A Diet that works for you

Do we need to follow a specific diet plan if we want to lose weight? Which diet plans are most effective? And which are also healthiest?

Is a Mediterranean Diet best?

Might it be better to simply eat a balanced and nutrious diet, rather than a diet designed to lose weight? Like the Mediterranean Diet  - which is rich in fruit, vegetables, cereals and pulses, with olive oil and some fish, cheese and yoghurt but low levels of meat consumption.

That’s what leading doctors recommended in an editorial in the Postgraduate Medical Journal in November 2014 - as reported by the BBC shortly after. They advised that concentrating on good nutrition rather than counting calories will not only improve metabolic health in the short term. It may also promote sustained weight loss.

A major study in the USA, published in 2011, came to a similar conclusion. It followed 120,877 healthy men and women for up to twenty years and found:

  • Consuming more potato chips, red meat, processed meats, alcohol and sugar sweetened drinks was associated with greater weight gain.
  • Eating whole grains, vegetables, fruit and yoghurt was associated with weight loss (as was physical activity and 6 - 8 hours sleep per night).

However, if you feel you need a more structured diet plan what are the best options?

Should we avoid celebrity diets?

Yes, according to the British Association of Dietitians. They have produced a factsheet on Fad Diets. Here they warn against the kind of plan where you eat a very restrictive diet with few foods or an unusual combination of foods for a short period of time. You may lose weight very quickly. However, most people then get fed-up, start over-eating and choose less healthy foods and pile the pounds back on. Alternatively, continuing to follow these very restricted diets carries health risks because of the nutrients you’re missing out on.

The NHS has a similar verdict, giving five reasons to avoid fad diets i.e. some diets can make you ill, excluding foods is dangerous, low carb diets can be high in fat, detox diets don't work and fad diets are often far fetched.

So what diet options are worth considering?

In 2005 Lisa Harkin and Dr Darwin Deen assessed 45 well known diets in their book Nutrition for Life. They considered three criteria i.e.

  • Is the diet healthy?
  • Is it evidence based?
  • Is it likely to be easy to maintain? 

Focusing on these criteria means their findings still seem to be valid today and have been corroborated in more recent assessments. Here are some of the diets they rated more highly and their explanation:

Fatmanslim 

A 12 week programme, presented on an interactive website. Unusually it is written by men, for men – and calls itself a ‘waist loss programme.’  That’s because the fat that accumulates around a man’s waist is, medically speaking, the most dangerous. It is based on the principle that men want to remain in control, and make their own changes in private and in their own time. Harkin and Deen conclude that the diet is balanced and nutritionally sound and will most likely promote weight loss.

Slimming World and Weight Watchers 

Each of these two options (for a fee) offers a structured approach, provides support, encourages exercise and is designed to be reasonably easy to follow.

Pritikin Diet 

A low-fat, primarily vegetarian diet based on whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The programme is based on three meals a day with snacks between meals. It requires no calorie counting or portion control. The sample menus provide a large variety of nutritional choices. Overall, Harkin and Deen feel the Pritikin Diet is safe and effective.

The diet itself is available free on line but Pritikin also has a commercial side e.g. through its Pritikin resort and online shop.

Another review of this diet explains that it has value in also seeking to encourage exercise and limit sugar intake but cautions it may not include enough fatty acids and some minerals. 

A study comparing low fat diets with low carbohydrate diets suggested they can both reduce weight and reduce risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. That's the conclusion from a 2012 analysis of published research. However, a 2016 analysis, concluded that a low carbohydrate diet induced greater weight loss - but also increased LDL (Bad) cholesterol. This possibly suggests that overall a low fat diet (like the Pritikin Diet) may be healthier.

Volumetrics Weight-control

The aim of the this programme is to help you feel you’ve eaten enough by choosing low calorie foods in quantities that make you feel full, rather than eating the same volume of high calorie food. Harkin and Deen feel this to be a safe and effective weight-control programme.

NB The basic principles of the diet are accessible free online.

Or Free Support from the NHS?

If you would find free support helpful when you’re trying to lose weight the NHS may be able to help, for instance through community health trainers. Here’s an example from Manchester. Try a web search for ‘NHS health trainer’ and add your city, local authority or region to see if this is available near you.

Conclusions

  • If you want to lose weight and stay healthy the best option may be to focus on nutrition and follow a balanced Mediterranean Diet.
  • Avoid the more extreme and restrictive diets, even if endorsed by celebrities. They are usually hard to sustain and carry health risks if used long term, as you’re not getting enough important nutrients.
  • If you feel you need to follow a structured weight loss diet, then some of the more established diets recommended by Harkin and Deen may be worth considering.
  • Free support may also be available from the NHS, through its community health trainers.
  • Fatmanslim is one of the few diet plans designed specifically for men – and it is free.

Reviewed and updated by Viktoria Semanov, December 2017. Next review date November 2020.

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