The Problem with Diets

The Problem with Diets

There is a lot of media focus at the moment on UK levels of obesity, particularly in relation to the increased risks that Covid 19 is thought to pose to those who are overweight. As such the Government has announced an emergency drive to ‘slim down the nation’ in what has been billed ‘a war against obesity’.

At this stage it is not clear what the ‘war strategy’ will be but I really hope this results in an increase in activity, healthy balanced eating and exercise but I fear it may result in the type of annual increase in crash dieting that we usually see in January.

Consider this; the diet industry is a multi-million pound industry that has grown hugely in recent years.  Something else that has grown in recent years is the incidence of obesity.  If diets worked, wouldn’t the nation be getting slimmer?  In England 64% of adults are classed as overweight or obese and 29% as obese.

From my experience and in talking to clients over the years my view is that diets don’t work.  Many of these diets encourage disordered eating, lack balance, demonise certain foods and are focused on weight loss not fat loss (this is an important distinction – see the infographic below).  Furthermore, they are focused on calories not nutrients.  Often these diets do not educate on healthy eating and activity so once you are ‘off’ the diet you have no healthy eating guide to follow and you have not addressed the lifestyle factors which may be contributing to being overweight. 

Another important aspect is the negative impact the cycle of yoyo dieting can have on mental health, the never ending cycle of trying diet after diet as none of them seem to work and being left with feelings of disappointment and failure each time can be very damaging. 

So, if crash dieting is not the answer, what is?  There is no doubt that obesity is a complex issue and not one that can be easily addressed overnight, but my view is that the best way to maintain a healthy weight is through addressing balanced nutrition and exercise together.  Whilst causes of obesity are complex, weight loss is a simple equation of creating a calorie deficit (calorie expenditure exceeding calorie intake) and the best way to achieve this is by a focus on nutrition (intake) and exercise (expenditure), just focussing on one aspect is unlikely to lead to achieving a long term healthy weight and overall good health.

I believe a focus on nutrition should involve better understanding the food groups and what energy our bodies actually need, simply put this is good quality starchy carbohydrates containing fibre, lean sources of protein, healthy fats from mostly unsaturated sources and yes, you guessed it, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

Public Health England’s Eatwell Plate demonstrates this perfectly and is a great guide to healthy balanced eating so this is a good place to start if you want to better understand what a healthy balanced diet looks like.  Armed with this type of information you can make sustainable changes to your nutrition for the long term rather than following an overly restrictive diet for the short term. 

Tips for sustainable fat loss;

  • Be patient – don’t aim for rapid weight loss but a sustainable reduction in body fat for the long term.  Be sceptical of anything which promises a dramatic weight loss or offers a short term fix i.e. 30 day diets, ask yourself what happens at the end of this period?

  • Motivation doesn’t last but habits do so make gradual changes to your nutrition habits – look at the Eatwell Plate information and think about the things you could change to achieve a better balance.

  • Scales are important but don’t obsess over them and try not to weigh yourself too often – they will not tell you whether you are losing fat, water or muscle tissue, a tape measure and how your clothes are fitting are all useful indicators.

  • Don’t go hungry or skip meals and never severely restrict your calorie intake.

  • Be realistic a good guideline for sustainable fat loss is 0.5-1kg (1-2lb) per week.

  • Achieve a healthy weight through a combination of nutrition and exercise, aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week and 2 muscle strengthening sessions.  By building lean muscle tissue you will increase your metabolism meaning you burn more calories at rest (not to mention a whole other host of benefits of weight training but I will save that for another blog…)

  • Find an exercise or activity that you love and makes you feel good. When I talk to clients about weight loss there is normally always a deeper motivation and this can be as simple as wanting to feel better. I believe, these deeper, non-aesthetic goals are actually more important to us and more motivating than goals which result from societal pressures. Often when you find an exercise or activity that you love, weight loss is a by product rather than the sole focus and you get so much more out of the activity for your physical and mental health than just burning some calories. When clients tell me that they are feeling better at the end of a session or block of sessions I take this as a massive win.

  • Rather than just focussing on calories think about the nutrient value of what you are eating.  A banana and a mini mars bar contain the same amount of calories but one contains fat and sugary carbohydrates (which will cause a sharp rise and fall in your blood sugar levels) while the other provides fibre (and more sustained energy release leaving you energised for longer) and is a good source of vitamins and minerals – it’s not just about calories.

  • Lastly be kind to yourself, achieving a healthy weight is about a long term lifestyle change so you are going to have days where you are organised, motivated and on top of things and others when you are not and end up grabbing something quick and easy and possibly not that nutritious.  It’s not about being perfect all the time, just aiming for the majority of your nutrition to be well balanced and to be active and exercise most days.

All of Personal Best’s Personal Training packages offer support and advice on nutrition from a qualified Nutrition Coach (Level 3 Nutrition and Weight Management).

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