Fact or Fad? What Sticks & What Doesn’t When it Comes to Long-Term Health

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Fad diets that require you to overhaul your eating habits do deliver on their promise of losing weight quickly. However, while eating only grapefruits, cabbage soup, or fruit juices sprinkled with spices might help you drop to your ideal weight, they’re not always realistic long-term, because fad diets are not meant to be sustainable eating plans.

And, there’s no guarantee that you’re well-nourished on the inside, no matter how trim you might be on the outside.  

Still, while fad diets often fail fast, they can be the gateway to healthy eating habits in the long run. Here’s what sticks and what doesn’t when it comes to long-term health and fad diets.

Fad: Cut out food groups

Fad diets follow a common pattern of emphasis on specific foods while severely restricting others. (Carbs, for example, are often branded as evil for their link to obesity.) The problem is that living this way is unsustainable. It’s not much fun eating like a bird, so you give up on the diet, fall right back into old eating habits, and gain back all the weight you lost.

Moreover, fad diets often contradict each other: one diet allows wheat, so long as it’s whole wheat, while the other doesn’t allow any carbs at all. Not only does this confuse your perception of what a healthy diet truly is, it’s actually dangerous for your body to cut out entire food groups for a prolonged period of time. This leads to malnutrition and electrolyte imbalances, which could have potentially fatal consequences.

Fact: Cut out unhealthy food groups

One positive aspect of fad dieting is the push to cut out junk food – processed foods, soft drinks, alcohol, cigarettes – and introduce more whole foods to the diet. Carbohydrates, for instance, are our main energy source and a necessary part of human nutrition. Rather than ruling it out completely, it’s wiser to ditch the white bread and sweets and eat quality carbs from high-satiety, nutrient-dense sources.

If there’s any nugget of wisdom you can pick up from flirting with fad diets, it’s that you should be building your diet around fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, lean meats, and whole grains.

The rest of it? They can go out with the junk.

Fad: Adhering to a fasting schedule

Fad diets reinforce myths circling around about the timing of meals. They range from diets that prescribe no more food after 6PM to full-on intermittent fasting for 16-24 hours a day, several days a week.

Naturally, these diets assume that since your time window for eating is shorter, you’re going to eat less. But it’s also entirely possible for you to eat heavier meals during the window, thus you could still be taking in the same amount of calories per day than you did if you hadn’t been restricting your eating times. Which won’t really get you the weight loss you desire.

What it actually sets you up for is a plethora of gastric problems. Issues like gastritis, GERD, and ulcers result from the stomach becoming too acidic due to lack of food. The stomach acids wear away at the stomach lining in the absence of food to digest, causing sores that give you abdominal pain when you finally do eat.

Fact: Adhering to an eating schedule  

There’s no need to obsessively eat on a schedule (or not eat on a schedule) so long as you’re eating the right things in meals spaced throughout the day. The American Heart Association says that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to conclude that the number of meals we eat in a day impacts weight or metabolic markers of health.

Sure, you might like to eat breakfast to kick off your day and refrain from eating within two hours before you go to sleep. But there aren’t any hard and fast guidelines with regard to how many meals or snacks you should eat in between. What’s more important is the food that we consume per meal. Planning your meals around a variety of whole foods and cutting down on foods high in sodium and fat is a scientifically-proven way to be healthy, regardless of how many meals they make up in a day.

Fad: Weight loss means improving your health

Firstly, weight loss doesn’t equal good health. “People should not focus on weight; people should focus on health. Then you don’t engage in these diets where you restrict your nutrients, and where people get depressed because they regain weight, which is almost an inevitability,” says Professor Gary Wittert,  University of Adelaide endocrinologist. “If you switch the debate and say, ‘stay the same weight if necessary, but there are four or five things you can do to improve your health’ — then the pressure and distress is relieved.”

The “weight loss is health myth” stems from the assumption that body mass index (BMI), or the proportion of your weight to your height, is a measure of health. The truth is, about 30% of people with normal BMIs don’t eat well or get enough exercise, which doesn’t make them truly healthy at all.

Markers of health like blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels are still the measurements to watch when it comes to metabolic health. Still, because of the BMI myth and societal standards of what a healthy, desirable body should look like, weight loss is often the most popular parameter for health.

Fact: Practising healthy behaviours is health

Some of the behaviour changes that we adapt to improve health – cutting out junk, eating more whole foods, going to the gym – also work for weight loss. So, people seem to draw the conclusion that if you’ve lost weight, you’ve done your due diligence with regard to making the right health choices. Though, as you already know, that’s not always the case.

Interestingly enough, a study followed people of different BMIs who engaged in healthy behaviours: regular exercise, a diet incorporating fruit and vegetables, avoiding smoking, and moderate alcohol consumption. Researchers found that people who practiced these behaviours all had a lower risk of mortality, despite being classified as normal, overweight, or obese.

The key, therefore, is to shoot for both: a healthy weight with low markers for blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol – and developing healthy habits for health’s sake.

Fad: Habitually cleanse your colon

Detox diets and cleanses claim to detoxify your colon by flushing out “residue” from years of subsisting on junk food, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. It sounds appealing when you first hear about it. After all, if you’ve just finished a grueling cleanse cycle, you’re much less inclined to dive back into soft drinks and pizzas and ruin all your hard work.

However, the combination of fasting and consuming only fluids for several days puts you at risk for dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, shock, and even death. And the truth about detoxing is that it isn’t really true at all – no scientific evidence exists to name the substances being removed during detoxes; much less support their efficacy.

Fact: Cleanse yourself of toxic eating habits

The only thing you should be detoxifying yourself from at this point is terrible eating habits. Fad diets fail because they’re not designed to sustain the human body for the long haul, but for many people, fad diets wind up being the gateway to a truly healthy lifestyle.

A healthy diet plan should have a balanced variety of whole foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish – limit processed foods, and encourage you to supplement the diet with regular exercise. It should not cut out entire food groups, require you to focus on eating some “miracle food” (think the grapefruit diet), or promise a drastic drop of weight more than ½ to 2 pounds maximum per week.

Employ common sense about whether a diet plan is reasonable for the long term, or if it’s too convenient (and convoluted!) to be true. “Be healthy for health’s [sic] sake, not for weight loss’ sake,” says Professor Wittert. “That’s what’s going to make the most difference to the escalating cost of health care.”

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