Research associate and dietitian Carla Wolper, EdD, RD, CDN, dishes up the scoop on fad diets. An experienced consultant for nutrition education and behavior modification for obesity, Dr. Wolper shares tips on how (and why) to develop a plan for the ages, rather than the moment.
Interviewer, Katrina Kostro (KK): There have been so many fad diets…where do we start?
Carla Wolper, EdD, RD, CDN (Dr. W): Since the late 1960s, one of the most popular has been the Atkins Diet, which advises a low-carbohydrate, high-fat, high-protein combination. This diet relies on ketosis: lowering your carbohydrate intake elevates the levels of ketones (water-soluble biochemicals), instead of glucose, for your body to use as energy; this process induces weight loss.
KK: Sounds great, no?
Dr. W: But nobody wants to give up carbohydrates forever! It’s unrealistic. When people begin Atkins, they don’t realize that by eliminating carbs, they are cutting back on fat too. If you can’t eat bread, you can’t put butter, peanut butter, or cheese on it. No pasta? No sauce. Meat and lettuce get boring! Portion sizes may shrink, so you end up with a calorie reduction and loss of water and weight. But ultimately, you drop the whole thing. Or worse, you end up overdoing it with all the foods you had been avoiding. There is also some data to suggest that eating large amounts of red or processed meat may be associated with GI cancers and some reproductive cancers, so staying on this type of plan could be a bit risky.
KK: But even if it’s not Atkins, there seems to be a burgeoning anti-carbohydrate movement in our culture these days.
Dr. W: Carbohydrates are not inherently bad. Federal health agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health recommend that the average American get 55% of daily calories from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and 20% from fat. Even with certain health conditions, like diabetes, the recommendation is not to eliminate carbohydrates altogether but rather to pay attention to the types and amounts of carbohydrates you eat (more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, fewer candy bars).
KK: There has also been a lot of hype about gluten-free diets. Why is this?
Dr. W: Following improved diagnosis of Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, media and diet industries have caught on to people’s heightened gluten-awareness. If you have Celiac disease and you consume gluten (a protein found in some grains, barley, oats, rice and wheat), the intestine gets inflamed.
KK: What happens if your intestine is inflamed?
Dr. W: The irritated intestine is unable to digest and absorb gluten, resulting in diarrhea, osteoporosis, anemia…not good. In that case, you must observe a gluten-free diet. A blood test and an intestinal biopsy can diagnose these conditions. If the tests are negative, there is no harm in eating gluten, and cutting out gluten alone will not cause weight loss.
KK: What are some other big diet myths we can bust?
Dr. W: The Alkaline Diet aims to keep your blood PH at a certain level. Total nonsense! The body balances PH on its own very carefully. Even if you could eat something to change your blood PH, there’s no evidence that it would cause weight loss.
The Grapefruit Juice Diet says eat whatever and as much as you want, as long as you have grapefruit juice with it. No scientific evidence proves drinking grapefruit juice makes you burn fat and excessively drinking grapefruit juice can disable the liver’s ability to break down and excrete medications from your body.
KK: Speaking of potentially dangerous, what about detoxification or cleansing diets?
Dr. W: Your body does not need to be detoxed—it isn’t dirty! The body detoxes itself with its chief metabolic organ (the liver) and the immune system. ‘Detox’ diets generally don’t even consist of food—they focus on colon cleansing agents.
KK: Doesn’t sound too tasty or too safe.
Dr. W: It’s not a regimen you could stick with, and it could cause harm; if you empty the colon often enough, it loses its muscle tone and function, leading to the need to take laxatives for GI regularity.
KK: With all the misinformation out there, how would you advise people who are overweight and need to lose weight to healthfully choose – and stick with – a plan?
Dr. W: People often have unrealistic expectations. The diet industry compels us to want some magic quick fix. When choosing a plan, ask yourself, ‘Will I be able to stick with this forever?’ You should not feel horribly hungry, deprived or bored, because you’ll get ‘diet fatigue;’ you won’t be able to keep it up.
KK: How can you diet and not feel deprived?
Dr. W: Minor, simple changes go a long way.
Monitor your portion size: no need to cut your intake in half, but try eating from a slightly smaller plate. Include protein in each meal and snack: protein takes longer to break down in the stomach, so you feel fuller longer. Make an effort to substitute healthier foods for especially unhealthy ones—but make sure you like the foods you’re eating! Finally, exercise! Regardless of which diet you follow, presumably you’ll have occasional ‘slips,’ eating less than perfectly healthfully every now and then. Even a moderate exercise plan will benefit you; exercise is good for your heart, muscles, respiratory system, and circulation of blood to your brain.
KK: What if you become so focused on being in control of your diet that you become obsessed about it – in a way, become out of control?
Dr. W: You don’t want your diet to take over your life. If you never allow yourself a piece of birthday cake or a glass of champagne, alarm bells should sound in your head: your diet has gone too far. Practice including certain ‘risky foods’ into your plan to overcome the fear that one treat will send you over the edge into unending indulgence. Balance is essential.
KK: To sum it up?
Dr. W: Pick a healthful way of eating and being active that suits your way of life—a game plan with some built-in flexibility. This puts you, not food, in control, and that can be a powerful feeling.