If you’re like many of my patients, you’d like to lose a few (or more) pounds. As you’ve probably noticed, there’s no shortage of help when it comes to dieting. Let’s see, there’s the cabbage soup diet, the ice cream diet, the baby food diet, and even a cotton ball diet — and yes, it’s just what it sounds like, as well as an absolutely terrible idea.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m not going to dignify any of these ridiculous “diets” by explaining what they’re all about. But I can tell you this: None of them is your friend. You may lose a few pounds quickly, but I can pretty much guarantee you’ll gain them right back, as my patient Jenny discovered. Not only that, you’re putting your health at serious risk when you go on a crash diet. Let’s take a closer look at what works and explore a better way to lose weight.
What’s the Problem?
No doubt you’ve heard about the obesity epidemic. Today, approximately two-thirds of all Americans are overweight or obese, and that figure keeps rising. From a medical perspective, “overweight” is defined as a BMI (body mass index) between 25 and 29.9, while “obese” is considered a BMI of 30 or more. The BMI is simply a measurement of your weight in relation to your height. You can determine your own BMI by entering “BMI calculator” in your favorite search engine and filling in your height and weight.
Maintaining a healthy weight is very important. We know that excess pounds increase your risk of developing serious and chronic health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, and certain cancers. So I applaud anyone who is making an effort to slim down. But weight loss is shrouded in so many myths — not to mention magical thinking — that it’s very hard for the average person to sort out fact from fiction. So let’s do that right now.
Why Crash Diets Fail
For most people, being overweight is the result of consuming more calories than needed to provide the body with energy. But don’t forget that hormones play a role, too. For example, excess estrogen and adrenal or thyroid irregularities can pack on pounds. And certain medications, such as antidepressants in the class known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), for example, often have the same effect. If you have been struggling with weight loss, I suggest having a blood test to check your hormone levels and talking with your physician about weight gain as a side effect of prescription medication. Sometimes switching to a different medication helps.
But if you’re one of the millions of people who have simply gained a few pounds every year and are now ready to shed them, a crash diet is not going to help. Crash diets are quick solutions, when weight loss is really a long-term project. You didn’t gain 40 pounds overnight, and you aren’t going to lose it in a few days either.
Crash diets are essentially very low-calorie eating plans that usually involve some sort of gimmick, like avoiding a certain food group (carbohydrates or fats, generally) or focusing on a particular food, usually for reasons that have weak or nonexistent scientific support. People do lose weight on crash diets, but most of it tends to be water rather than fat. After the initial weight loss, many people gain back the lost pounds and often a few extra. That’s known as yo-yo dieting, and it is quite stressful for your body.
Why are very low-calorie diets dangerous? For one thing, they can cause an imbalance in levels of your body’s electrolytes, minerals like potassium and sodium that are essential for good health. When electrolytes are unbalanced, you run the risk of developing muscle weakness, confusion, seizures, and other complications. But problems with electrolytes are only one downside of crash dieting. Others include:
- Slower metabolism, making it more difficult to lose weight
- Weakened immune system
- Heart palpitations and stress on the heart
- Weakened muscles, making it harder to engage in fat-burning exercise and physical activity
Here’s the bottom line: Very low-calorie diets are not safe. The only way a highly restrictive, low-calorie diet can succeed without harming your health is with frequent medical supervision.
How to Lose Weight the Healthy Way
Instead of investing your hard-earned money in the latest crash diet, here are three simple ways to lose weight. They may not be the hottest new fad, but they allow you to maintain overall good health while gradually dropping pounds.
Balance Your Microbiome
Microbiome is the scientific name for the microbes that live in our bodies. There is ten times the number of these bacterial cells as human cells in the body. This means that each one of us is a highly complex ecosystem of interdependent organisms managing everything from digestion to development to fending off invaders.
Researchers studying the microbiome now believe that disruptions in its delicate balance may play an important role in the obesity epidemic. How does the microbiome become unbalanced? Antibiotics are one of the foremost culprits. That’s because antibiotics kill both good and bad microbes (bacteria), upsetting the balance and leaving us vulnerable to inflammation, digestive disorders, immunity problems, and (quite possibly) weight gain. One recent study, for example, confirmed earlier research showing a link between one particular type of internal microbe and excess weight.
Fortunately, probiotic supplements can help restore the friendly bacteria that are so important to your health. Look for a product that includes different strains of bacteria and provides at least 10 billion live organisms per dose.
Skip the Sugar
In the simplistic world of crash diets, one food group (usually carbohydrates or fats) is often eliminated because supposedly it is responsible for packing on pounds. As a physician who has studied nutrition extensively, I can tell you that good health requires balanced intake of all three macronutrient groups: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Avoiding any one of those is like trying to drive a car with three wheels — good luck with that!
Instead of avoiding one of the much-needed major food groups, I often recommend my patients jump-start their weight-loss programs by avoiding sugar. This may not be as easy as it sounds, since various forms of sugar are in just about every processed, prepared food available, including baked goods, salad dressings, pasta sauces, “energy” drinks, granola bars, and so much more. But even if you start by eliminating the most obvious sugar sources — sodas, designer coffee, desserts, and sugary snacks — you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.
Please don’t make the mistake of thinking artificial sweeteners like Splenda or aspartame are healthier. They are linked to all manner of health issues as well as weight gain. Studies consistently show that people who consume sugar-free, artificially sweetened beverages end up bingeing on unhealthy carbohydrates, thanks to sweetener-induced changes in their brain chemistry. If you absolutely must have something sweet, try using a little stevia (an herbal sweetener with no calories or carbohydrates), raw organic honey, or organic maple syrup. These are all far better for you than sugar.
Move It and Lose It
If you think of weight loss only in terms of food, you’re missing out. Exercise is an absolute must for lasting weight loss. I highly recommend high-intensity interval training (HIIT) because the short sessions save a great deal of time and because HIIT works so well. Studies show that exercise sessions consisting of just three 10-minute workouts each week produce results as good as 45-minute-long workouts. The key difference is that during the short sessions, exercisers spend somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds going “all out,” followed by 3 minutes to recover, then going all out again.
In addition, I recommend resistance training to build muscle. Using weight machines, free weights, or resistance bands are all good ways to build muscle. The goal here is not to enter bodybuilding competitions, but to develop solid muscle, which not only provides support and protection from falls but also burns more calories than fat, even when you’re not exercising!
There’s so much more to be said about weight management that we will definitely return to this topic in the future. For example, getting less than 7 or 8 hours of deep, restful sleep each night is linked to weight gain, so relieving your insomnia may make it easier to slim down. Clearly, there are plenty of healthier weight-loss options than crash diets. After all, what’s the point of losing weight if you’re harming your health in the process?