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The facts behind fad diets
Samreedhi Goel
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June 12, 2007
Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall all diet!

This is the fitness mantra that is doing the rounds of social circles lately. Slim is most definitely 'in', and the trend seems to be here to stay. So if you have jumped onto the bandwagon to fight the battle of the bulge, here is an analysis of some of today's most popular fad diets:

The Atkins Diet

Possibly one of the most controversial fad diets of all time, the Atkins Diet is famous for its carbohydrate-restricting rules. Developed by the late Dr Robert C Atkins, this regime concentrates on a very high protein intake, and allows virtually no carbohydrate consumption, particularly in the initial stages.

The Atkins Diet is great for those who love their food greasy. Bacon, eggs, sausages, cheese, butter and cream -- they are all recommended on this diet! All these foods have one thing in common, ie. they are all high in saturated fat. The regime works on the premise that by cutting out carbohydrates completely, the body will go into ketosis -- a state wherein the body starts to burn off its fat reserves, as a reaction to (in this case) perceived starvation.

Analysis: Carbohydrates are the first choice of the body as an energy source. Carbohydrate consumption is required if you want to burn bodily fat safely. It is always more sensible to burn fat through exercise, because that's when it is oxidised, and its only by-products are water and carbon dioxide; ketones are produced in very small amounts. However when you are on the Atkins Diet, ketones are produced in large amounts, which put an added load on the kidneys. Another rather unpleasant side-effect is bad breath, which is caused by the body going into ketosis.

During the initial period, this diet can be very difficult -- particularly for us Indians, who are used to large quantities of carbohydrates in our daily diets. The sudden drop in carb intake can have a variety of side effects. Common ones during the first few days include dizziness, nausea, headaches, and feeling faint. Since carbohydrates are so restricted in this regime, another side effect is the improper intake of vitamins and minerals.

If you want to follow this diet, get your lipid profile analysed beforehand, and keep a check on it regularly. Since the diet promotes a high saturated fat (or 'bad' fat, if you will) intake, your levels may increase significantly, in which case you may need to get off the diet immediately.

Verdict: The Atkins Diet is not a particularly heart-friendly diet, and may have serious long term side effects on your health.

The South Beach Diet

Dr Arthur Agatston developed The South Beach Diet, as a means of helping his patients cope with heart and cardiovascular problems. However, Dr Agatston soon discovered that his patients were also losing weight while on this regime -- and so the South Beach Diet was born, and quickly became a hit in the USA.

Carbohydrate consumption on the South Beach Diet is restricted to what Dr. Agatston calls 'good carbs'. These are carbs found in foods such as whole grains, fruit and vegetables. The diet also encourages the consumption of unsaturated fats. The South Beach Diet works in three phases. The first phase is a very strict period, and lasts for the initial two weeks.During this time, dieters are prohibited from consuming dairy products, breads, cereals, pastries, potatoes, pasta, starchy foods, some vegetables, all fruit, and more. The second and third phases slowly reintroduce the 'good carbs', though in moderation.

Analysis: The initial phase, being very strict, concentrates only on protein intake, but since the carbohydrate consumption is completely cut off, it causes rapid weight loss. If one cannot keep the intake of carbohydrates in check once they are reintroduced, however, it may cause a person to regain all the weight.

The South Beach Diet may prove difficult to follow for vegetarians, especially in the first phase, and also for us Indians, since we consume a primarily cereal-based diet. However, it is much more balanced than the Atkins Diet, and does not rely on high saturated fat levels.

Verdict: A relatively safe diet to follow if you are able to stick to the ground rules throughout.

The Weight Watchers Points Diet

With the Points Diet, Weight Watchers assigns all foods and fat/ calorie content a point value.

Dieters are weighed on a weekly basis, and then advised on how many points they should aim to consume per day for the coming week. They are also provided with a list of everyday foods and their point value, as well as a chart providing values for foods that are not on the pre-pointed list. This allows dieters to quickly and easily 'point up' all of the food that they eat on a daily basis, and make a note of the total points they have consumed each day (this is done using a 'food tracker', which all weight watchers are advised to use in order to log their daily food consumption).

As everyday food has already been pre-pointed by Weight Watchers, dieters are able to concentrate on their daily lives without worrying about reading food labels and calculating fat and calories. The diet isn't overly strict, however. If there is a special occasion and more points are required, dieters can save points from the day before and use them. Many restaurants and supermarkets also put a Weight Watchers value on their meals and products. This makes if far easier for people on this diet to eat out and to shop for groceries, without having to worry about whipping out the points chart.

Analysis: The entire focus of the diet is on calorie intake alone. If you stick to meeting the total points of your diet by eating the right way, then it is possible to have a diet that is nutritionally sound. However, on the days that you 'cheat', you may end up using all the points during one meal itself -- this means that you will then have to give up all the other meals in the day, thereby compromising your body's nutrition.

Verdict: It is a fun way to diet, and makes it easier for you to understand which foods are high and which foods are low on calorie content. because of the point system. Stick to the general guidelines about eating balanced meals, and allow yourself a treat only once in a while -- you will lose all that extra weight without compromising your health.

The Zone Diet

The Zone Diet, created by Dr Barry Sears, is based on consumption of the correct ratio of carbs, fats, and protein.

According to Dr Sears, sticking to the pre-calculated ratio will help to control insulin levels, which in turn will speed up the fat-burning process within our bodies. The theory behind this diet is that the daily calorie intake should be split into a 40/30/30 ratio. This means that 40 percent of the daily calorie intake should be made up of carbohydrates, 30 percent should be made up of protein, and the remaining 30 percent should be made up of fat.

The amount of food eaten is also an important factor, and dieters are encouraged to carefully assess and monitor their food portions. The Zone Diet also allows for two snacks per day. Dr Sears' book on this diet gives a listing of foods that can be enjoyed, both at mealtimes and as snacks. Although this diet does not cut out carbohydrates, it demands that the 40 percent of carbohydrate-rich foods that are consumed each day be 'healthy' carbs, such as those found in fruit and vegetables. Starchy carbohydrates such as those found in bread and pasta need to be avoided.  

Analysis: The Zone Diet is definitely one of the most sensibly thought out regimes, which does not compromise on your body's nutrition, and is quite agreeable with Indian eating habits. It advocates good eating habits, such as portion control and sugar reduction. The diet also allows for high fruit and vegetable consumption, so you don't end up compromising on your vitamin and mineral intake.

Verdict: A sensible and practical diet that helps you improve your food habits.

Although rapid weight loss is listed as an advantage with most diets, most habitual dieters will know that rapid weight loss is often swiftly followed by rapid weight gain! If a regime emphasises on 'good' carbs, ie complex carbohydrates, it will give you a feeling of fullness and satisfaction -- you will end up consuming enough fibre alongside as well.

Whatever the diet you follow, make sure you are not upsetting the all-important nutrient balance of your body. What works for one person may not work for you. Eat sensibly and work on weight loss, not health loss!

Samreedhi Goel is a nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She will be hosting a chat for Get Ahead readers on Monday, June 18, at 4 pm IST, regarding fad diets and fitness.

Samreedhi can also be contacted at sizewise@rediffmail.com.


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