In the 1980s, low-fat diets were all the rage. In the 1990s, low-carb diets took off. And in the early 2000s, people went back — way back — to their caveman days, embracing everything from the Paleo, Whole 30 and raw.
But, nutritionists are rethinking what they’ve learned about weight loss science — and finding that the best diet might just be no diet at all.
“I don’t believe in diets—they aren’t sustainable,” says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Ultimately, she says, many people turn to these ultra-trendy diets because they can lose weight quickly, which motivates them to keep going. But what might work in the short-term doesn’t necessarily work over the long-term.
Here’s why many of these fad diets fail — and what will really help you lose weight and stay healthy.
Traditional weight loss diets versus “non diets”
Traditional fad diets often rely on gimmicks or unsustainable recommendations (cut x nutrient out entirely!) These diets are geared toward weight loss, so they generally encourage people to try to drop pounds quickly, sometimes in an unhealthy way. ‘Non diets’, which include approaches like ‘clean eating’ and ‘mindful eating’, do not have severe food restrictions or time limitations. No-diet diets tend to focus on your overall well-being, eating based on internal cues and following a food plan that’s sustainable over time.
Fad diets are hard to stick with.
“A lot of these diets are super strict and aren’t meant to last forever,” says Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS, a doctor of clinical nutrition and former head of nutrition at Freshly. For example, some of the more popular trends ban entire food groups, including dairy, legumes, and whole-grains. The problem, says Scheller, is that once people stop following the diet, they go back to their regular eating habits, which caused them to gain weight in the first place.
Restrictive dieting can cause you to burn out.
Even short-term diets can backfire. Research shows that people only have a finite amount of willpower — and when they have to make too many decisions, they can later burn out and act impulsively. In a landmark study, researchers from Case Western University found that people who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolate gave up on solving a puzzle faster than those who’d indulged in the sweets. “From a psychological perspective, when someone is too restrictive, it can later turn into a binge,” says Goldman.
People often regain weight after they stop dieting.
Sure, slashing your calorie or carb intake may help you lose 10 or 15 pounds a month, but a 2018 research review in the Medical Clinics of North America reported that more than half of dieters regain the weight within two years. “The reality is that small changes make lasting changes,” says Goldman. “But it can be difficult to make small behavioral changes when your focus is solely on the number on the scale.”
The upshot: Long-term changes require long-term habits — not just a few weeks of depriving yourself of bread. Besides, unless you have an allergy (or are a vegan or vegetarian, for example), you don’t have to avoid entire food groups for the rest of your life in order to have a healthy diet.
What is the no diet diet?
There is no one ‘right’ way to follow a ‘no diet diet’—there are different variations with the unifying themes being that it is not excessively restrictive or time-bound (i.e., lose 10 pounds in a month) and is a sustainable approach to healthy eating. The no-diet diet involves being thoughtful about your food choices, but not having to make complicated meal plans. It entails eating mindfully, portion control, hydrating, and ensuring you have enough energy to exercise, take care of yourself In the Freshly world, the non-diet revolves around integrating three simple eating principles into your everyday meals and snacks: less sugar, less processed foods and more nutrient-dense ingredients.
Eat less processed foods.
There’s not a lot of good press for processed foods: for starters, they’re usually filled with preservatives and artificial chemicals, and often contain refined carbohydrates which are connected to chronic disease and obesity. Processed foods are also notorious for being high in fat and sugar, so try replacing them with whole foods instead. You don’t have to deprive yourself, though. Instead of swearing off packaged products, try to implement small, healthy changes to your meals — like eating a serving of vegetables for dinner each night, says Scheller. “The smaller the habit and the easier you can implement it, the more likely you are to make the change,” she says.
Eat less sugar.
By now, you probably know that sugar is enemy number one. Studies show that in addition to its high calorie count, high sugar consumption is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other health issues. Specifically, try to cut down on your intake of added sugar, or the kind that’s been added to foods like cakes, cookies, candy, and sodas. Again, you don’t have to eliminate dessert altogether—just try to fill up on whole foods throughout the day, which will naturally help crowd out the sweets. Besides, the whole point of the no-diet diet is to not restrict yourself too much. “People hate to hear, ‘no sugar’ or ‘no dessert,’” says Scheller. “It can be demoralizing to feel like you can’t have the things you love.”
Eat more nutrient dense foods.
“Food is fuel,” says Goldman. “We want to focus on foods that make us feel good…and [boost] our focus, concentration, energy, sleep, and mood.” That’s why the best diet focuses not on what you shouldn’t eat, but rather on what you need each day—i.e., nutrient dense proteins like seafood and poultry, which provides you with energy while offering up important B vitamins, iron, and omega-3s, and vegetables, which contain belly-filling fiber, plus nutrients like potassium and vitamin C.
By following these guidelines, you’ll not only lose weight, but you’ll be able to keep it off over time, too. “If people can get away from what I call a ‘dieter's mentality,’ and rather find balance without any restriction,” says Goldman, “then this will become a lifestyle which absolutely is sustainable.”
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