HFG dietitian Zoe Wilson reveals the real reasons why traditional diets don’t work – and the new approach that will see you keep the weight off for life.
It seems almost every day there’s a new miracle weight loss plan, promising you’ll shed kilos in just five days – or even less. While it sounds very tempting, research strongly shows us these diets don’t work. Sure, if you follow the plan for a time you’ll most likely lose a bit of weight, sometimes even quickly. But eventually, you’ll stop the diet and in the overwhelming majority of cases, be likely to put the weight back on – plus a few extra kilos.
Successful weight loss is all about creating a healthy relationship with your food and your body. So, what can you do to break out of the cycle of constant dieting? It all comes down to a different, but straightforward, approach to how you look at food, ensuring you keep the weight off for life.
Days of dieting
We know Australia is undergoing an obesity epidemic – currently around two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of children are overweight or obese. Compare this to 1980 when it was the other way around – about 60% of Australian adults were of a healthy weight.
But our fascination with dieting isn’t a new thing. It seems as far back as the times of Hippocrates and Socrates being ‘too fat’ has been frowned upon, with exercise and even vomiting prescribed to ‘cure’ being overweight. There were also times where a more voluptuous figure was considered the ideal – as it was a sign of wealth – but generally, being overweight has been seen as the embodiment of gluttony and something to be avoided. The 19th century saw fad diets surface, with the mass recommendation of the first low-carb diet. Since then, we’ve seen the likes of Atkins, South Beach, Lemon Detox, Fit For Life, the 3-day diet, the HCG diet, Dukan, Zone and Paleo all sweep to the top of the best-seller list, each one promising to be the ultimate solution to all our weight woes. Plus, there have been more meal replacements, laxatives, appetite-suppressants and metabolism boosters than you can poke a stick at. All of these diets have promised to be the cure to all of our weight loss problems. So, why then, do we still have a problem?
Well, quite simply, it’s complicated. We live in a world where there’s so much food that is readily available at all hours. At the same time our lives are more sedentary than at any other time in history. So while governments and health professionals try to figure out policies that may help us, what can we all do to look after our own waistlines?
The damage of the diet cycle
Health professionals recognise there are major problems with the very idea of ‘dieting’. It can damage your metabolism and your relationship with food, leaving you in a worse place than where you began. Dieting can become a vicious cycle. You diet, you fall off the wagon, so you vow to diet again – yet you resent being deprived of food, so you fall off again and suddenly, your weight is see-sawing and you’re at war with food – and your body.
The diet begins
YOU SAY TO YOURSELF
The diet begins
Argh! I'm hungry
Yay, it’s working!
Initial weight-loss (muscle and fat) due to a lack of kilojoules
I’m craving chocolate – I’ll just have one piece!
Famine response – metabolism slows due to lack of kilojoules, loss of muscle and fat storage increases
Now I feel guilty... oh well, I’ve ruined it now, I might as well eat the whole block
Diet ends and you resume old eating habits
I’m such a failure – why can’t I do anything right?
Feast response – weight regain (usually more than you lost) as metabolic rate is still low
I’ll start the diet again tomorrow...
Make peace with food
A growing number of weight loss experts have realised traditional diets don’t work and are warning against dieting and falling into the trap of the diet cycle. There’s now a movement towards a more holistic approach – one that’s more about promoting life-long healthy habits rather than focusing on immediate weight loss. The theory is, if you can develop a healthy relationship with your body, food and exercise, that doesn’t involve guilt and anxiety, you’ll be much more likely to enjoy and maintain a healthy weight for the long term.
A growing body of research is proving the ‘non-diet’ approach is a successful one. A major study recently tested a group of female chronic dieters. For six months, half the group was put on a traditional ‘diet’ that included restricted kilojoule meals, behaviour therapy and exercise, while the other group was allowed to eat normally and do exercise they enjoyed. At the same time they learned about body and self-acceptance, eating behaviours and nutrition and received social support. Two years down the track, the non-dieting group had maintained their weight, were more active and had improved their cholesterol, blood pressure, self-esteem and even reduced symptoms of depression. On the other hand, while the traditional weight loss group lost weight after one year (an average of 5.9kg), two years later they had regained the weight and didn’t see any improvements to their cholesterol, blood pressure, depression or self-esteem.
As these results show, weight management is a strategy for life. In our quick-fix society we may yearn to lose five kilos for that holiday, wedding or special event. But it pays to understand that despite the many tempting claims made by fad diets, this approach isn’t going to give you the lasting results you’re craving.
Furthermore, it’s good to know that, by contrast, this ‘non-diet’ approach does have lasting pay-off for our health and wellbeing – and will give us the mastery of our bodies and a relaxed and positive attitude towards to food.
Anyone who has a negative relationship with food, exercise or their appearance, or anyone who finds it difficult to eat only when they are hungry will be able to improve their health in the long-term. Look out for our next issue featuring a special booklet filled with healthy tips and meal ideas.
Top 10 tips to help break the diet cycle
1. It’s okay to have an ‘imperfect’ meal or snack
You eat three meals a day, seven days a week so if one or two of these meals aren’t great – it’s no big deal!
2. Before you eat, ask: “Am I actually hungry?”
That’s the grumbling, empty tummy hungry – not the ‘I don’t want to sit at my desk anymore’ hungry. If you’re not – why do you want to eat? Is there something else you could do instead? Maybe you could step outside for some fresh air or make a phone call you’ve been meaning to make for a while?
3. Don’t deprive yourself in social settings
Our culture is based around food, so in social situations you may want to join in and that’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up about it. If you’re really not hungry though, adjust your portions so you order an entrée instead of a main, or share a nibble with a friend instead of ordering one each.
4. Have what you really want so you are satisfied
There’s no point in choosing to have a yoghurt or piece of fruit if you really want a piece of chocolate – you’ll feel cheated! Have the piece of chocolate (but just not the whole block) and savour every moment of it!
5. Eat slowly!
Time yourself and try to take at least 20 minutes to eat your meal. This will give your stomach enough time to tell your brain that it is full. To take longer, put your knife and fork down in between mouthfuls, cut your food into smaller pieces and focus on tasting your food.
6. Turn off the TV, computer or phone to enjoy food
By eating with distractions such as this you won’t actually realise that you’ve had your meal or snack, leaving you wanting more when you don’t really need it. Take time out and sit at a table so you can concentrate on what you’re eating.
7. Try and take note of the “sigh moment”
There is a moment when we are eating a meal in which our stomach says it is full. We will often pause and take a big breath. Most of us will miss this cue because there may still be food on our plates – try to notice when this happens and put your knife and fork down.
8. Practise leaving the table satisfied, but not full
There’s a difference between not feeling hungry anymore and feeling stuffed to the brim. Practise listening to your stomach as you eat and try to finish on a ‘hunger scale’ of about 7/10 – with 0/10 being starving and a score of 10/10 being full-to-absolutely bursting.
9. Pretend you’re a critic!
For each mouthful, think about the flavour and texture and look at how appealing the meal is to your eye. By actually appreciating your food, you will feel more satisfied.
10. Use smaller crockery and glassware
This makes a smaller portion look bigger (as it’s still a full plate!), helping you eat less. Replace your dinner plates with entrée size, and 500ml glasses with 250ml.
“I’m so sick of eating like a rabbit – I just want to enjoy myself again”
Zone: “Ahhh – I’ve spent so much money on supplements!”
South Beach: “I’d kill for a slice of white bread”
Paleo: “No dairy, no grains – no fun!”
Lemon detox: “I’m always hungry and I am SO sick of drinking that stuff”
Did you know?
95 per cent of people who diet put the weight they lost back on within 3–5 years.
Australian women spend more than $400 million per year trying to lose weight.