed correctly, it allows for steady weight loss.
- Complicated and scientific.
- Restricts calorie intake means it's hard to stay on.
- Eliminates some essential vitamins and minerals found in certain founds.
- Expensive to follow.
- Time consuming and inconvenient.
With the regulation of blood sugar through the manipulation of insulin comes a heightened fat-burning effect. With The Zone Diet, no food groups are prohibited, but a heavy emphasis on protein at the expense of carbohydrate is the order of the day.
For & Against The Zone Diet.
3: The Mayo Clinic Diet
Another diet that restricts carbohydrate, the Mayo Clinic Diet is similar in some ways to The Zone Diet, in that meat consumption is encouraged at the expense of carbohydrate.
- Eat until you feel satisfied.
- Allowed to fat and fried foods.
- Can result in immediate weight loss.
- Does not work for long-term weight management.
- Low in complex carbohydrates.
- Fatigue and lack of concentration are side effects.
- Any diet high in fat is dangerous.
In fact, with this diet one is encouraged to eat as much meat as they want. Fried foods are also allowed. The rational for meat and fried foods is they will help to curb the appetite, thus promoting adherence.
The Mayo Diet also encourages the consumption of grapefruit at each meal, for its fat burning properties. The meat and grapefruit are thought to stop the hunger brought about through low complex carbohydrate levels.
The Mayo Diet is thought to promote temporary weight loss at the expense of health according to critics. Although the diet has been promoted on the internet and through word of mouth, it is not official and should be approached with caution.
For & Against The Mayo Diet
4: The Cabbage Soup Diet
This diet is based on a special fat-burning cabbage soup, which is to be consumed frequently throughout the day, along with at least eight glasses of water.
- A do-it-yourself diet.
- Not very complicated to follow.
- A comparatively healthy break from eating junk-food.
- Is not a long-term weight-loss solution.
- Does not have the nutritional balance of some other diets.
- Can be boring.
- Lacks some essential vitamins and minerals.
The soup does not actually have any special fat-burning properties, but is very low in calories. This diet is intended for immediate weight loss over a seven day period.
Other foods (such as fruits, vegetables and meat) are included in the Cabbage Soup Diet, but these are severely restricted. The diet is thought to be easy to follow.
For & Against The Cabbage Soup Diet
5: The South Beach Diet
The South Beach Diet is one of the latest fashionable eating plans. It basic premise is the focus it places on choosing the right types of foods, as opposed to extreme calorie restriction.
As a result, dieters are thought to lose weight, lower their cholesterol, reduce their risk of heart disease and diabetes, and eliminate cravings without feeling hungry.
The South Beach Diet has three phases:
- The 14-day strict phase, where all junk is eliminated and a focus is placed on lean healthy foods.
- The liberal phase, where some of the foods banned from the first phase (such as bread, cereal and oatmeal) are reintroduced
- The weight maintenance phase where a healthy diet is continued indefinitely, or a least until the plan needs to be started again.
For & Against The South Beach Diet
- Potentially sets one up to manage their weight over the long-term.
- Includes a wide range of good quality foods.
- Appears to be scientifically based.
- Bad eating cycles could be broken.
- Much of the initial weight-loss is water.
- Much of the initial weight-loss is regained when carbohydrates are reintroduced.
- Doesn't cater to people who don't eat dairy products.
- A restriction on complex carbohydrates in the initial phase could result in lethargy.
6: The Mediterranean Diet
This diet is purported to be one of the most pleasurable to follow, due to its inclusion of monounsaturated fats and red wine. The Mediterranean Diet is based on the French paradox, where increased consumption of wine and specific fats (olive oil primarily) actually improves health, rather than contribute to disease.
- Has an emphasis on wine and good fats.
- Is thought to lower the risk of heart disease and might control obesity.
- Contains high levels of complex carbohydrates compared to some other diets.
- Low consumption of red meat and eggs might cause deficiencies in some areas (iron for example).
- The beneficial value of wine has not yet been proven.
Red wine is known for its antioxidant and bioflavonoid properties, both of which promote good health. Olive oil, the main monounsaturated fat featured in this diet, has a beneficial effect on the body - unlike the dangerous saturated type.
This diet is thought to be very easy to follow as it does not have a rigid framework, and provides a relatively wide selection of foods. Food to be consumed in larger amounts include, fruits, vegetables, breads and cereals; foods to be eaten in moderation include fish and poultry; and low consumption foods include eggs and red meat.
For & Against The Mediterranean Diet
Toward A More Sensible Approach
Although the dieting approach's featured in this article have certain benefits, they are also, as shown, problematic in some areas. The right diet could be thought of simply as one that works best for a particular individual.
In my view, certain common principals do apply regardless (such as the emphasis on low saturated fats, nutritional balance and moderate to high complex carbohydrates). Ultimately, however, a diet needs to be structured to accommodate individual variability.
Body size and level of activity are two obvious variables to consider when planning a diet. For example, carbohydrate in the evening might be the wrong strategy for the average person trying to lose fat. However, if one exercises at this time, they may require a source of carbohydrate (following training) to promote recovery.
If the training has been intense enough, carbohydrate intake at this time should not contribute to fat gain. This is but one example that underscores the importance of individual differences when planning a diet.
Ultimately, it is important that one choose an eating plan they can live with. The plan should also teach how to select and prepare healthy foods, as well as how to maintain weight-loss (many people do tend to regain lost weight).
Eating a healthful and nutritious diet to maintain new weight, combined with regular physical activity, helps to prevent weight regain. Indeed, physical activity could be the most important step toward a fat-free body.
To recap, a successful diet plan should include:
- Adequate carbohydrates for energy requirements and hunger management.
- Sufficient protein for cellular repair, immune function and general well-being.
- A wide range of nutrients from all the major food groups.
- A vitamin/mineral supplement as insurance.
- Plenty of water (at least eight glasses per day) to flush toxins and help with the metabolizing of foods.
- A good exercise plan: aerobic and weight-training three-four times per week.
- A restriction on harmful saturated fats.
- Beneficial fats such as olive oil and essential fatty acids in the form of Omega-3 and 6.
- An emphasis on manageability: for the diet to work, it must be done over the long term. Consistent results and effective maintenance should be the aim.