Is There a Right Answer in the Dieting Craze?

Fern Wilkinson

Looking for a diet to shift that Easter chocolate? From standard calorie cutting diets like Weightwatchers and carbohydrate restricted diets such as Atkin’s, to more outlandish claims such as the Cabbage soup and Juicing diets, there’s no shortage to choose from.  Despite being bombarded with choice and information telling us how each diet works and why each is best, the proportion of overweight and obese people in the UK continues to rise. How can it be, with so many seemingly successful and miraculous diets available, that we as a nation do not seem to be losing any weight?

People follow diets for any number of reasons, including medical recommendation, ethical or environmental concerns, and religious factors. However, most people who choose to “diet” in the typical sense do so for weight loss –  and for good reason. A 2011 study found that diet was a greater indicator of an individual’s weight than exercise alone. So what happens when you start to diet?

When a person begins a calorie restricted diet, their body begins to run on a calorie deficit. Once the body has burned through it’s available glucose around six hours after eating, it turns to glycogen reserves. These are converted into sugars and burned. However, once this is used up, the body begins to break down fatty acids into smaller molecules called ketone bodies, in a process known as Ketosis, which depletes the fat stores of the body.

Consider though, that many diets don’t just restrict calories. Many restrict other components such as carbohydrate intake as is the case with the Atkins diet which replaces carbs for fat, or the Paleo diet, which swaps them for protein. In both cases, the aim is to feel fuller for longer, since proteins and fats take more energy to digest than carbs, reducing overall calorie intake. If not carefully managed, a lack of fibre and carbohydrates in these diets can lead to some pretty awful side effects, including bloating, lack of energy and constipation!

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Image Credit: Tumblr

It is not a simple matter of moderating food intake, however. The hypothalamus in the brain has a “set point”, which is actually a weight range of around 4.5-6.5 kg, that it attempts to keep the body within by adjusting hunger and metabolic rate. If weight falls below this range, for example because of sudden calorie deficit, the body slows down its metabolic rate, burning between 200-400kcal less per 10% body weight lost. Evolutionarily, this makes a lot of sense, since in the event of a food shortage conserving energy helps you survive, and regaining lost weight later ensures you have enough reserves to live through the next shortage.

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Image Credit: YourHormones

Extreme dieting can have negative long term effects by increase the brain’s “set point”, which may impact upon an individual’s ability to lose weight in the future. Studies have shown that 97% of diets fail, and after five years most people gain back more weight than they lost the first time around. So, if fad-dieting and calorie-counting isn’t working, what is the right answer?

Psychologists believe that people’s eating habits can be divided into two categories. First are the “control eaters”, who may consciously override their bodies by carefully monitoring what they eat. This category is typically where dieters lie. Research indicates that those exercising such tight control over their diet are more likely to binge or overeat, negating any previous benefits.

On the other side are the “intuitive eaters”, who eat when hungry and stop when full, and allow their body’s signals to govern their food habits. Psychologists suggest that learning to listen to your own body when it comes to food, and interpreting those signals accurately, may be the secret to better diet and weight management. Combine this with small, manageable changes towards a healthier diet, throw in some exercise and you have a recipe for success!

Are Vegan Diets Healthier?

Katie Jones

The number of vegans in Britain has increased by 360% over the past 10 years, making veganism is one of Britain’s “fastest growing lifestyle movements” – according to the Vegan Society. There are many reasons why people choose to follow a vegan diet. These include animal welfare issues associated with large scale farming, the alleged negative environmental impacts of both the agricultural and fishing industries, and supposed health benefits of a vegan lifestyle. But are vegan diets actually any healthier than vegetarian, pescatarian or omnivorous diets?

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Image Credit: Pixabay

First of all, what is a vegan diet? A vegan diet means removing all animal products from what you eat. This means no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products.

According to NHS guidelines, there are six main components of a healthy vegan diet. Many of these principles are applicable to omnivores too:

  1. Eat five portions of fruit or vegetables every day.
  2. Base meals on starchy, wholegrain carbohydrates.
  3. Have some dairy alternatives, e.g. soya drinks. Try to choose the lower fat and sugar options.
  4. Eat beans, pulses and other protein sources.
  5. Use unsaturated oils and spreads in small quantities.
  6. Drink between 6-8 glasses of low-sugar fluids a day.

These guidelines are simple, and on the whole, easily achievable. It’s important that vegans have a good understanding of a healthy diet so that they can plan what they eat to make sure that their diet is balanced, and is inclusive of all the necessary food groups. As a result of excluding certain foods from their diets, vegans can be at risk of some nutritional deficiencies – most notably Vitamin B12.

Omnivores can get Vitamin B12 from a range of sources: meat and fish, milk, cheese and eggs. This essential vitamin is used to make red blood cells, keep our nervous systems healthy and to help release energy from the food we eat. Not getting enough Vitamin B12 can lead to Vitamin B12 Deficiency Anaemia. As a result, the body produces red blood cells that are unusually large, meaning that they can’t function in the normal way, which can eventually lead to lower amounts of oxygen in the body. Vegans are still able to include Vitamin B12 in their diets by eating fortified cereals and soya drinks, as well as yeast extract products such as Marmite.

Despite the risk of some vitamin deficiencies, it is definitely possible for people to lead a healthy vegan lifestyle. Over the past decade or so, there has been a huge increase in the number of professional athletes adopting a vegan diets. Many of them swear by it, claiming that it’s contributed to reduced recovery times, greater endurance, and improved performance. One example is Patrik Baboumian, who won the title of Germany’s Strongest Man 2011 (105kg weighting). He was the first vegan to gain this title and states that ‘Almost two years after becoming a vegan I am still improving day by day.’

Other diets also have potential risks – not just veganism. There is increasing evidence that too much red meat is linked to high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease. And vegetarians often find it difficult to find sources of omega-3 fatty oils, which are claimed to reduce to risk of heart disease. It would seem that all diets have associated risks. Whether you’re a meat thirsty steak lover, or just can’t get enough of tofu and lentils, it’s vitally important to make sure that what you’re eating is well balanced and to live in moderation.