Forget the fad diets, the right advice is what you need to lose weight

Losing weight isn’t rocket science, writes Prof Michael Gibney. Follow the right advice and you will shed those excess pounds

FAD diets all promise rapid success and are usually built around an advocate who — unknown to the many suckers that buy into their patter — makes a small fortune.

When it comes to weight management, I have never heard more sound advice than what I heard from Dolly Parton.

When asked by Michael Parkinson how she kept her figure, her reply, never to be forgotten was: “Honey, if you want to lose weight, get your head out of the slop bucket”.

Quite simply, modern society lives alongside a most tempting slop bucket of low priced, highly palatable and widely available foods, and many of us dip too often for too long into that bucket of temptation.

To lose weight there is one simple requirement: You calorie intake must fall below your calorie expenditure.

Every diet and every diet book that emerges has a unique selling point but the question must be asked about how these diets lead to caloric deficits despite all the hype about them being utterly unique.

So a consortium of UK researchers, financed from a most unusual body, the BBC, set out to examine the relative efficacy of weight loss using four popular diets: the Dr Atkins ‘Diet Revolution’ (promoting a very low carbohydrate intake); The Rosemary Conlon ‘Eat Yourself Slim and Fitness Plan’ (promoting a low fat diet plus exercise); the SlimFast Plan (which is a meal replacement plan); and finally, the Weight Watchers Points Programme (which involves energy restriction plus one weekly group meeting).

At the end of the six months, the average weight loss was 6kg and there were no statistical differences between the four quite different approaches.

Effectively, each diet led to a reduction in caloric intake and it was that caloric deficit which did the trick.

No voodoo here. In the US, a slightly different approach was taken in the multi-center study, ‘The Pounds Lost Programme’.

They used four low calorie diets.

There was a very low fat and a very high fat diet, each with low or high levels of dietary protein.

Once again, after months of following these low calorie diets varying widely in the energy components (fat, carbs and protein) there was absolutely no significant difference in terms of weight loss across these four diets.

Once again, the sole driver of weight loss was caloric deficit.

Michael Gibney, Professor of Food and Health in UCD. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Michael Gibney, Professor of Food and Health in UCD. Picture: Fergal Phillips

To my mind, any efforts to lose weight should abandon quick fixes and should take a long term view since, whilst weight loss is easy, weight regain is so high (95% regain in five years).

To help people along in this long-term view, I recommend three essential approaches, each of which is available in great detail in individual books, all written by top drawer US professors with global reputations in the field of weight management.

The first book is Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink.

He doesn’t offer any dietary advice but tries to get us to organise our food and ourselves such that we slip from “mindless” eating to “mindful” eating.

That shift requires some deliberately constructed impediment to food access, which may be so simple as a screw top biscuit jar on the top shelf of our larder.

It only takes a second to overcome this barrier but that single second can help us shift from mindless to mindful eating.

To study this, Wansink and his colleagues gave the secretaries in his unit sweets in glass jars. For some, the sweets were available at all times on the desk.

For others they were in a bottom drawer of the desk, and for others they weren’t at the desk but in an adjacent filing cabinet.

The more accessible the sweets, the more of them were eaten.

Making it a decision (mindful eating) rather than an automatic reaction (mindless eating) was central to managing a lower intake.

This is something we can build into our own lives in our own kitchens.

The second book I recommend is the Volumetrics Diet written by Professor Barbara Rolls who helps readers shape a weekly menu of foods and dishes that are bulky but low in calories.

A minestrone soup is filling but with so few calories.

An apple tart and custard is high in calories and not especially filling.

The key to dieting but most especially to the maintenance of weight loss is the pursuit of low energy or caloric density menu choices, always allowing for treats to support the diligence of weight management.

Finally, I would recommend a book called the Step Diet written by Professor James Hill.

He is founder of the National Weight Control registry and to join that register and benefit from membership, you need to have lost 30 pounds and maintained it for 12 months and this needs to be medically certified.

Success in maintaining weight loss involves, among other things including calorie control, an increased level of physical activity.

The average reader of this article will use just 10-12% of their total caloric intake from physical activity and to be successful in weight loss, this must hit 25%.

Hill helps people do this in very simple achievable ways in his excellent book.

Fad diets will always be with us for the very reason that none work long term. That requires great dedication and ideally with help from a professional in the area such as a registered dietitian.

Professor Mike Gibney is the author of Ever Seen A Fat Fox? – Human Obesity Explained, published by UCD Press
Professor Mike Gibney is the author of Ever Seen A Fat Fox? – Human Obesity Explained, published by UCD Press


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