The Truth About Diets

Start the New Year by losing the dieting mentality.

Weight loss recommendations abound this time of year. Everywhere you turn, ads and articles try to persuade their audience to join the crowd and go on the latest, greatest diet—it’s the thing to do.

The January 2017 feature in The Washington Post (WaPo) is one example of this New Year fascination with dieting. The project has 5 staff writers choose a diet to start on January 1st and then has them follow the diet for 30 days. Ellie Krieger, WaPo's registered dietitian, is the writer in charge of the project. It seems like a conundrum for her since she's upfront about her opinion that “‘diet’ is a four-letter word.” The title of her article introducing the project, “5 diets, a single resolution to eat better in the new year”, confuses dieting with eating better. I wondered why a weight loss diet, let alone 5 diets, would be any part of a challenge to eat better.

You see, I’m in agreement with the Ellie Krieger who considers diets a short-term fix. Diets—and by this I mean any behavior taken on with the goal of weight loss—are unsustainable and lead to weight gain in the long term. Weight loss that happens with food restriction or exercising in excess is destabilizing and causes the body to protect itself. It does this by decreasing metabolism and increasing hunger. The rebound effect of dieting often leaves the dieter with a higher weight than when he/she started the diet.  

The WaPo project gives me the opportunity to focus on 5 diets—the ones chosen by their staff writers—to highlight the many reasons diets don’t work. For each of the featured diets I will provide a description of the basic tenets of the diet, share my words of caution, and try to find a positive note.

Let’s get started:

The Whole30 

Description: The Whole30 is a 30-day elimination diet that banishes sweeteners (real or artificial), alcohol, grains, dairy, beans, baked goods, and treats. The elimination phase is followed by a reintroduction of the banished foods in which the dieter is to pay close attention to how the foods make them feel. The ultimate goal is to establish a sustainable moderate way of eating. The dieter is allowed to eat as desired at mealtimes. They say, “Toss that scale” and recommend looking for other indicators of progress (weight loss) such as clothes fitting looser.

Words of caution: Forbidden foods are tricky for just about everyone. Banishing a food, even for a short time, leaves you thinking about that food. And this diet banishes a lot of foods. When you reintroduce it—whether planned or unplanned—you will likely eat a lot of it. “There,” you think, “I knew I couldn’t trust myself with ________ .” In reality, it was the restriction, not the food, which led to eating a lot of it.  

The best cautionary tales come from people who have tried the diet. In this case, it’s Kendra Nichols, WaPo’s Local Living editor, who is recycling the diet for this project. She recalled what happened the last time she did the Whole30, “on Day 31, someone made me a birthday cake, and it was over. I had only a little slice, but sugar was back, and all those rules that kept me in check were gone.”

A positive note: “Toss that scale” is an idea worth considering. A number on a scale can distract you from paying attention to better indicators of how much to eat. 

Buddha’s Diet

Description: The plan is simple: limit the window of time for eating to 12 hours a day, eventually getting that down to 9 hours per day. Other than restricting the time frame for eating each day, there are no rules but rather an overall goal of eating mindfully, focusing on foods that provide a sense of fullness, and cutting down on sugars and processed foods.

Words of caution: Limiting eating to a 9 hour timeframe is unrealistic. If you ate breakfast as late as 8 a.m., you would have to wrap up dinner by 5 p.m. Tricks like this back-fire. I can imagine that WaPo’s Food and Dining editor Joe Yonan, will be hungry and distracted throughout many evenings. To fix this while still following the rules, he is likely to eat more throughout his 9-hour eating time frame. Once the rule is gone, he may continue to disregard his hunger and fullness cues during the day and eat in the evening as well.

A positive note: Buddha promoted mindfulness. That’s a great way to approach eating. 

The Souper ‘Cleanse’

Description: This plan involves buying 20 servings of vegan soup per week and eating four per day over the course of 5 days. On the other two days you are instructed to eat minimally processed, plant-based, dairy-free foods. According to the plan, the soups provide about 1200 Calories per day.

Words of caution: Calorie-counting is one of the most enduring methods of restricting, which I will address in the Weight Watchers review below. Besides restricting, the slippiest—or should I say, slurpiest—part of this diet, is the non-chewing aspect. To feel satisfied with what is eaten, most people need to chew. It’s hard to sink your teeth into soup.  

A positive note: It’s a stretch to think of even one little nugget of truth in this diet plan. But here it is—the company puts the word cleanse in quotes, which, to me means that they know it’s not really a cleanse. While it’s a popular notion that the body needs help with this function, in fact, the body cleanses very nicely on its own. Internal cleanses are performed continuously by the liver, gastrointestinal tract, lungs, and immune system to keep toxins from building up.

Offseason regimen

Description: This is WaPo’s Sportswriter Adam Kilgore’s own creation in which he seasonally limits refined grains, processed foods, fried foods, cheese, desserts, and beer.

Words of caution: At least this diet is upfront in admitting that it’s short-term. Intentional or not, the temporary nature of a diet is detrimental to your relationship with food. Dieters often think they should get back to dieting, dread it, and are unable to face doing it again. Why not eat the foods you love in amounts that are satisfying and eat at times that support your need for food? Another problem for Adam and almost everyone who diets is weight cycling, the loss and regain, that in and of itself is bad for your health. 

A positive note: Adam describes the rest of the year as normal eating. My definition of normal eating allows all foods which means eating them when you want and not eating them when you don’t. If he could stick with that, he would settle down about the foods he bans during the offseason regimen.  

Weight Watchers

Description: WaPo’s Food Critic Tom Sietsma is using the latest version of this dieting classic. Key words and phrases such as “eat mindfully” and “increase your happiness” are intermingled with “track your choices” and “allotment of points” to reveal the same program with some new language. This classic diet counts points instead of calories.

Words of caution: There is nothing new here. Weight Watchers is a diet in sheep’s clothing that does what all diets do—convinces you to rely on external regulation to cut down on what you eat. Tom signed up for one-on-one meetings for an additional fee to help him figure out how to count some of the unusual foods he encounters when reviewing restaurants. Yet Tom’s body as well as yours has a remarkable ability to let you know how much to eat no matter how unusual the food. That’s what “eat mindfully” really means.  

A positive note: WW has no banned foods and their language has changed to include mindful eating terms. Unfortunately, they don’t really embrace the concept.

Time will tell… 

After these 5 staffers complete their month of dieting, Ms. Krieger plans to check back with them. I hope she checks back again in 6 months, at year’s-end, and in 2 years since that’s when the weight regain happens and the negative effects of dieting become more obvious. 

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