Separating healthy eating from dieting fads

Katie Andrews of United Methodist Church prepares salad at her home in Valencia. The new “Impossible” foods, such as the plant-based burger pattie, tends to be higher in salt, fats and processed chemicals, so experts say people are better off with vegetables or fruits. Austin Dave/The Signal
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Keto. Paleo. Gluten free. Nutrisystem. Everywhere you look it seems like there are a thousand different diet trends with new ones popping up by the second. 

As the new year begins, many people will begin the annual quest towards a healthier body and lifestyle only to find themselves frustrated by slow or inconsistent results. While this may be discouraging, Henry Mayo Fitness and Health lifestyle specialist Andy Leskin says that fluctuating results are normal and should not be a sign of worry.

“It’s all about small building blocks to form habits that are sustainable,” Leskin said. “You didn’t gain the weight overnight, it probably took a few years to gain those 10 pounds, so it’ll take you a good six months of work to take it off.”

Often backed by celebrity endorsements, fad diets are often presented as trendy, exciting new ways to eat healthy and lose weight. Julie Tang, a private practice registered dietician in Santa Clarita, says that while fad diets often result in the early weight loss at the beginning, this is mostly just water weight that will be gained back. Oftentimes, her clients will come to her for help after these fad diets have failed them.

“Most of the time fad diets are very restrictive regarding what you can and can’t eat and that’s not practical or sustainable in the long term because when you restrict yourself from eating certain foods, you tend to end up overeating or bingeing other foods,” Tang said. “There’s a reason why there seem to be so many new fad diets and it’s because the previous ones didn’t last. They don’t produce long term effects and while there is some data on these diets, there’s still pending evidence and not sufficient data.”

Some of the most popular fad food trends of 2019 included plant-based meat, not eating eggs, cucumber-only diets and intermittent fasting, according to an article by Dr. Sean Hashmi, regional director of weight management and clinical nutrition for Kaiser Permanente Southern California. 

Hashmi’s article found that neither meatless meats nor cucumber diets are nutritionally sound choices. Foods like plant-based burger patties are high in salt, fats and processed chemicals, so people are better off sticking with vegetables or fruits, and any weight lost on a cucumber diet is only water weight that will be immediately gained back as soon as you go off the diet. 

On the other hand, eggs and intermittent fasting are okay if done responsibly and in moderation. Intermittent fasting, in which eating is restricted to certain hours of the day, is not the best way to lose weight. If it’s done safely, it can lead to weight loss — but if done unsafely, it can result in nutrient deficiency.

While many people try to do research on their own about how to best handle their own nutritional needs or how to properly diet, Tang said that in the internet age it is often hard to distinguish people’s opinions from scientific facts. 

Healthy eating, according to Leskin, is a game of reducing caloric intake and ensuring that the calories that people do eat are the healthiest they can be. Rather than making immediate wholesale changes and taking the cold turkey approach to cutting out junk food, Leskin favors a more gradual approach.

“A lot of time people will say, ‘Tell me what to eat, and I’ll do whatever you say,’ but I like to look at it like, ‘Let’s start with what you are eating and take it from there,’” Leskin said. “For example, let’s clean up your breakfast; and instead of coffee and a donut or something unhealthy, we can do overnight oats or switch out white bread for whole grain bread. Find the small wins where we can with substitutions, and once we’ve won breakfast for two weeks in a row, and when that’s got you feeling confident, then we move on to lunch.”

When looking to change their diets, Tang recommends that her clients set SMART goals, or those that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Additionally, she advises people to supplement their meals with healthy snacks throughout the day to help manage their hunger throughout the day and discourage overeating at mealtime,  and to incorporate as many different colored vegetables and fruits into their diet as possible to ensure they are getting a variety of nutrients. Eating more fiber may help to stay fuller longer and using smaller plates can also help control portion sizing.

Eating healthy can also be expensive, and for those on a tighter budget, Tang said that frozen and canned vegetables are a cheaper alternative without a significant decrease in nutrients compared to fresh vegetables. Staples foods like rice, beans, tomatoes, garlic and onions are healthy ingredients that are also very versatile and can be used a variety of different dishes. 

“There is no perfect diet and perfection should not be our goal,” Tang said. “For example when you’re setting a New Year’s resolution focus on long term success. Make sure you can see yourself sticking with the diet and have a support system to help you remain accountable.”

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