By Donovan Makus
It’s January. This means that school is back in session, routines are being reestablished, and it’s a time to implement any New Year’s resolutions you may have made. Many New Year’s resolutions can be vague, making it easier for us to slowly forget about or ignore what we originally set out to accomplish. Examples of this include indefinite resolutions such as “be a better person” or “be healthier.” The common New Year’s resolution to become healthier, in particular, is quite vague, which can lead to confusion as you dive into the world of diets and nutrition, only to discover a bewildering array of seemingly-conflicting information. However, despite the long history of fad diets and conflicting nutritional advice, there may be light at the end of the diet tunnel, and perhaps the answer isn’t to “diet” at al
Before examining diets–their history and the different types–it’s useful to understand how they work. Ultimately, any diet works the same way: you take in less energy than you use (in the form of calories) and your body finds the difference in its internal energy reserves. The form of calories doesn’t matter for pure weight loss, demonstrated by the nutrition professor who lost weight on his “Twinkie” diet, but it does matter for overall health and wellbeing. This energy is stored in the form of glycogen (or stored sugars) and fat. Glycogen reserves fluctuate with our liver glycogen reserves being used to keep our blood levels constant, and muscle glycogen reserved for muscle activity. However, our glycogen reserves are small, and typically only consist of 2,000 calories’ worth of energy. Long endurance exercises can even deplete your internal glycogen reserves, leading to a muscular sluggishness termed “bonking” or “hitting the wall.” Fluctuations in glycogen levels due to exercise and dieting partially explain “water weight” changes. Given the fluctuations due to exercise, which can cause both short-term weight gain due to increased post-exercise water retention needed to heal muscles and short-term weight loss due to evaporative water and glycogen loss, sodium intake, and our hormonal cycles, your natural weight is best viewed as a range. However, most of the weight dieters are trying to lose is not in the form of the relatively small glycogen reserves, but in the body’s long-term storage solution: fat. Both fat and glycogen are used to power our daily activities, with fat providing more energy per gram but requiring additional processing before use. This results in our bodies preferring glycogen for intense exercise. Given these biological facts, the only way for dieting to work in a sustainable fashion is a sustained energy deficit.
Our understanding of the science behind nutrition is relatively recent, starting only in the late 1900s. However, the history of diet fads reaches back longer through many amusing fads and shifts in perspective. Every decade seems to bring a new vilified food group and fad, often in response to legitimate health issues found in research that may be blown out of proportion. In the 1980s, fats were vilified to seemingly no avail as obesity rates rose. The 1990s brought us the rise of the Atkins diet and other low carb diets, disputing the previous low-fat consensus. Today, fats are making a comeback as carbs are vilified again, which can be seen in the rise of the Ketogenic diet. While there have been broad patterns, diet fads have also appeared over the years. Examples include the “No White Foods” diet, which eliminates all foods that appear white, the Grapefruit diet, which advocates eating a grapefruit with each meal, and highly publicized fads like the “Subway Diet.” Taken together, all these fads have caused a great deal of confusion, especially since any diet with a calorie deficit can work, meaning that any of these diets can potentially work, no matter how crazy they may appear. In this confusion, it’s useful to take a step back and examine the major types of diets and their implications for a New Year’s Resolution to “get healthier.”
Modern diets can, broadly speaking, be classified into two types: restriction and elimination. Restriction diets dictate restricting some food group (or calories themselves) while elimination diets dictate eliminating a food group or eating behavior. While both types can be successful, they also have their critics.
Food group diets (or macro elimination diets), have had some successes. Often used for diagnosing allergies in medical settings, the same principles have also been applied to dieting. Diets like the Ketogenic diet, which advocates extremely low carb intake with correspondingly greater fat intake, have taken off in popularity. Other examples include no-added-sugar diets or eliminating dairy products. However, critics point out that these diets require large lifestyle changes, and due to their strictness, are difficult to maintain over time. While completely eliminating calories is a foolhardy endeavor, it has been tried before. Going by many names and types, “breatharians” have alternatively claimed they derive all their needed nutrients from sunlight or air. Unsurprisingly, the long-term success rate for this diet is poor, leading to potentially fatal consequences, and some prominent advocates of this diet have been caught in embarrassing situations, such as exiting a McDonald’s or 7/11. Despite this, some seek to improve their health through time-related calorie restriction: fasting. Fasting has a long history in spiritual and religious circles, but the rise of intermittent fasting, where you have specific eating windows such as only eating within an 8-hour timespan per day, have found success for some. Like all diets though, it has its detractors, who suggest the practice is a borderline eating disorder, as intermittent fasters may engage in practices to maintain their fast that are also used by anorexics. For those not seeking to make drastic changes, reduction diets offer another solution.
Reduction diets can best be thought of as the moderation solution to dieting. Unlike total or near-elimination diets, they seek to reduce the consumption of certain foods or calories. Instead of having half a bag of chips, have a pre-proportioned serving instead. While these diets can be more successful, as they don’t require large lifestyle changes, critics contend that incorporating “junk” foods into reduced calorie diets can lead to nutritional imbalances and increased hunger. Reducing the number of healthy meals to eat more “junk food” snacks may still lead to weight loss, but may hurt mental and physical health. Two hundred calories’ worth of chips will have fewer beneficial micronutrients than two hundred calories’ worth of bread, for instance. Eating junk food may lead to quick blood sugar spikes followed by crashes, leaving people feeling hungry again shortly after eating. A healthier option would have left them feeling full, or satiated, for far longer.
Given all the diets out there and conflicting advice, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Ultimately, the best diet may not be a diet after all. While there is a relationship between being in a healthy body weight range and overall health, weight isn’t the sole predictor of health. The key to health isn’t necessarily going on mentally and physically draining diets but embracing total wellness, involving both mental and physical elements, such as mindfulness of our daily lives and reducing stress. In the end, perhaps the best answer to the vague “be healthier” New Year’s resolution is to embrace a broad spectrum of healthy activities that lead to an overall better state of wellness, not to jump on a fad diet.