A shout out to Canada’s Food Guide and why diets fail

It seems like every few months a handful of people I know are raving about the newest diet. They are convinced that this is it, the one that will finally work. All you have to do is cut out (insert list of generally considered nutritious foods here).  Without (list of foods), your body can’t store fat!

Their faith in this diet is reassured when after the first week they step on the scale and: “What! I’ve lost 6 lbs already?” Before long, all of their friends are on the same diet. They share recipes and compare weight lost. A few weeks later, nobody is talking about this diet anymore. If I ask one of those that were so excited how the diet is going they quietly say, avoiding eye contact, “I gained it all back.” So what happened?

Here is what I believe is wrong with fad diets:

1)    They get boring. When you cut out entire food groups (grains, dairy, fruit), it is very difficult to maintain variety in your diet, and quite often you end up eating the same meal multiple times. In addition, restaurants and pubs don’t often offer foods that comply with the diet and you have to either turn down invitations to socialize, or go out to the bar and sip water and nibble on a vegetable plate (if it is even offered) while everyone else is enjoying burgers and beer. Before long you start to wonder—is this worth it?

2)    The rapid weight loss is more than likely not fat loss. When you have limited food options, it is very difficult to consume too many calories. If carbohydrates are limited or calorie intake is too low, your body depletes its glycogen stores and with this you lose water. In addition, if energy intake is too low then your body also starts to use your protein stores (muscles) as fuel. To put things into perspective: you need to consume 3500 calories less than you are burning to lose 1 lb of fat. To lose 6 lb of fat in one week, you would need to consume 3000 calories less than you are burning each day. An active 140 lb woman burns about 2200 calories per day. To achieve this kind of fat loss, she would need to eat negative 800 calories per day. Frankly, this is impossible. So where is this weight loss coming from? It is most likely water loss and maybe some loss of muscle mass.

My advice on eating healthy and losing weight:

1)    Follow Canada’s Food Guide. If you have not heard of this, or need a reminder, the guide can be found here: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php. You may be thinking, “Ya, ya, 7-10 servings of vegetables and fruits. Who can eat that much and who counts their servings?” I agree, but if you think of the food groups in terms of proportions, then it makes more sense. Most of your food should come from vegetables and fruit (not french fries and blueberry ice cream), then grains (try to make at least half of these servings whole grains), then dairy and alternatives (low fat options), and then lastly, meat and alternatives (lean meats, legumes, and tofu). Limit sweets, oils, and highly processed food.

2)    Do things slowly and don’t expect instant results. I believe the best way to make permanent change is to change one small thing at a time. If you try to change too much too fast, it is easy to give up and go back to your old ways. Think about it this way: if you had started one year ago making small changes that result in ½ lb of weight loss per week, then you would have lost 26 lb already.

3)   Eat food that you love. If you find a lot of pleasure in drinking a glass of red wine, or chatting with friends over coffee and cookies, then do it! Just don’t overdo it. There is a lot more to eating healthy than pure nutrition. Certain foods are part of our culture, bring back memories of our childhood, and simply make us happy.

4)    Remember, little things add up. Switching from whole milk to 1% saves 40 calories per cup (80 calories in a grande latte). Spreading 1 tbsp of hummus on your sandwich instead of 1 tbsp of mayonnaise saves 76 calories. Having a salad with 1 tbsp of dressing with your meal instead of a side of fries saves 160 calories. Having 2 glasses of wine instead of 3 saves 120 calories. Choose the spinach feta wrap at Starbucks over a pumpkin scone and you shave 190 calories. If you add all of those up in one day, you have saved 626 calories!

5)    Make sure you are eating enough. If you cut back on your calorie intake too much, then your body responds by trying to conserve its fat stores. The feeling of hunger can also lead people to do crazy things, like eat an entire cake in one sitting. If you are trying to lose weight, it is recommended to cut back your calorie intake by 20% or less. This will result in a slow, but sustainable weight loss.

6)   Be active. Exercise not only burns calories while you are doing it, but also increases your metabolism so you burn more while doing nothing. Sounds great hey? Regular exercise is also known to increase productivity, improve sleep, improve your mood and help control anxiety and depression.

So the next time you hear about a fad diet that promises rapid weight loss with little effort, ask yourself a few questions: Could I eat like this every day for the rest of my life? Am I cutting out too many foods I enjoy? Are there any food groups missing that may compromise my nutrition (dairy—calcium, carbohydrates—energy)? Does this diet provide me with enough calories to get me through the day? If you answer yes to any of these, then maybe you should reconsider. I believe the best way to make a permanent change to do it one small step at a time.

Written by Deanna Ibbitson, M.Sc., CPT

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About dinutrition

I hold a Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition. As you can imagine, food is a pretty big part of my life. However, I also enjoy painting, muay thai (yes I can throw a punch), yoga, writing, and am a certified personal trainer.

Posted on February 11, 2012, in Diets & Weight Loss and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/goodbye-dairy-hello-coffee-why-did-harvard-create-a-healthy-eating-guide/article2166604/

    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/healthy-eating-plate-vs-usda-myplate/index.html

    what do you think? i mean at the end of the day, a guide is just a guide. but it’s interesting to read about harvard’s opinion on dairy etc and how govt guides are influenced by big bussiness lobbyists..

    • That is interesting–I hadn’t seen that yet. I don’t really think that any guide is perfect (vegetarian and vegan food pyramids are good as well). I like how Harvard used a plate as a visual. I also don’t believe you need to eat dairy per se (I don’t), but you should include calcium-rich food (canned salmon, chia seeds, tofu, fortified beverages etc.). I think coffee and tea should count towards your fluid requirements). But I do believe that potatoes are good, as long as they aren’t deep fried or covered in fat and salt. Probably the most important thing to take from these two guides is to eat more (and a variety of) vegetables, and less meat (the opposite of what many people do.)

  2. Great article and message… something I wish I could get through to many patients!

  3. Just a comment on your “coffee and tea towards fluid requirements). I’ve heard that caffeineated drinks are actually diuretics. For instance for every cup of coffee you lose 1.2 cups water. What do you know about this? Thanks! AB

    • Hi Alex! From what I have read, caffeine is only a diuretic if you consume more than 300 mg (about 5 cups). Studies have shown that coffee and tea contribute to hydration the same as water. Here is one study: http://www.jacn.org/content/19/5/591.full
      Apparently caffeine makes your feel the urge to urinate when your bladder is less full, which makes it seem like you are losing more water when you actually aren’t.

  4. What are your thoughts on the Canadian Food Guide and other western food guides like it not being completely aimed towards health but instead geared towards economic interests and industry?

    • That is a great point! I would say that major food industry definitely has influence on the food guide (especially wheat and dairy), but to a lesser extent now than it used to be with the inclusion of “alternatives” (although wheat and dairy images on the guide still are predominant). On the other hand, if people actually did follow the food guides in respect to servings of meat and alternatives, there would be a much higher consumption of vegetables and a lower consumption of meat than there is now (which would not be favourable to beef and other meat industries). It is probably safe to assume that most North Americans eat more than 2 palm-sized servings of meat per day (not including alternatives such as tofu, nuts and beans).

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