Diets top the list of New Year’s resolutions, but few people have the willpower to stick to their chosen health plan.
After weeks of justifying Christmas indulgences, many turn to weight-loss techniques that they hope will help them shed the pounds in the new year.
However, sticking to a dietary plan is not easy and not all diets work, so before you get started, here’s what medical professionals have to say about some of the most famous diet trends today.
DASH, MIND and Mediterranean diet
The latest rankings from US News & World Report reveal that the Mediterranean and DASH diets have once again topped the list for best diet in 2018.
The DASH diet was originally designed to help people lower their high blood pressure. It is characterised by a mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy, and encourages people to avoid saturated fats, sweets, and to eat less salt overall. Each serving is small; for example, 1oz (28gm) of meat or 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil and sodium is capped at around half a teaspoon.
“Studies show that the diet, particularly when accompanied by exercise, reduces weight and blood pressure” says The Guardian, and what is more “the experts say it is easy to follow and you will feel full on it”.
The Mediterranean diet is high in fruits and vegetables, and includes healthy fatty food like fish, nuts and olive oil. Some studies show weight reduction while others are equivocal, but a Mediterranean diet is also thought to protect against diabetes and heart disease. “It is also easy and even joyful to follow” says the Guardian.
A mixture of the two, the MIND diet is supposed to protect the brain and prevent Alzheimer’s, “though much more research is needed to determine whether it really helps curb brain decline” says Time.
People are encouraged to eat from 10 brain-healthy food groups: green leafy vegetables, all other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine. They are also told to avoid foods from five food groups: red meats, butter and stick margarine, cheese, sweets and fried or fast food.
The paleo diet – also known as the caveman diet or stone-age diet – revolves around abstention from processed and overly sugary food, in favour of the kind of diet our paleolithic ancestors would have had, thousands of years ago, focusing on meat, fish, vegetables and fruit.
Dairy, cereal grains, legumes and salt are out, but nuts and seeds, eggs and certain oils are in. Proponents claim it minimises the risk of chronic disease, improves health and helps dieters lose weight.
However, Lucy Jones, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association (BDA), tells the Daily Telegraph: “There isn’t any proof that it improves health, and its demand that you exclude food groups essential to health – such as dairy, grains and legumes – could leave people seriously deficient in essential vitamins and calcium, not to mention constipated from the lack of dietary fibre.”
Juicing is big business: smoothies and juices fill supermarket shelves, juicers top Christmas present lists and travel companies even offer juicing retreats for holidaymakers willing to abstain from food during their hard-earned vacation time. Celebrity fans claim juicing detoxes leave them feeling less sluggish and bloated and more “sparkly eyed”.
Doctors are not so convinced, pointing out that a lack of protein will reduce muscle mass rather than fat. Others say the all-important insoluble fibre can be lost when fruit and veg are pulverised, which allows for higher sugar absorption. Public Health England (PHE) recommends that only one portion of your five a day should come from juices or smoothies – that’s just 150ml.
“There’s little scientific evidence to support juice diets as a sensible approach to better health,” reports the BBC. “Furthermore, if you follow this sort of diet for longer than a couple of days it is unlikely you will meet all your nutritional needs.”
New Atkins diet
The famed 1990s Atkins diet was reinvented six years ago by three American doctors. The high-protein, low-carbohydrate plan has found a new following in its slightly more forgiving form – there’s a wider range of foods allowed and a daily carbohydrate limit of 20g, which rises as the weeks go by. Kim Kardashian reportedly used the steak-heavy diet for her post-baby weight loss.
Even in its new iteration, Atkins encourages weight loss with its regime of consuming large amounts of processed and red meat, plus saturated fat and salt. It’s a quick way to shed pounds, but the BDA points to an increased risk of heart disease, and the American Heart Association also has concerns about its impact on the kidneys, bones and liver.
Our bodies have too much acid, and that excess turns to fat – so goes the theory behind the alkaline diet, which has the requisite stream of celebrity fans. This plan wants you to swap acidic foods such as meat, wheat, dairy and caffeine for “alkaline” foods that cut the body’s acid levels – in practice, lots of fruit and vegetables.
The problem is that the body automatically regulates your pH balance. No matter what you eat, your blood acid levels will remain the same, say experts. Critics explain that the weight lost on the plan is often due simply to eating fruit and veg while cutting down on sugar, alcohol and processed foods – which is recommended by health guidelines anyway. “It’s good advice based on a bogus premise,” one doctor tells the LA Times.
The 5:2 diet – based on the theory of intermittent fasting – has gained popularity, not least because it allows you to eat fairly normally most of the time. For two days a week, followers eat 25 per cent of their calorie needs, and for the remaining five days they are not restricted. That said, it doesn’t mean you can pig out the rest of the week – the 5:2 theory is that the fasting period makes you more aware of what you’re eating on non-restricted days, too..
The diet can help reduce fat and insulin resistance, and some followers claim it cuts the risk of heart disease and helps brain function. But an Australian study found that adherents lost just as much weight on a calorie-controlled diet and felt less hungry.
A variant on this diet – the 6:1, where followers fast completely on the seventh day – was criticised by the BDA as one of its worst five “celeb” diets.
So what is a good diet?
The BDA recommends eating a variety of foods, including five fruit or vegetables a day, plus starchy carbohydrates, proteins and dairy or alternatives.
Try to cut down on foods and drinks that contain high levels of sugar and fat – such as sweets, cakes, crisps and sugary beverages – and use a lower amount of oils and spreads. But don’t get rid of any of the five food groups (carbohydrates, protein, dairy, fruit and veg, and fats) entirely. If you eat meat, stick to the UK average of 70g per day – that’s equivalent to about three slices of ham.
As well as a balanced diet, of course, the NHS recommends plenty of exercise – the equivalent of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking) per week, plus strength training twice a week.
The ketogenic diet has some similarities with the paleo diet. Both of them involve cutting processed foods, refined sugar and most carbs.
“The main difference is that on the keto diet, most of your calories come from fat, whereas on the paleo diet, most of them come from protein,” dietician and author Keri Gans told the US edition of Women’s Health.
Keto takes its name from ketosis, the metabolic state in which the body burns calories from fat rather than carbs.
Achieving ketosis involves massively increasing your intake of healthy fats, such as those found in olive oil, meat, nuts, seeds and fish, while strictly controlling intake of other food groups, including cutting almost all carbs.
The restrictive regime is not for everyone, but advocates say that, if followed correctly, the keto diet can bring about significant weight loss in a short space of time.
Indeed, “one review of research on low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets, such as the ketogenic diet, indicated that short-term weight loss can occur when switching to this style of eating,” says Healthline.
However, “more research is needed to determine a clear causal relationship”.