Science And Single Issue Diets

New year, new you, right? It’s 2017 and this is the year you are committed to losing weight. This time it’s for real. You’ve done your research – perusing the pages of Vanity Fair – and you’ve decided on a diet that is going to work. This is no fad; this one is well legit.

Are you:

  • Cutting out sugar?
  • Cutting out carbs?
  • Only drinking clear liquids?
  • Only consuming foods that end in ‘L’?
  • Eating only on days on which the moon is full and Venus is in its seventh house?

You, my friend, are not on a legit diet.

The psychology of dieting

The compulsion to go for these single-issue diets is strong. It’s not your fault. People like easy solutions, clear guidelines and a black and white answer.

“Everything in moderation is too grey,” says Canadian registered dietitian Linnaea Mancini. “The idea that this is a good category, this is a bad category, this is healthy, this is unhealthy; categorisation makes it easier to make decisions.”

But they may not always be the best decisions. “I’m on a detox,” you say. “I’m only eating carrots until my wee turns orange.” And your friends will quietly leave you alone with your bowl of carrots at the pizzeria. But after a while – say, a day and a half – that easy satisfaction will turn to dis-ease, and eventually hunger, despair and frustration, and you throw yourself into the abyss of a bottomless packet of cotton candy.

“From a behavioural point of view, there are risks. Extreme dieting can lead to a poor relationship with food and possibly eating disorders,” cautions Linnaea. “Socially it’s very challenging. You can’t meet up with friends. It affects so many things we do with our friends and family, like celebrations. You need to ask yourself why have you chosen this diet? Which part of your life do you actually want to change?”

Added to that, these single issue diets are often just setting you up for failure. “The more exclusive a diet, the more likely it is to a) fail and b) trigger a binge sometime down the road,” says paediatric nutritionist Keith Ayoob. “A binge just sends the dieter into an emotional tailspin, feeling like he/she failed, when the only failure was placing oneself on a too-strict diet.”

The biology of dieting

Okay, so single-issue dieting is maybe not-so hot-so for your brain. But the results, amiright? It has some great benefits for your body?

Linnaea is circumspect. “It depends on what is a benefit to you. Weight loss is a benefit to some people so, yes, in that way a drastic diet can be beneficial. This can happen if you cut out an entire food group or macronutrient. You will have less variety, which will reduce energy input overall. If you cut out carbs, you’ll experience water loss.”

Low carb diets

Low-carb diets are certainly popular, but what’s going on? Put simply, you’re mostly losing water.

“It’s not sustainable,” says Gisela Bouvier, registered dietitian. “When carbohydrates are limited, glucose is no longer being pulled into the muscles as glycogen for reserved fuel. When glucose is pulled in, so is water.”

That’s not to say there are no benefits to making decisions about your food intake.

Linnaea is keen to point out that there are better ways to eat your way to a healthier body. “Any kind of change that cuts out processed foods is a benefit. Usually, you’re forced to do more cooking and can gain skills. You can even save money by making these sorts of changes.”

No-sugar diets

Low fat diets have been popular for the last few decades, but these led to a noticeable increase in the consumption of sugar. Now, no-sugar diets are all the rage. But do they work?

“Sugar is more complicated than that,” says Linnaea. “Sugar in your food is not the same as the sugar in your bloodstream. All carbs get broken down into sugars. But no added sugar is a good choice to make because it makes people think more about their food.”

Simply speaking, we are all definitely eating too much sugar. The World Health Organisation has recommendations on restricting the amount of sugar we eat. But it can be difficult. There is an onus on the consumer to read the labels of each and every product that they buy. The decision to completely eliminate added sugars could see you sitting, once again, in the corner of the pizzeria with your bowl of carrots. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t, maybe, think about what you’re putting into your body.

Eat less, exercise more

Ah, and here we are, exactly where we expected to end up. There’s no surprise here, is there? All the science in the world can tell you nothing better than this.

Eat less, exercise more.

Diets – for all their short term glory – rarely provide long term benefits. “When proper and sustainable diet behaviours are not learned, New Years’ resolutions are much more difficult to maintain,” says Gisela.

“The best diet?” says Keith. “One that includes a good balance of foods you know you need, but also some of what you don’t want to live without.”

But the best new year’s advice comes from Linnaea.

“Be more mindful about your eating. Consider that as a resolution for the new year,” she says. “When you take a more mindful approach to eating, it’s natural that you eat better, you eat healthier. You consider what you’re putting in your body more and that builds a healthier relationship with food.”

You don’t have to go crazy in January about restricting this or only eating that. Simply be mindful. Enjoy the moment. Think about the food you’re eating and what it means to you. And then be content with what you’re eating, because you’ve been thoughtful.

And don’t forget to have a piece of chocolate, every now and then.

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