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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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!