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LIFE & LEISURE
At this time of the year, fad diets seem to be particularly
popular as many people start the New Year resolving to
lose the extra weight they put on over the past 12 months.
What these diets offer certainly is tempting: Almost instant
results, usually without the need for exhausting workouts.
It doesn’t help that these diet descriptions usually appear
alongside the image of a person shaped just as you want
to be: Slim, toned and healthy looking. You’ll hear that
inner voice whispering seductively in your ear, “Wouldn’t
you like to look like that?”
The trap of the scales
Try to resist the siren song of the fad diet. Like many
“get rich quick” schemes, “get slim quick” fad diets don’t
create the nutritional foundation that will enable you
to reach your goal weight and give up dieting for ever.
These bewitching diets may certainly get you results in
the short-term, but in the long-
term you can set yourself up
for metabolic disruption that
could sentence you to yo-yo
dieting throughout your life.
That’s because your metabolism
doesn’t understand dieting.
When you suddenly and drastically reduce the number of
calories you eat, way below what your body needs to remain
in energy balance, your metabolism assumes that food is
now in short supply, and that you’re actually in danger of
starving. This is an old survival technique from the Stone
Age, when food shortages could actually mean starvation.
When you start a low-calorie fad diet your body doesn’t
extract the calorie deficit from your fat cells; it reaches for
more easily accessible energy stored in your muscles. Why?
It’s easier from a biochemical perspective. Muscle cells
are constantly hungry for calories, because they’re often
working; helping you stay upright, walk, talk, even just eye
movement calls for muscle action. Despite the importance
of muscles, your body gets rid of these energy-burning
cells as a priority, as if there really is a food shortage. It
thinks you’d better preserve the fat deposits for as long as
possible – just in case things get worse.
As a result, you’re likely to become lighter but flabbier.
And that’s where the fad diet can really trick you. Muscle
cells are heavier than fat cells, but take up less space.
So a heavily muscled person may look slim, but weigh
much more on the scales than you would expect. As you
lose muscle cells during this fad diet, the numbers on the
scales are likely to go down. In the beginning it may seem
like you’re winning, but there will be a backlash.
Your metabolism doesn’t understand you
Remember that your body thought it was starving? Well,
when you end the fad diet your body now thinks the food
supply has been restored, at least for the time being.
However, it will still remain unconvinced about your food
security. That means every calorie you ingest will now
be carefully stored. And if you’re not stimulating muscle
growth with exercise, those calories are unlikely to be
diverted to your muscles. Instead, they’ll be pushed into
fat storage. The weight you lost, and some, will pile back
on because you don’t have as many muscle cells as you
used to, which means your calorie needs are now lower.
Here’s the next big trap of the fad diet: Faced with an
increasing waistline after you return to “normal” eating,
you may make the assumption that going on the next
popular fad diet is the answer. Unfortunately, what you’re
doing is presenting your metabolism with an ongoing
famine and feast cycle. Some people remain trapped within
this vicious dieting cycle, alternating between feelings of
extreme deprivation during the diet followed by tears of
frustration as they attempt (unsuccessfully) to return to real
life eating without packing on the
It’s an impossible paradox
for dieters: Your muscle cells
contribute more to your
metabolic speed (burning
calories) than your fat cells, but
they’re the first to be deprived when food is in short
supply. Thus, when regular food supply resumes, your
muscle cells won’t be first in line for energy nourishment
unless they’re actively in use through exercise.
How to get results
If you want a metabolism that allows you to lose weight
and keep it off, there is a way. However, it won’t offer you
the instant gratification a fad diet entices you with.
First, plan a balanced diet that’s right for you. If
you’re unsure about the right diet, a consultation with a
nutritionist or dietitian could be a good investment. They
will help you plan, keep you on track, and ensure your
nutritional needs are met.
Second, exercise really is essential. Our bodies are
designed for movement and stagnate with too much
inactivity. Again, if you’re unsure, some professional
guidance is advised. Your doctor can point you in the
direction of an exercise physiologist or appropriately
trained fitness professional.
Last, be patient! Expect that you won’t see discernible
change until after about 12 weeks. But as you progress
you’ll be rewarded with a metabolism that feels secure
about your food supply and tolerates the occasional
treat without packing on weight. You’ll be more toned
and feel more energetic. And ultimately you’ll be able to
enjoy the admiring comments you receive – because you
Olwen Anderson is a naturopathic nutritionist. Visit
Fad diets don’t create
the nutritional foundation
that will enable you to
reach your goal weight.
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