Friday, May 18, 2012

If you’ve been around for a few years, you’ve probably seen a ton of popular diets come and go. Even if you’re new to the diet scene, you’re probably well aware of the many magazine articles, books, infomercials, and Internet popups that bombard you every day with promises of easy new ways to lose weight. If you live long enough, most of these diets and promotions will surface again in some form, making the same old promises to a new audience of overweight people looking for that one magic diet that really works.

Unlike a low-carbohydrate diet, a low-fat diet, or a high-fiber diet, a low-calorie diet focuses strictly on limiting the number of calories you consume. Here’s a secret, though: All diets, no matter what nutrients they’re high or low in, must restrict calories if they help you lose weight.

Counting calories is the oldest method of intentionally losing weight, going back at least as far as 1918, when Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters defined calories and showed dieters how to count them in her book Diet and Health with Key to the Calories. Peters recommended a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates, and one that averaged 1,200 calories. Calorie counting has gone in and out of fashion since that time, but now, almost 100 years later, it’s back. Calorie counting is the only weight-loss method that has stood the test of time.

In the mid-1980s, counting fat grams became the new way to lose weight. The message that dieters heard was that calories don’t matter as much as fat. I actually heard people say that you could only get fat from eating fat, or that if you stick to a low-fat diet, you can eat 200 extra calories a day. Of course, these statements may be true if you plan your menus very carefully, but many dieters forgot to factor in calories they were consuming from other sources.

Eventually, dieters tired of counting fat grams, seeking out lowfat foods, and gaining weight as a result of all their efforts. The fat-free fad faded away, and high-protein diets moved in as the new wave in weight control. High-protein diets became very popular when dieters discovered that they could lose weight if they cut back on carbohydrates and ate more high-protein foods at every meal. Increasing the amount of lean protein foods you eat and cutting back on carbs usually does help with initial weight loss. One reason why is: Your body needs extra water to digest and metabolize foods that are high in carbohydrates, especially high-fiber foods. When you start cutting back on these foods, your body no longer holds onto that extra water. So along with any weight you lose by cutting calories the first few weeks of your diet, you lose water weight, which can be motivating when you first start dieting.

However a high-protein diet has some serious downsides. You don’t eat much bread on a high-protein diet. No bagels, no muffins, no waffles, certainly no cookies, cakes, or pastries. Some high-protein diets say you can’t even have a potato. As a result of these limitations, most people can only stick to a low-carb diet for several months at most.

If you’re considering a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, you need to know this valuable piece of information. A sugar called glucose, which comes from foods high in carbohydrates, is the only fuel your brain can use for energy. Lowering or even eliminating carbs (and not getting enough glucose) affects your body in several ways:

  • Your brain could be in trouble. Your brain can only use glucose for energy, so it can’t work without it.
  • In order to protect your brain, your body turns to its muscles, breaking them down to provide your body with substances it can use to make its own glucose.
  • Meanwhile, as your body starts using fat stores for energy (because not enough carbohydrate is available), you develop a condition known as ketosis. When your body is in a state of ketosis, you’re not eating enough food, especially carbohydrates. In response to the ketosis, your metabolism slows down and you stop burning fat. As a result, you only want to view this type of diet as a short-term solution for kick-starting a more balanced diet plan.

Any diet that emphasizes one food group over another or virtually eliminates a whole category of foods is bound to throw your body chemistry out of whack. That’s why a nutritionally balanced, reduced-calorie diet that promotes normal, healthy eating habits is the best route to weight control.

For most people, the goals and benefits of following a low-calorie diet are to lose weight, to develop better eating habits, and to maintain weight loss in hopes of reducing the health risks that come with being overweight. Chapter 16 describes these benefits — which include more energy, better sleep, and lower risk for developing medical problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease -  in greater detail.

Some experts say that weight cycling — losing weight and gaining weight repeatedly over time -  is bad for your health and that it’s better to stay at one higher weight than to suffer the ups and downs. The jury is still out though. No one knows for sure if weight cycling is bad for you. (Check out Chapter 2 for more info and how weight cycling affects your overall health.)

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