Within the multi-billion dollar diet industry, there are many different types of diets and products that apparently facilitate weight-loss. Which diet is the best to help you achieve a healthy weight? It seems that every diet book has its own answer. Do contemporary diets really help you achieve a healthy weight, safely and permanently?
A healthy weight is a body weight that prevents or reduces your risk of chronic disease in later life. This optimal body weight is usually established in the late teenage/young adult years. Health Canada has healthy weight charts that use Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine ideal weights that relates to your height. An optimal BMI will fall between 18.5 and 24.9. Yet BMI is not the only tool. Waist circumference can also be used to determine the location of body fat in the abdominal region, which is highly related to chronic disease risk. Having a waist circumference greater than 40 inches (100cm) for males and 35 inches (90cm) for females, means a higher risk of chronic illnesses. Nevertheless, these guidelines are certainly not infallible. People who might be considered overweight or underweight may remain healthy and be free from chronic disease.
Optimal weight can vary depending on height. The taller a person is, the more room there is for weight fluctuation. For example, a healthy weight for a man, five feet four inches (162cm) tall, could be anywhere between 120 and 140 pounds (54 and 63kg), while a man at six feet two inches (188cm) could weigh anywhere from 150 to 190 pounds. However, contemporary diets don’t take the range of healthy weights into account and tend to focus solely on losing weight.
Most diets follow a standard format. Eliminate certain foods and the excess body weight will melt away.
These diets often claim to be supported by scientific evidence that certain types of food can help with weight loss. Dr. Sally Willis-Stewart, director of the Nutrition Education Centre at UBC-Okanagan says, “This truth is often exaggerated and the whole health spectrum tends to get ignored. Fad diets tend to take one small truth and advertise it as the reason why people are overweight or unhealthy. This exaggeration confuses people with what they think they know about health.”
Diets can also be quite restrictive, either you eat less food or avoid specific types of food. This overall restriction of calories is the main contributor to initial weight loss. When the body is deprived of calories, it can make staying on the diet more challenging as the body is not getting the nutrients it needs. Lauren Olson, psychology major at UBC-Okanagan, has tried several diets and knows how restrictive they can be. “I never felt fully satisfied. Even after I was done eating a large meal, I still wanted more.” Despite the pains of caloric restriction, losing weight on a diet is not the hard part; it’s keeping it off for the longer term, that is the real challenge.
When food-calorie restriction has gone on for a long time, the body adapts to the reduced daily intake. Subsequently, the body’s metabolism slows down. The individual is then poised to gain the weight back easily when more calories are reintroduced. The slowed metabolism taxes the body mentally and physically and cravings can become unbearable; enabling the dieter to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. “This allows someone to fall back to old, unhealthy habits that they were trying to rid themselves of in the first place,” says Willis-Stewart.
When the breaking point eventually occurs, the body realizes this is a chance to store food, as it may not have another opportunity like this in the near future. This can lead to a rapid regaining of the lost weight. Eighty-five percent of people lose weight while dieting, but only fifteen percent keep the weight off for at least two years. “I was allowed to have chips on my diet [because they were raw vegan], but what I would do is eat too much of them,” recalls Olson. “Afterwards, I would feel guilty about eating them and then go back to being extremely strict.” Because of the body’s slowed metabolism, weight can be gained in excess, even exceeding the levels prior to the diet. Caloric restriction, or dieting, followed by cheating, or binging, is known as the dieting-binging cycle. Once on the dieting-binging cycle, the desire to go on a diet becomes relevant again.
This fluctuation in weight can also have an adverse impact on an individual’s overall health. “Long-term effects of dieting-binging cycles can cause hormone irregularities or organ problems, mood disorders, such as depression or eating disorders, or even reproductive problems,” says Willis-Stewart. Long-term failure rate with diets can have a negative effect on the individual’s self-efficacy (an individual’s belief that they can execute a behavior); making it seem that they do not have what it takes to reach a healthy weight. This failure can also negatively affect motivation and the individual may begin feeling that they have tried everything and will never achieve a healthy weight.
So, how do you achieve that goal if not by dieting? Adopting a healthy lifestyle is the key to attaining and maintaining a healthy weight. Altering your behaviours over a long period of time is the ideal way to ensure a healthy weight is maintained. Eating a little less at every meal and focusing on being more active throughout the day are two great tools that everyone can adopt to achieve a healthy weight. The Okanagan provides countless places where it is easy to be active. Take advantage of the local setting and explore what it has to offer.
Eating healthier foods, such as fruits and vegetables, is another great way to reduce the number of calories consumed. Not only are fruits and vegetables lower in calories, they are also nutritional powerhouses that can enhance your body’s ability to achieve a healthy weight. Many of these fruits and vegetables are also grown close to home. With the Okanagan’s many orchards and farmers’ markets, it can be fun and easy to choose these foods more frequently. Canada’s Food Guide is an excellent resource to help determine the types of foods and how much to eat, based on age and sex. The Dieticians of Canada have also developed a great online tool, eaTracker.com, which can help you monitor food intake and exercise, as well as setting and accomplishing goals.
Don't get caught up in the latest trend for quick and easy weight-loss. There is no magic pill or cutting-edge diet that will help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Making gradual changes, being consistent and working hard is the guaranteed way to achieve that goal long-term. If a book or article makes claims that sound too good to be true, you can be assured, those claims are likely false. Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is a lifelong process.
By Eric Beech & Gareth Jones, PhD
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