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Do diets actually work?

If you're confused by the never-ending train of faddish new diets, you're not alone. Lounge speaks to nutritionists to find out if they work at all

A diet that works for your friend may not work for you.
A diet that works for your friend may not work for you. (Istockphoto)

One thing that never goes out of fashion is diets and talking about them. Over the years, various diets have trended, only to be replaced by another. Paleo was all the rage till 2016 and then came Keto. Gwyneth Paltrow made the Goop diet for cleanse and detox pretty popular, while the Alkaline diet was quite a rage too. The Atkins diet seems ancient by comparison.

But do diets, of any kind, work at all?

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. If you were to ask a nutritionist or a fitness coach, they’d say that all diets are temporary in nature; they’re used to achieve short-term goals like weight management or gaining muscle over a limited time-frame.

Also Read: Why the oldest weight loss diet is still the best

“Diets do not work for everyone. Also, diets alone cannot help achieve any of your health or fitness goals,” says AK Abhinav, founder of NAMMA CrossFit and strength and conditioning coach at Life of Tri, a triathlon training centre in Bengaluru. Most of the food that we consume is processed to reside in our musculature in the form of creatine phosphate, glycogen and glucose, he explains. “Our muscular system needs appropriate stimuli in order to assimilate nutrients and build energy stores in the muscles, which ultimately results in optimal health and fitness. A lack of physical exercise results in these energy stores being accumulated as fat in our bodies.”

One size doesn’t fit all

Just because a particular diet works for your friend, it doesn’t mean it would work for you. Every diet requires personalisation as per one’s needs, and this is why professional guidance is of great importance.

The other thing that’s rarely discussed when it comes to diets is how easy it is to veer away from it and sneak in cheat meals. “One major drawback of diet plans like Paleo, Keto, South Beach, Zone, etc. is that they are a long-term commitment,” says Priyam Naik, dietetics officer at Saifee Hospital, Mumbai. “The early weight loss effect of low calorie diets decreases over time,” he adds.

These diets have been developed based on the arithmetic of energy depletion and repletion and not its chronic effects on the human body’s organ systems, argues Abhinav. “They have been designed grossly to meet the human body’s energy needs in the modern world. We are not hunting animals while sporting a loincloth. We are mostly sedentary with a small percentage of people involved in physical training up to 60-90 minutes everyday. All the fad diets are weight-loss or fat-loss diets, which is not a permanent fix or a healthy lifestyle to follow,” he adds.

Also Read: Avoid these five nutrition mistakes

Most of these fad diets, if followed blindly or without supervision, can also become a health risk. “If there is a major calorie deficit, one does not get the necessary nutrients and can experience health issues. A strict low-carb diet like Keto could force the body into ketosis, a condition in which ketones are accumulated in blood, which could cause dehydration, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and bad breath. Excessive meat consumption could also lead to various cancers while high protein intake could force the kidneys to work harder to remove additional waste products from the body,” says Naik.

How can you make a diet work?

Scientifically speaking, the two primary factors that influence our nutritional and feeding habits are climate and geographical location. For example, in cold geographies such as Siberia and Alaska, the local diet consists of plenty of meat and dairy as the region’s climate isn’t suited for cultivating fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, a person living in tropical regions would eat diverse varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, supplemented by protein either from dairy, meat and seafood, explains Abhinav.

The key to successful eating that benefits you and helps you achieve your goals, is to figure out what works for you, as celebrity fitness trainer Shivoham and I have explained in our book The Shivfit Way. This will require you to learn by trial and error over a period of time to come up with the best possible nutritional combination. Given the erratic and hectic nature of our jobs and life, sticking to strict meal times might not always be possible. This is why it’s important to figure out a way to snack on nuts and fruits so that you can guard against overeating.

Also Read: The correct nutrition balance for optimal fitness

Abhinav says that a balanced diet should ideally consist of 80% food sources where micronutrients are in their natural ration, and 20% of derivatives like dairy, meat, poultry, seafood and so on. “All plant-based foods are found to have macronutrients in the following ratio: 10-15% protein, 70-75% carbohydrates and 10-15% fat.While the derivatives have 30-40% protein, 30-40% carbohydrates and 30-40% fat,” he says, adding, “Fad diets have flipped the above balance by suggesting people rely primarily on food derivatives 80% of the time.”

Another fad that we hear of a lot is the vague 'detox diet'. Nutritionist and coach Shannon Beer strongly dislikes this trend and feels the idea of the detox diet is actually harmful. “I hope terms like ‘detox’ continue to be made redundant as we realise that no single food in isolation has the power to make or break our diet. We should be looking at foods within the context of our diet as a whole,” she says.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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