Start cooking that cabbage soup and get that juicer working overtime: there’s a new piece of research that’s silencing the haters of crash diets with proof that they may not be so ineffective (or harmful) after all. Who wouldn’t want to believe that dropping five kilos in a week could be the answer to our weight woes? Conventional wisdom says that rapid weight loss leads to rapid weight gain, and dipping into low-kilojoule diets will result in you piling it all back on. Right? But a trial run by dietitians at the University of Melbourne (and given added weight by being published in highly respected medical journal The Lancet) had an encouraging outcome.
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Slow and steady does not always win…
The study showed that people who lose weight slowly and steadily are no more likely to keep it off in the long term than those who opt for crash dieting. Obviously, those who lost weight faster reached their goal weight sooner. The participants in the quickie group were given three liquid meal replacements a day for three months, with the aim of losing 1,5kg a week. The other group was given two meal replacements a day (plus regular food) with the aim of losing 0,5kg per week over nine months. Eight out of 10 people assigned to the rapid-weight-loss group achieved their goal, compared with just 50% of steady dieters.
Have those yawny, ivory-tower diets that promote ‘lifestyle change’ just met their match? Unfortunately not. The downside (isn’t there always one?) showed that, after three years, 71% of all 200 obese people recruited for the study had regained their original weight – the crashers and the slow set alike. More warning bells: if you drill down into the details, you’ll discover that one of the authors previously worked for a multinational company that produces the weight-loss formula used in the trial. Can anyone say ‘conflict of interest’?
A healthy option?
It may not be Nobel Prize-winning data but it has piqued the interest of members of the medical fraternity who believe the short-term benefits of crash diets can improve the health of the obese. Professor Nick Finer, consultant endocrinologist and bariatric physician at University College London Hospitals even recommended in an interview with The Guardian that the UK’s National Health Service consider the use of low-energy meal replacements as part of its treatment of obesity because of the ‘dramatic immediate improvements in diabetes and blood pressure’.
Principal dietitian at the University of Stellenbosch’s Nutrition Information Centre Irene Labuschagne agrees that the short-term weight loss can reduce your risk of chronic disease (even a five percent weight loss can have a very positive impact), but warns you could be exposing yourself to a host of other health risks. ‘Crash diets restrict the amount of energy and nutrients you consume, which can lead to energy and micronutrient deprivation and under-nutrition,’ she says. ‘Consuming too little energy from carbohydrates and too much energy from saturated fat could increase your risk for life-threatening conditions such as diabetic ketoacidosis and cardiovascular disease. This is especially dangerous if you have diabetes.’ But while the study authors acknowledge that crash diets can be associated with some risks, they say low-kilojoule diets are ‘formulated to provide more adequate protein and micronutrients than they contained when they were first introduced decades ago and are considered safe under expert supervision’.
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Highs and lows
Fear factors aside, what are the positive learnings to take out of the study? The researchers proposed that crash-dieters lost weight faster because their morale soared as the scales dipped. (Motivation: tick!) They were also being supplied with meal-replacement products so didn’t have to count kilojoules or cook meals for themselves.
Food preparation to avoid unhealthy meal choices and prevent bingeing is the cornerstone of personal trainer and author of It Works For Me! Noeleen Bridle’s eating plans. Bridle explains that, after a crash diet, women tend to go on a binge and all the ‘good’ they’ve done is replaced with a month’s intake in one day. (We’ve all been there!) While she’s vehemently against crash-dieting, she encourages her clients to use a seven-day ‘kick-start’ eating programme. The diet is based on ‘real food’ with a percentage of water-based vegetables, low-density proteins (tofu, quinoa, legumes, mushrooms and egg whites), fats (which are found in most types of food) and an omega-3 supplement taken twice a day. ‘It’s not actually a diet, though it may feel restrictive to a bad eater,’ Bridle says. ‘But it’s enough to help you feel motivating changes in your body, and at the same time have energy and balanced sugar levels. The kick-start can be practised over and over until it becomes a lifestyle.’
While ‘kick-starting’ could result in a gratifying four-kilogram weight loss, Bridle cautions that crash-dieting by consuming shakes or switching to a high-fat or high-protein diet may make you feel or appear ‘shrunken’. This is a result of the depletion of mass and water from your muscles and will leave you ‘feeling drained and looking aged’. Labuschagne agrees that a large percentage of the initial ‘weight loss’ achieved by following high-protein, low-carb diets is the result of water loss (dehydration).
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Crash with caution
Dietitian Robyn Rees of the Village Medical Centre in Johannesburg is familiar with the Melbourne study, and warns against researchers making large statements based on a single study. Optifast, the meal supplement used in the study, ‘is used in South Africa for bariatric patients needing to drop weight fast for surgery – but recommending that this style of weight loss is better than gradual weight loss is irresponsible,’ she says. ‘People want quick fixes. Anything that gives them permission to take a pill or drink a shake that will drop their weight quickly is going to appeal to them.’ If you’re poised to google ‘quick celeb diets’ as soon as you’re done reading this article, ask yourself this question: are you really willing to be a crash-diet test dummy?
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