What’s new in the world of weight loss? For one thing, the word “diet” is often replaced nowadays by terms like “eating plan” or “lifestyle change.”
One reason for that is the negative association people have with the idea of a diet, says Julianne Hagan, a licensed dietitian/nutritionist and owner of Hagan Nutrition Consulting in O’Hara Township. Dieting suggests strict rules and deprivation — it’s all about what you have to give up, instead of what you’re gaining in the long run.
“That rigid approach can be upsetting,” she says. “I like to think of it more in terms of what to add to your life versus what to take away. Going on a diet, by definition, seems like a temporary thing. I think of (an eating plan) as, what are you going to do forever? How are you making your life better?”
With more than half of Americans now labeled as overweight, Hagan says, it’s become our default condition. She says Pennsylvania is one of the states where obesity rates are not improving.
“Unless you are incredibly active, you really can’t eat that much,” she says. “If we paid attention, we wouldn’t get surprised by gaining weight. So how do you change the way you eat and live to catch it before it happens?”
Here are five diet-slash-eating plans-slash-lifestyle changes that people are talking about:
A keto, or ketogenic, diet is low in carbohydrates and high in fats. Reducing carbs puts the body into a metabolic state called ketosis, making it more efficient at burning fat for energy, leading to quick weight loss.
“Keto” refers to small fuel molecules called “ketones” produced from fat by the liver when blood sugar (glucose) is in short supply. Ketones are produced if a person eats very few carbs.
To eat or not to eat: Meat, poultry, fatty fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts and seeds, healthy oils, low-carb vegetables, avocados, salt, pepper, herbs and spices are allowed. Avoid sugary foods, grains and starches, legumes, fruit, root vegetables and tubers, unhealthy fats, low-fat and diet products, sugar-free diet foods and alcohol.
Pros and cons: While rapid weight loss is the main focus of the keto diet, proponents say studies also associate it with improved insulin sensitivity for diabetics and prediabetics and benefits for those with heart disease, certain cancers, epilepsy, acne, polycystic ovary syndrome, brain injuries and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Critics say a body in ketosis loses muscle, suffers extreme fatigue and, over the long term, enters starvation mode.
“The vitamin and mineral supplementation (required), along with the difficulty that people usually have with following such a strict diet, isn’t usually sustainable and leads to people regaining most of the weight they had lost once they return to their previous eating habits,” says clinical dietitian Ian Hunter, of the Well-Being Center at Excela Health.
Side effects: “Keto flu” is common in those new to keto, marked by fatigue, brain fog, increased hunger, sleep issues, nausea and other digestive issues. Some people report distinct odors in their breath and urine.
More an eating plan than a diet, intermittent fasting focuses on when to eat, not on what to eat. Users abstain from eating for a set number of hours during the day or for 24-hour periods. Water and other noncaloric liquids are allowed.
Common fasting patterns
• The 16/8 method: Users skip breakfast and restrict their daily eating to an 8-hour period, like 1-9 p.m. They fast for the 16 hours in between.
• Eat-Stop-Eat: Users fast for 24 hours, once or twice a week.
• The 5:2 method: Users consume only 500 to 600 calories on two nonconsecutive days of the week, but eat normally on other days.
Pros and cons: Proponents say intermittent fasting aids weight loss, simplifies lifestyle and can boost human growth hormone levels, insulin sensitivity, cell repair and the function of genes relating to longevity and disease-fighting. They say it’s been a part of human life since hunter-gatherer days, so it’s actually more natural than eating multiple times every day.
The caveat: You’ll negate the weight-loss benefit if you binge during your eating periods to make up for the fasting.
Hagan says it’s normal to eat when the body signals hunger; the problem is that in our food-rich society, most of us never get really hungry. She says there’s no research to show that intermittent fasting itself leads to weight loss. Hunter says he would not recommend it for anyone who has issues with controlling blood glucose levels.
“Pegan” is a combination of “paleo” and “vegan.” The paleo diet consists of lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, foods similar to what people would have eaten during the Paleolithic era. Vegans eat only plant-derived foods. Combine the focus on whole, unprocessed foods that the two share, and you have the pegan diet.
The term was coined in 2014 by Dr. Mark Hyman to describe the diet he suggests should be 75 percent vegetables and fruits. Meat should be a topping or side dish. Also allowed: Sheep and goat milk, gluten-free grains and lentils. Use sugar sparingly.
Pros and cons: Proponents say it is less restrictive than either vegan or paleo eating by themselves. Eating mostly plant-based foods can lead to weight loss.
Anyone eating a mostly plant-based diet must “take into account how they will meet their protein and vitamin/mineral needs (B12, calcium and D),” Hunter says.
Whole-food, plant-based diet
Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts should make up the majority of the menu. It also focuses on food quality, with users preferring locally sourced, sustainable products when possible. It differs from vegan or vegetarian diets in that animal products are allowed in small amounts. Processed and refined foods, like added sugars and white flour, should be shunned.
Pros and cons: It’s more a lifestyle than an actual diet, users say, and it’s beneficial both for losing weight and keeping it off. A plant-based diet is known to be heart-healthy. Research suggests it may reduce risk of certain cancers, stave off cognitive decline and help manage or reduce the incidence of diabetes.
Nutrition experts caution that users must plan menus carefully to meet all protein, vitamin and mineral needs.
Its creators say this diet pushes “the reset button with your health, habits, and relationship with food,” by eliminating certain foods for 30 days. Difficulty losing weight, skin issues, digestive problems, seasonal allergies and chronic pain can be exacerbated by certain foods, they say.
Do’s and don’ts: For the 30-day regimen, you should avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners, grains, legumes, dairy, alcohol, junk food and many food additives. Do not weigh yourself or take body measurements during this time.
Eat whole foods including lots of vegetables and natural fats; moderate portions of meat, seafood, eggs and fruit. Keep things interesting with herbs and spices. No need to measure portions or count calories.
Pros and cons: Following the Whole30 plan is designed to help you assess your relationship with food, see how food choices affect your health and lifestyle, free you from cravings and potentially change eating habits for a lifetime. Developers of the plan acknowledge that it takes effort to get organized and carry it out.
“Overall it is not something I would recommend that people do,” Hunter says. “By excluding foods like beans, dairy products and whole grains, among other things, this diet eliminates many foods that we know have positive overall health benefits when consumed in moderation.”
Hagan says she worries that Whole30 promises more than it can deliver: “You’re not going to change your life in 30 days.”
The bottom line
”A diet based around lean meats, whole grains and fruit/vegetable intake is going to get people the results that they want more times than not,” Hunter says. “This still means that you can have a piece of birthday cake or your favorite meal once in a while, even if it is not ‘healthy’ or a ‘good’ food. Exercise is also a key to the puzzle when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and life, 150 minutes per week is the minimum recommended amount.
“Long-term yo-yo dieting or crash diets may have potentially negative impacts on a person’s metabolism,” he says. “A diet is something that you can sustain for the rest of your life, not just something that you do for a couple of months to shed unwanted weight in the fastest amount of time. Slow and steady wins the race.”