Sunday, February 16, 2014

Diets not worth the deprivation

This week's column, first published in the Sunday Star Times, Sunday 16 February. 

I am no fan of formal diets. That’s because almost every diet restricts or bans something, from individual foods to entire food groups. Restriction and rules mess with our heads: we feel deprived; what’s allowed and not allowed takes on far greater importance than it should. The best case scenario is that we rebel and break the diet. The worst case is that we end up in a pattern of disordered eating that leaves us less healthy (and often heavier) than we were to start with. This cycle of weight gain/loss/regain can last a lifetime, which is what keeps the diet industry going. 

Another thing I distrust about many diets is that their promoters often have an evangelical air. It’s as if this diet is the breakthrough solution for everyone. There’s no allowance that there might be other patterns of eating that could also work. 

Here’s a rundown of some currently popular diets. These will all work for some people. There are good aspects to most. But they all restrict and divide food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ which to me is not healthy or enjoyable.  

Sugar Free
Premise: Sugar is toxic and it’s sugar (especially fructose), not fat, that makes us fat.
What’s not allowed: sugar, honey, fresh and dried fruit, all processed foods containing fructose.
What’s good: Encourages lots of fresh whole foods; lots of vegetables and home cooking. Cutting down added sugar is generally a good idea.
What’s not good: Could lead to unhealthy obsession with cutting out one thing. Potentially difficult to stick to. No fruit!

5:2/intermittent fasting
Premise: Fasting two days a week helps you lose weight and lowers your risk of disease.
What’s not allowed: Nothing is banned, but on two days a week you’re restricted to one meal’s worth of calories.
What’s good: Restricted calories means you will probably lose weight.
What’s not good: The diet teaches nothing about healthy eating. You could follow it while eating a very unbalanced diet. Potentially difficult to stick to and unsociable.

Paleo diet
Premise: We haven’t evolved to a modern diet. Eating like our paleolithic ancestors is better.
What’s not allowed: processed foods, sugar, all grains, all dairy, beans and legumes, vegetable oil, potatoes.
What’s good: Encourages lots of fresh whole food, lots of vegetables, no processed foods.
What’s not good: Lots of restrictions means it could be very difficult to stick to. Vegetarians would struggle. Potentially expensive. Unsociable.

Dukan diet
Premise: Limiting carbohydrates forces your body to burn fat.
What’s not allowed: all carbohydrates.
What’s good about it:
Not much!
What’s not good: Extremely restrictive and unbalanced. Not enough vegetables, fibre or calcium. Unpleasant and unsociable.
So if you’re considering trying any new diet, ask yourself “What am I not allowed to eat on this diet?” If it’s something you think you could live without forever, maybe it’s worth trying. If not, perhaps the old-fashioned approach of ‘a little bit of everything in moderation’ might be worth considering.

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