The Fallacy of Fad Diets

One of the best-selling “how-to” books of the season, Sugar Busters, presents the latest in a seemingly endless progression of weight-loss diets. It also provides another example why intense dieting is usually a poor alternative to pursuing a healthful eating plan.

This diet is based on the premise that it is not the number of calories or grams of fat that is essential to weight control, but the type of food we eat and when eat it.

It suggests that most of the extra body fat that Americans carry—and the increasing incidence of Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes—is the result of consuming too many carbohydrates and snacking in the evening.

As such, it has many of the disadvantages of other fad diets.

#1 – It Is Simplistic

In this case, maintaining a low and consistent level of insulin is described as the key to minimizing fat deposition. Insulin, which helps glucose (sugar) pass from the blood into the body’s cells, is released by the pancreas when the blood sugar level rises. It also promotes fat storage.

The diet advocates avoiding foods containing simple carbohydrates because they are quickly broken down into glucose, triggering a rapid rise in blood sugar levels and a corresponding insulin surge.

In reality, insulin activity is more complicated than the authors let on. Moreover, many experts maintain that obesity itself, independent of carbohydrate consumption, leads to excessive insulin production.

#2 – It Is Restrictive

Refined sugar (sucrose) is labeled “toxic,” and most foods that contain simple carbohydrates are eyed with suspicion. The proscribed list contains not just junk foods, sweetened drinks, and most bakery goods, but also baked potatoes, corn, beets, and even carrots. This advice ignores the value of these vegetables, which contribute minerals and vitamins to the diet.

#3 – It May Be Difficult To Maintain

Although there are no long-term data on this particular diet, history indicates that restrictive regimens are doomed to failure. People may lose weight initially, but they are likely to abandon the diet eventually and regain the pounds.

Sugar Busters also has some dubious advice for women. Progesterone is described as an appetite stimulant, and women are advised to refrain from—or at the very least minimize—using natural progesterone or its synthetic versions, progestins, including those in oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy. It neglects to note, however, progesterone’s vital role in reducing the risk of endometrial cancer in postmenopausal women taking estrogen supplements.

The book does make at least two valid points: Whole fruits and grains, which are likely to be higher in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, are preferable to processed juices and refined flours.

And the green, leafy vegetables it advocates are good sources of antioxidants, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and many cancers. Moreover, the diet it proposes is a relatively low-calorie one.

Calorie-cutting is one of the messages that is obscured in many fad diets. Like it or not, the key to weight control is balancing calorie intake and energy expenditure—in other words, working off the food we eat.

This proved to be the “secret” shared by those enrolled in the National Weight Loss Registry, a database of people who have dropped at least 30 pounds and maintained that reduction for more than 5 years.

The women in this group kept daily consumption to around 1,300 calories and deliberately expended about 2,700 calories a week—the equivalent of walking about 28 miles—through regular exercise.

Of course, weight control is only one facet of health. Good nutrition is even more important. Balanced, varied regimens, such as the Food Guide Pyramid and the DASH diet combine both elements to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and other degenerative conditions. Try them instead.

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