As sure as the New Year brings a cabinet reshuffle it brings a truck load of diet books. There is always some science to justify the particular author’s approach and if they are a doctor the publisher will be extra delighted – look! An actual doctor has said this is the way to go!
But beware, O readers, beware!
The newspaper columns that publish extracts from the latest books are shameless in their ability to forget that last year they were peddling a quite different miracle cure. And sometimes they are even more shameless, publishing rival diets in the same issue of the same paper. But somehow, whatever the particular diet and whoever the author, they always seem the same.
The give-aways that there is economy with the truth
First, the author will tell you that their diet is ‘easy’. They will promise you that you will never be hungry. They will pooh-pooh their rivals – gosh that was so last year that people told you that you had to give up carbs/red meat/fat/sugar/dairy/pineapple. There’s hardly anything you have to give up! Nothing is really forbidden! In fact you can even eat chocolate! And have wine!
That is until you read the actual book. There it will turn out that you can indeed consume carbs/red meat/fat/sugar/chocolate/wine, but only in the most minuscule portions. What chocolate eater ever wants to stop at one small square of chocolate – dark chocolate of course? And there will be many foods that are forbidden, so it’s never true that you can eat ‘anything’.
The truth is that all these diets are just alternative ways of reducing your calorie intake, the only way that you will ever lose weight. Their nostrums and recipes are systems for doing this, whether they involve fasting two days a week, eating six grapefruit daily, cutting out carbs or making sure that you eat a highly specific number of almonds every day without fail, along of course with the standard advice to drink two litres of water daily, based supposedly on scientific evidence but actually a myth. When diets work they work in the same way, regardless of their content: you have consumed fewer calories than the energy your body is expending.
The truth is that virtually all diet regimes are guilty of ‘false attribution’. They say you will lose weight because you are separating proteins from carbs, or because you are not eating anything after 6pm or because your diet is all fibre, or because you are living on cabbage soup or because you are fasting several days a week. The real reason you will lose weight on these diets is that you are monitoring what you eat and eating less.
The truth is that it is relatively easy to lose weight in the short term and very hard indeed to keep it off. Research repeatedly shows how very few people ever achieve this and that there is no difference in whether one diet works better than others.
Successful weight loss involves looking closely at why you have been overeating. The simplest and most benign reason is that you were not concentrating that much on your food intake. It slowly increased and with it your weight. If this is the cause then it is relatively easy to remedy. You just start monitoring whether or not you are hungry. If the answer is that you are not, then don’t eat. Give yourself permission to leave food on your plate if you have had enough.
It’s a lot more problematical if your increased weight has to do with emotional difficulties. If you are trying to solve the problems in your life with food then you need more than just an eating plan. You need a sympathetic but tough therapist or coach to look at what it is doing for you to overeat and to find different ways of solving your problems – ways that do not involve food.
All diets involve distorted ways of eating. We are social animals, we like to eat with other people; we don’t like being different. It is simply not sustainable to fast two days in seven while everyone around you tucks into delicious food. It’s not sustainable to say that you will permanently cut out staples like bread, rice, pasta or potatoes. It’s not sustainable to say that you will never eat dairy products unless you genuinely have a lactose intolerance. It’s not sustainable to cut out every kind of fat. It’s not sustainable to go to a weight loss group every week for ever. It’s not sustainable to say that the only fruit you can eat is berries grown in the northern hemisphere. There is no such thing as ‘clean’ food.
You should notice that there is a difference between the scientific consensus about some aspects of what constitutes a healthy diet and the best ways to achieve a healthy weight. Processed foods like bacon are better left as occasional treats. Transfats are not a good idea. Sugar in any of its guises including honey is best seen as a condiment to be used very sparingly. Too much red meat may be associated with a number of health problems. Plant-based food should form a major part of anyone’s diet. We need fats. We need protein and carbohydrate. We need the vitamins and minerals that are in the widest possible range of fruit and vegetables. But whether or not avocados are friend or foe? Forget it and eat them if you like them.
The simplest way to lose weight is to eat when you are hungry and not to eat if you are not. Stop eating just before you feel that sense of satiety. Next, eat exactly what you are eating now but less of it: significantly smaller portions. Serving food on a smaller plate can help make this easier. Eating healthy food (see above) will make it even easier.
This advice doesn’t need a meandering set of dubious scientific explanations, rules, tables, weights, points, rewards, recipes or celebrity endorsement. That is why you will never see it in a bookshop.