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    Fad Diets and You

    With the abundance of diet information that can be found both online and in television infomercials, I thought it might be a good idea to clear the waters a bit when it comes to fad diets and eating programs. It’s easy to fall prey to the spectacular claims of advertisers. My purpose in writing this post is to put all the hype into perspective.

    One of the most common diets I see advertised on TV (I shan’t specifically name it for fear of corporate retribution) recommends that you buy all your food (well, most of it anyway) from them, eat according to their plan, and watch the weight melt off. In essence their claim is true, but it is also disingenuous and self-serving. The plan is based on caloric restriction, which is good because calories eaten must be lower than calories burned in order to drop fat. However, the plan is based on the 3 meals/day with a dessert, which, as I pointed out in the article Eating in a Nutshell, is not the optimal eating schedule because it leaves 'hungry holes' in your day during which we might be prone to cheating. Snacks are recommended by the program designers but not provided by the company to the customer. You have to purchase them separately from the store.

    Of course, the program is self-serving in that the company is in business to turn a profit. For roughly $300 per month, the company will basically prepare your foods for you and deliver them to your front door. In theory this sounds fine - except for the price tag. If you’re anything like me, $300 might seem a bit steep for feeding just one member of the family. Throw in those non-program snacks, and that total is even higher. A cost-effective this program is not, at least not for an average guy such as myself.

    Further, the program teaches you nothing about preparing your own healthy meals; the presumption, I suppose, is that you will continue to eat their program food for life? If one is to experience a lifestyle of health and fitness, we can't rely on a self-interested corporation to feed us every meal every day for the rest of our lives. We have to gather some knowledge and exercise some personal initiative.

    Having said all that, let’s examine a few of the other potential dietary disasters you should avoid.

    Low-Carb/No Carb Diets

    The low-carb diet program is finally seeing a slow decline, but not so long ago it seemed like everyone thought no-carb was THE way to drop fat. Now, before someone sends me a message saying that the no-carb diet saved their life, let me just say that it is possible to lower body fat percentages and reduce weight with a low-carb diet. The reasons for the drop in weight, however, are simply due to caloric restriction and not what the low-carb gurus claim are the reasons for weight loss.

    Let’s take a couple of examples from my own low-carb diet days (away back in 2001 or so). I love pizza. When I went to a pizza restaurant with friends or family, I would eat my usual 2-3 slices of pizza, but without the crust. I just ate the toppings right off the pizza. Which has more calories? 3 whole slices of pizza, or 3 slices of pizza with no crust? No crust means about 300 fewer calories. That means I'm eating fewer calories than I was before I started the low-carb diet.

    I used to love bacon cheeseburgers (still do actually, but I don't eat them very often any more). No-carb means no bun. 2 bacon cheeseburgers without the bun have fewer calories. It’s a no-brainer. Fewer calories eaten means better potential for dropping pounds.

    Where the low-carb plan really has its problems is in the ability of an individual to stick to the diet as a lifestyle. Can you really live the rest of your life never eating another piece of birthday cake or having another piece of bread? I’m guessing 'no' on that one. Eventually, low-carb dieters return to eating carbohydrates, and when they do their weight very rapidly returns to pre-diet weight (or higher) due to the preference of muscle tissue to absorb carbohydrates and store them as glycogen. Every long-term no-carb dieter I’ve ever met looked gaunt and unhealthy in mid-diet because their protein-only intake did not measurably add to their muscle mass. Once the dieter resumed eating carbs, their muscle and fatty tissues ballooned, and their weight logically followed suit.

    A low carb diet can be an effective short-term start to a fitness program, but it should be no longer than a week in duration. Any longer, and you risk sacrificing muscle mass in favor of fat loss.

    Food-Specific Diets

    Ever heard of these kinds of diets? They say to eat only this food or that food on a daily basis and you will lose weight. Here’s a point - boredom is one of the biggest killers of motivation when it comes to shedding unwanted fat. If I was expected to eat oatmeal 4 times a day every day for 2 weeks, I think I’d wind up tossing myself in a freezing lake at around day 3. Redundant eating plans that fail to include at least the opportunity for variety are just not going to last, never mind the fact that once the dieter resumes a more logical eating plan he is likely going to regain any weight dropped during the food-restrictive diet.

    Liquid Diets

    Shake for breakfast, shake for dinner and a sensible dinner. Sounds great, huh? Not when you consider that the “shake” in question is loaded with refined sugar, lacks sufficient protein, and only has 220 calories. Even with your “sensible dinner,” caloric values for the day will likely be between 1000 and 1200 calories per day. You could drop weight with this dietary regimen by just sitting on a couch all day drinking shakes, but it wouldn’t be healthy. Such a low calorie intake has very unpleasant side effects that include muscle catabolism (wearing away of muscle tissue), fatigue, inability to focus, nausea, and a whole host of other problems.

    Meal replacement powders can be a meaningful part of your fat-trimming plan, but making any liquid meal replacement the central component of your dietary regimen is not going to yield the long-term results of a healthy body.

    Eating Only/No Exercise Programs

    Any program that promises that you can drop fat without workouts isn't worth the time or money invested. Simply, the program will likely consist of severe caloric restriction in order to overcome the lack of metabolic activity normally afforded by exercise. Even when body fat percentages are low enough to be noticeable, the body will look emaciated and thin because there is no muscle tone. If the goal is to be thin, then a no-exercise program of caloric deprivation will do the trick. It will not, however, result in a beach body that will turn heads when the shirt is off.

    Most people already live their lives without exercise, and most people (in the US at least) are overweight. The only real, effective plan for dropping fat and developing the body's musculature and fitness level is to combine a dietary regimen that is balanced with clean proteins, carbs and fats with a exercise regimen that combines weights and cardiovascular training.

    Putting It All Together

    Fad diets or program diets fail for a very simple reason - they cannot permanently replace otherwise normal eating habits. They work in the short term because they force the body (usually by severe caloric restriction) to initially release fat for fuel. However, once the dieter resumes a balanced diet, the weight they lost with their program is often regained rapidly and often in higher amounts than what was lost (as is inevitable with program diets).

    As with most things, balance is key. Harmonizing dietary intake with a plan that can be maintained long-term is the key to success. If you want a simple, easy-to-understand approach to eating for fat loss, read the article Eating in a Nutshell. Follow the plan for at least 6 days per week, and you will definitely see an improvement in your body fat percentages (assuming you are exercising for 5-6 days a week as well).

    Be well!