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Why New Year diets don’t work

New-Year-New-You-blog-post_80991165I’m sure we’ll all be happy to see 2016 consigned to the compost bin of time but is Jan 1st 2017 the best time to decide to lose weight with the new diet trend you read in a blog?  I’m all for making healthier choices but while these popular diets might offer initial success, you’ll find the weight loss tapering off and unhealthy habits creeping back in.  Here’s why most fad diets fail.


What happens when you diet?

Generally, you reduce the number of calories you eat and often you eat lots of new healthier foods like vegetables, salads, high protein and high fibre foods and cut out foods with lots of added sugar and salt.  You may exclude whole food groups or opt for low fat or low carb, high fat eating plans.  Regardless, all diets generally result in you consuming fewer calories than your body is used to.


To lose weight, you must consume fewer calories than your body burns.  This is simple physics.  Our bodies use the energy we consume via food and drink to fuel 3 things: the resting metabolism (which is the energy needed to keep us alive, keep our lungs breathing and heart beating), digestion (breaking down and absorbing food actually requires energy, with protein requiring the most energy to digest) and activity (exercise, daily movement and fidgeting).  So by reducing the number of calories you eat and increasing your activity (and potentially the cost of digestion if you opt for a high protein diet), you should lose weight.


You’ll often see articles that quote the rule that to lose 1lb a week, you have to eat 500 calories less a day.  The problem with this conventional wisdom is that, as you lose weight, at least one if not all three of the determinants of energy expenditure change.  For example, as you lose weight, you literally have less body to keep alive – less fat, less muscle, so the resting metabolism will fall and you will need fewer calories to stay the same weight.  The energy cost of activity will also be less because you have less weight to move.  And depending on the diet you are on, you might expend less energy on digestion.  The bottom line is, as you lose weight, you have to work harder to either maintain that new weight or lose more.  This is the depressing reality of diets and why many fail.  For an excellent, in-depth (with maths!) explanation of the above, check out Precision Nutrition’s article on metabolic damage.


Why can’t I stick to a diet?

When you embark upon the latest diet from a magazine, blog or book, you usually have to change pretty much everything you are used to doing.  You may be eating lots of new foods, cooking from scratch when you previously haven’t, eating at different times than usual and eating less than you’re used to.  You might also be trying to deal with this alongside cooking for a family (who may or may not be participating in said diet), attending work commitments, going on family trips out or social events and doing all the things that generally make up life as you know it.  These activities usually make sticking to a rigid set of diet rules more difficult!


At first, the novelty of the new regime, along with the initial water weight loss you tend to see in the first few days, will keep you going for a couple of weeks, after which, it becomes harder to maintain your new lifestyle, particularly if the rest of the family or your friends or partner aren’t doing it too.  The really ultra-restrictive plans that cut out grains, carbohydrates or dairy, for example, might deliver initial weight loss but they are crushingly hard to maintain in the long term and can in fact result in deficiencies of vital nutrients.  For more on fad diets, check out last year’s New Year, New You blog.


So what should I do?

Instead of radically overhauling your lifestyle in one go, opt for simpler, more sustainable changes and introduce them gradually.  Work out what is realistic for your lifestyle and work/family commitments and take it step by step.

  1. Healthy snack swaps – banish biscuits, cakes and crisps (or at least buy fewer and make them less accessible in the kitchen so you’re less tempted to snack) and instead have a well-stocked fruit bowl on display and chopped fruit and veg with yoghurt and dips like hummus or cream cheese, prominent in the fridge. Having healthy snacks visible and accessible means you’re less likely to choose the less nutritious option.
  2. Slowly decrease your portion sizes – try eating off smaller plates so you naturally eat less and only go back for seconds if you’re GENUINELY still hungry.
  3. Don’t drink your calories – drinks, especially sugary ones, are an easy way to consume extra calories without even realising and they don’t fill you up as much as meals so can really contribute to over-consumption. Switch to low calorie drinks like tea, coffee, water and calorie free soft drinks.  There are lots of flavoured waters around, infused with fruit extracts that don’t contain sweeteners so they have a natural taste.  You can even buy water bottles that contain a capsule for fruit or veg, which allows you to create your own naturally flavoured water.
  4. Be booze-wise – cutting down on alcohol isn’t just good for your liver; it also helps reduce calorie intake too. Alcoholic drinks contain a lot of calories (a glass of wine is 175kcal, which is the same as 2 bourbon biscuits and a pint of beer is 215kcal, the equivalent to a packet of crisps – see here for more information).  Alternate alcoholic drinks for non-alcoholic ones.  Fizzy water with a twist of lime in a pretty glass still feels special and you can even buy non-alcoholic spirits that are calorie free but give you a sense of real indulgence.
  5. Chew slowly – taking time to eat helps you savour the taste of a meal and enjoy it more but it also helps your brain to catch up with your stomach before you’ve become overly full.
  6. Identify hunger – are you ACTUALLY hungry or just bored? Could you be thirsty?  Are you in need of an emotional pick me up in the form of a biscuit?  There are many reasons why we feel ‘phantom hunger’.  Before you reach for the snack tin, ask yourself “Am I so hungry that I would eat raw broccoli right now?”  If the answer is no, then you may not be truly hungry (unless you REALLY love raw broccoli).
  7. Reassess your plate – what does your plate look like when you have your evening meal? In reality, about half your plate should be veg, with a fist sized amount of potato, rice or other starchy foods and a palm sized amount of protein food like fish, chicken or meat alternative (like tofu).  This is a handy rule of thumb you can use when serving food.
  8. Take a hike – you don’t have to join the queue at the gym in the New Year! Walking is a great, low impact way to exercise and you can work it into your daily routine.  Pop out at lunchtime for a walk round the block, go to a local park at weekends, take the stairs rather than the lift, park a bit further away from the shops or office or get off the bus or tube a few stops early so you can walk the rest of the way.
  9. Fidget! OK so don’t annoy your co-workers and family by constantly bouncing around but fidgeting burns more calories than sitting perfectly still, so shift your position, have a stretch and get up from your chair every 30-40 minutes or so.  You’ll stretch your muscles out and burn more calories.


Take it slowly, be realistic about what you can sustain and make changes gradually.  It’s a lot easier and healthier than a juice cleanse!


Banner image from https://unsplash.com/@oshakey

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