It’s nearly Hogmanay and you maybe thinking about New year resolutions, don’t they always involve losing weight? Or getting fit? Or both? So this month’s focus will be on the popular and trendy diets out there, because if you go into any bookshop this time of year, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be faced with dozens of diet books! And you can count on the popular newspapers to be full of celebrity-endorsed diets. Some of the recent favourites included: the no sugar diet, kale and chewing gum diet, Bulletproof diet, The Super Elixir among others. The diet industry has a multi-billion turnover, and it appears that we’re not shy at following some of the craziest advice. What’s interesting is how habits across the Atlantic are changing, with raw food diet and Paleo (Stone Age) diets losing appeal in the US but gaining appeal here in the UK.
But knowing whose advice to follow is not easy, nutrition is a largely an unregulated industry. Other than dietetics, absolutely anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist” whether they’ve studied nutrition to PhD level or never even opened a book on the subject. It’s no wonder the field of diet and nutrition is unbelievably confusing.
So let’s dissect the five most Internet-searched diets in 2015 as published by Google Trends:
#5 Military Diet Plan
What is it?
Apparently designed by “top secret nutritionists at the US military” to get soldiers in top condition, the military diet claims that you can lose weight without exercising. This plan suggest you can lose up to 4.5kg per week; it’s a 3-day on 4-day off plan designed for rapid weight loss if you need to chisel the curves in the shortest time possible. It claims not to mess up with the metabolism, because it utilises “chemically compatible foods” and provides exchanges for you to swap the foods you don’t like. Loosely based on the 5:2 diet, you fast for 3 days a week, consuming the maximum of 1000kcals and the remaining four days, up to 1500kcals.
This diet plan relies on the fact that you can respond to a no-nonsense, highly motivated diet regimen. Every day is a calorie-restricted day and it’s likely that many will become quickly tired, bored and irritated with this strict routine. I’m not sure about some of the foods it’s suggesting you to eat, as their recommended menu includes hot dogs (processed meat) and ice cream (sugar). How can this diet be healthy let alone sustainable? It might work if you have very little weight to lose and have a short-term target, but it’s not going to beat obesity. Long term weight loss plans cannot work like this as there’s absolutely no education on how to eat properly and maintain weight loss. If these diets appeal to you, I would suggest the easier (and more practical) 5:2 diet, because there is some good scientific evidence with intermittent fasting.
#4 GM Diet Plan
What is it?
The General Motors’ (GM) diet plan was apparently developed by the General Motors Corporation to keep their employees in shape. It claims to provide up to almost 8kg weight loss in seven days, but not only that, it cleanses and detoxifies the body and so it is very specific about the types of foods that can be eaten. Exercise is included in this plan, but for only around 10 minutes per day. The GM diet is a 7-day diet plan that allows unrestricted access to specified foods (Day One, for example, is fruit and water only), which is mostly fruits, vegetables and a “wonder soup”. You then repeat (with one week rest between) until you have reached your target goal, and then simply do the diet one week per month for maintenance. In the interim weeks, you should follow a low carbohydrate, high protein diet. They openly admit that there are side-effects to the plan, which is due to its detoxifying nature and soon disappear.
Whilst I have no issues with eating fruit and vegetables, I cannot help wondering whether some people will end up with an enormous amount of gastro-intestinal distress (ie bloating and feeling generally ill, possibly diarrhoea, at the start as there’s little in the way of anything to bulk the stool), protein is low until you are on a “week off” and it appears to rely on the fact that foods detoxify and cleanse the body. I agree that fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants which help mop up free radicals, but the biggest job of detoxification is done by the body’s natural filters, of which we have three: two kidneys and a liver. Some people do claim to feel amazing after detoxification style diets, with better skin, clearer thinking and more energy. I do not know if that is simply because they have eliminated processed foods and refined sugars (increased energy, better clarity of mind), increased intake of fruits and vegetables (clearer skin) or because there is indeed magic in these diets. By all means incorporate the good messages, but don’t skip on good fats (fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds), lean protein (fish, chicken, turkey), low fat dairy and balanced dietary fibre (whole grains and pulses). Despite the hype and popularity, there is no such thing as a “detoxification diet”, only one that is higher in natural antioxidants and low in free sugars.
#3 Paleo Diet
What is it?
The Palaeolithic (known also as Paleo, stone-age or caveman) diet was developed by Dr Loren Cordain, and is based upon the premise that we are best suited to a diet that was eaten by our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors. The main principles of this diet is to consume higher protein, lower carbohydrates, higher fibre (but not from grains), and higher fat. This diet forbids processed foods, high sugars, all grains and pulses (peas, lentils, beans, chickpeas and peanuts), all dairy, potatoes, salt and refined vegetable oils. You may eat grass-reared meat, fish and seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables (with the exception of above), eggs, nuts and seeds. There is no calorie-counting on this diet.
The Paleo diet is hugely popular and is one of the major diets promoted by the naturopathic and the CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) nutrition practitioners. Its heavy reliance on meat and banning low-fat dairy and pulses is really the only issue I have with this diet. Otherwise, it strikes me as one difficult to follow because it pretty much prohibits any convenience. If you wanted to grab a wholemeal sandwich with hummus and olives – you’re left with just a few olives. Breakfast may be difficult (toast, yoghurt and cereal are out), scrambled eggs? Not very practical if you have limited time in the morning. Grass-fed meat is expensive, and if we all ate fish as suggested by health guidelines, the oceans would be empty within our lifetime (scarily true!). The Paleo diet falls down on a practical level for me, and I think a little low fat dairy and pulses (very sustainable crop and good source of protein and fibre) are great nutritional features and shouldn’t be banned. The more I read about the Paleo diet, the more I see it as a lifestyle choice rather than a diet for weight loss per se. Like vegetarianism and veganism, the Paleo diet has a strong, loyal and passionate following.
#2 Carb Cycle Diet
What is it?
Another low carb diet and it doesn’t surprise me that a diet plan based on this concept is in the top two. The Carb Cycle diet is based on Roman Malkov’s book “The Carb Cycling Book” and is very popular in the fitness industry. Low carbohydrate diets are notoriously difficult to keep up, and this plan is designed to make carbohydrate restriction easier. It consists of alternate two or three days a week with one day of heavy carbohydrate intake and the other of low intake. The concept of this is based on the effect carbohydrate has on the appetite hormone, leptin. It is believed that those with obesity have, in some circumstances, a condition called “leptin-resistance” where their body cells are non-receptive to the hormone and thus hunger is never “switched off”.
I would need to read the book to give this plan a fair critique, but in principle it is a part-time Atkins diet, where you spend half of the week on a very low carbohydrate plan and then the other half on a very high. I am uncertain what the philosophy of the high days is, unless it is designed “to carb load” where the liver and muscle cells are loaded with glycogen, the body’s storage of sugar. This plan is probably developed with the fitness industry in mind, and prevents the body from going “ketogenic”, which is what many low carbohydrate diets do – causing a degree of muscle loss and less potential for muscle growth, which is not good for athletes. Ketogenic diets can cause some physiological problems, particularly if you want to go back to a normal diet and therefore the science behind these is not robust enough to follow a low or very low carbohydrate diet without medical supervision for a good length of time. If you want a low carbohydrate diet, I would prefer this over a true ketogenic diet, but cutting out any macronutrient doesn’t sit right with me. Food shouldn’t be demonised, just eaten in the right quantities according to your personal and individual lifestyle and life-stage. With carbohydrates, why not just eat the right carbohydrates?
#1 20-Twenty Diet
What is it?
Number one most searched diet in 2015 was the 20-twenty (20/20) diet! So what is it? It’s a diet plan devised by Dr Phil McGraw, again accessible by purchasing his book. It is simply based on two rules: eat less than 20g of fat per day, eat more than 20g of fibre per day. But it isn’t as simple as this, the 20/20 plan also identifies 20 key foods that are purported to boost metabolism and help the feeling of fullness quicker and for longer. It works on a cycling diet of 3 phases per 30-day cycle, eating at least 3 times a day including breakfast. The phases are based on exclusion/inclusion foods. That is, taking foods away from your diet and re-introducing some of them later. Treats are allowed once or twice a week, but in small portions.
This is much more of an educational plan than the others, and is based on some good principles such as its advice on fat, dietary fibre and portion control, but it is quite complex. I am unsure how easy it would be for the average busy person to follow this and would require quite a large serving of motivation. There are apps now which make these kinds of diet a lot easier to plan and follow as they’ll track your progress for you. However, no app is going to do your shopping and stand in the kitchen and prepare these meals 3-4 times a day for you. I don’t know for sure, but I’d put money on this one being pretty hard to stick to for very long.
At the end of the day, the best diet is the one that works for you! One-size-fits-all diets generally work only on a small percentage of the population and despite them being very high earners for those who develop them and sell the merchandise behind them, they fail most of us. But we still persist and can even jump from one diet to the other with the hope of finding “the one”.
Our relationship with food is very complex and has changed dramatically post industrial revolution, making convenience much more important. Diets work if we approach them on an individual level and understand how our unique psychology and physiology inter-relates with our eating habits. One day, there will be personalised genetic tests that tell us how we each respond or don’t respond to certain foods, drugs, nutrients and style of exercise. Until then, we have to use rather crude methods, often based on population-level concepts. In 2015, the BBC did an interesting experiment with some of the UK’s top experts in nutrition and obesity science. They divided a large group of people into three subgroups according to the results of a simple test and had them follow three different diets. Why not have a look at this, see which group you fall into and then investigate which diet might work best for you. This link works best if you have a tablet or smartphone: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z2csfg8
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.