Health

Good Lessons From Fad Diets

How do the diets du jour stack up?

Photo by Getty Images

High-protein Redux

The premise: Essentially all diets manipulate how we divvy up our intake of the three macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins and fats—and the high-protein, low-carb tactic has been popular ever since the Atkins plan hit the scene. The Dukan Diet, a hot French import reportedly tried by Kate Middleton, is the latest variation on the theme. A few ways the four-stage Dukan strategy (created by Dr. Pierre Dukan) differs from Atkins: The former eschews butter and oil, and it also involves entire days of eating nothing but protein.

The pitfalls: Ramping up your protein intake while eliminating carbs bullies your system into a state called ketosis, during which it resorts to using fat as an energy source. “When you don’t have carbohydrates in your body, you make carbohydrates from fat, but it’s a strain on your body. It can be hard on your kidneys,” warns Jennifer Hill, registered dietitian and owner of Foodie Nutrition, a counselling practice in Vancouver. Plus, a carb famine will trigger low blood sugar and all the inconvenient side effects (low energy, lack of concentration, dizziness, nausea) that come with it. “Carbohydrates are your brain’s and your muscles’ preferred fuel source,” says Hill.

The lessons to learn: A diet that increases your protein intake can indeed work, clarifies Calgary-based registered dietitian Lindy Kennedy, but you don’t have to take it to extremes—you need not have protein-only days or view carbs as the enemy. Protein’s advantage is that it makes us feel fuller longer, giving a meal staying power, which is why you should include some every time you eat. “Normally, for a healthy individual, I’d recommend a protein intake between 10 and 25 percent of their total calories,” explains Kennedy. “For someone in the initial stages of a weight-loss program, I’d probably creep them up to the higher end of that range.” That way, she says, you can gradually trim calories while still feeling full.

Baby Food Cleanse

The premise: Reportedly a Hollywood invention for the celebrity set, this diet involves eating 14 jars of puréed food throughout the day (instead of breakfast, lunch and snacks), capped by a balanced dinner.

The pitfalls: “It’s kind of a new version of the cabbage soup diet—perhaps even less tasty than the cabbage soup diet,” says Hill, who doubts anyone could happily sustain it in the long run, or meet all their nutrient requirements with it.

The lessons to learn: “Essentially what is happening is they are limiting their portion sizes,” says Kennedy. “What diets can often teach someone is about the portion sizes they’re consuming. A lot of people will have to reflect on what they are currently doing—it might be an eye-opener.” You can also gauge your real intake and where you can trim the fat, so to speak, by crunching numbers with a calorie calculator and food log such as MyFoodDiary.com. You might notice diet-sabotaging patterns, such as a penchant for sugary pop, and find ways to scale back almost painlessly. “If you consume 2,500 calories a day, for example,” says Kennedy, “could you go on 2,000 calories a day and see results? Yes, you can, and it’s not a starvation diet by any means.”

Cookie Diet

The premise: This meal-replacement plan is based on eating six prepackaged, low-calorie cookies per day—they’re specially designed to keep your appetite in check with ingredients such as amino acids (proteins) and fibre—followed by a “sensible” dinner.

The pitfalls:
While eating these cookies beats skipping meals or scarfing down fast food, the products are still largely artificial, says Mary Bamford, registered dietitian and owner of Essence Nutrition Counselling in Toronto. And the diet is a Band-Aid solution since it doesn’t address the root cause of why an individual may be overweight—whether it’s emotional overeating, a couch-potato lifestyle and/or a lack of healthy meal planning. “Just giving someone a lab concoction of amino acids baked into something that somewhat resembles a food doesn’t teach anyone how to feed themselves,” Hill says. And losing weight for good is heavily dependent on making lasting behavioural changes.

The lessons: This diet works for some because it’s based on controlling hunger, but there are other ways to accomplish the same ends. First off, if you get so ravenous that you want to eat the fridge by dinnertime, chances are you’re not starting the day with a substantial breakfast that includes protein, says Bamford. In her view, the cookie diet is not necessarily wrong for people looking for a short-term way to “get things back in order” and lose a couple of pounds—say, after an all-you-can-eat summer vacation. But planning your own wholesome snacks (think: zero-fat Greek yogourt topped with fruit, or a Ziploc packed with celery, carrots and cherry tomatoes) would work just as well. Finally, hunger isn’t always such a bad thing—we just have to learn how to manage and interpret it, says Hill. Heed when your body says it’s running on empty, then eat something wholesome until you reach the point of satisfaction—but not until you feel busting-out-of-your-pants full.

Stone Age-inspired

The premise: Not pitched as a slim-fast plan but rather a model for optimum health, the now-trendy Paleo Diet emulates the retro eating patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, favouring lean meats, seafood and unlimited amounts of low-glycemic-index fresh fruits and vegetables. What’s forbidden: dairy and grains—that’s two out of the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide—and anything unnatural (prefab or processed).

The pitfalls:
The biggest drawback is not what the diet promotes but bans: whole grains, legumes and milk products, which are all very nutritious, says Hill, noting that the diet lacks calcium and vitamin D, necessitating a supplement.

The lessons to learn: “Nobody ever got fat eating fruits and vegetables,” says Hill. “And I think if you are filling up on foods high in fibre and high in nutrients, with lots of water content, it’s a reasonable way to try to maintain your weight.” Plus, if you’re snubbing all processed fare, you’ll make a dramatic dent in your sodium consumption—key for preventing high blood pressure and lowering your risk of heart disease. “Seventy-five percent of our sodium intake in North America comes from processed foods,” Hill says.

Skinny Veganism

The premise: While veganism in general doesn’t centre on weight loss, some devotees (such as the authors of the Skinny Bitch diet guide) tailor the philosophy—no meat or any other animal products—toward slimming down by advocating an extremely low-calorie version.

The pitfalls: Vegans have to be super careful to meet their nutrient needs, warns Bamford. For instance, they have no way of getting vitamin B12 or the ideal omega-3s (EPA and DHA) from their diets. “Vegans need a DHA supplement,” says Bamford, who suggests they consider bending the rules and taking sustainably farmed fish oil. They should also get lots of protein at every meal and every snack—not just a token bunch of nuts but “significant portions” of foods such as tofu, tempeh and legumes. But “the only complete protein you would get out of there is the soybean,” says Kennedy. A complete protein has the right balance of all nine essential amino acids, but vegetable sources are nearly all incomplete, so you have to combine foods to meet your body’s needs. On the flip side, many vegans overdo one nutrient in particular: “I find a lot of vegetarians and vegans are actually carb-etarians. They eat a lot of pasta, rice and noodle soups,” says Bamford. “And being a carb-etarian is not great for your health, unless you are a high-performance athlete.”

The lessons to learn: Eating more plant-based foods is a lesson most of us should learn. According to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, more than half of women aged 19 to 50 fail to eat as many vegetables and fruit as Canada’s Food Guide urges (at least five servings a day). One vegan practice you should borrow even if you can’t renounce steak: learning to prep and spice up your own meals. In order to make such a restrictive diet interesting and palatable, rather than the cliché mush, you have no choice but to become a much better cook, says Bamford. The side effect: You’re likely to become more conscious of what’s going into your food and make it more balanced. “Having more home-cooked meals tends to lead toward a healthier diet,” Bamford says. Plus, she adds, veganism is the least environmentally impactful way of living: “If we all did one vegan meal a day, the planet would be doing well.