Fad Diets Don’t Work But Here’s The Skinny on What Does

What the following diets have in common (Blood Type, Grapefruit, Atkins, Scarsdale, Sugar Busters, South Beach, Lazy Zone and Hollywood) is that they provide you, the dieter, with seven different ways to torture yourself while losing and gaining back the same ten pounds. Like it or not, chronic overeating involves the brain, genes, metabolism and a host of other social factors and often bears a biochemical resemblance to drug addiction.

Through research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, we know that parts of the brain (the brain stem and hypothalamus) help us to regulate our feelings of both fullness and hunger. Additionally, the pleasure-reward systems of the limbic system (primitive brain) often seem to operate at a faster pace then the frontal lobe which stores our best knowledge and most honorable intentions about how much and what we should eat. Lastly, through marketing ingenuity we are immersed in an endless food swamp that provides us with enticing sensory food messages as well as an abundance of foods which are energy dense and often provide empty calories.

So what is one to do with all the knowledge about the brain, metabolic processes, genetic predispositions and a myriad of social and behavioral influences? Perhaps someday there will be a safe pill or quick fix that adjusts our metabolic rate or changes our cravings for fat and sugar to spinach and soybeans. Until such a time, however, there is no need for despair. Tried-and-true methods gleaned from hundreds of research studies on the behavioral and social factors related to weight loss and maintenance do exist. Below are steps you can take now:

1. Begin With a Good Baseline Assessment

It is well worth your time and money to sit down with a nutritionist or mental health counselor who has a behavioral focus. The ultimate food and activity plan that will help you succeed must be designed for you individually. As part of this plan, you will examine when and what you currently eat, your activity level, emotional triggers to overeating and, believe it or not, the relationship your good friends have with food (if you hang out with the noshers you will ultimately nosh).

2. Be Mindful of Your Thoughts, Emotions and Behavior

It will be important for you to learn and identify the signals of both hunger and fullness. We tend to override these sensory cues when we eat in front of the TV, computer or work station. Many behavioral studies have found that making this small shift from mindless to mindful eating can reduce consumption by 10 – 20 %. As tedious as it may sound, logging what you eat on a daily basis, writing out a fire escape plan you will follow each time you get an emotional eating “trigger” and compiling a list of your victories and successes will help you override the pleasure-reward system of the brain.

Research on cravings in general suggests that it takes about 20 minutes of distraction to override these limbic system urges. Having a complete list of alternatives whether they be active like taking a walk or cleaning a closet or passive like reading a book or taking a bath will help you identify if you are really hungry for food or something else entirely.

3. Stop Putting the Total Blame on Your Genes

While there is a small percentage of the population that may have higher satiety levels and more easily store fat, this factor alone does not explain current obesity rate increases which have jumped from 15 % of the adult population to 34 % since 1970. To believe it is genetics and destiny is using a microscopic rather than a macroscopic view of the problem. We haven’t changed that much as a species but we are in an entirely different world with almost no demands on our physical activity level and an endless supply of “obesogenic” foods combined with sophisticated marketing tactics. Become familiar with food labels, caloric content, misleading advertising and invest time in learning about exposure to toxins and specific food additives which may mitigate your diet efforts.

4. There are no quick fixes

Most people are more successful when they incorporate small changes at the beginning of their program. A couch potato who promises to go to the gym seven days a week and cut caloric intake by 50% is doomed. Try to adopt an experimental attitude instead. Changing ingrained behavioral patterns is more like slowly turning an ocean liner than a canoe. Examine your personal food profile and determine where changes can be made that won’t feel punitive.

Try heart healthy meals on a menu, experiment with ordering appetizer portions and extra vegetables when dining out, ask for salad dressings on the side and dip instead of pour. Learn to read nutrition labels and figure out the appropriate number of calories combined with an exercise program that will result in weight loss for you personally. Learn about food additives and engineered foods (like high fructose corn syrup and trans fats) that may interfere with metabolism and boycott some of those. Don’t ever say “never” to anything. Remember that at the end of every deprivation lies a binge. Moderation in all things is the answer!

5. Use available support groups

Many studies document the benefits of having a group of cheerleaders by your side as you begin changing your lifestyle. This group could be an exercise or activity group, a formal organized group like Weight Watchers, TOPS or Overeaters Anonymous or even a virtual support group connection. It is important to share victories and triumphs as well as obstacles and setbacks and revamp behaviors for a better future outcome.

Public policy may also be changing as we work as a nation to find solutions to the war on obesity. If it were easier to understand nutritional labeling and to procure fresh fruits and vegetables that would be an asset to us individually and as a society. Rewriting building and zoning codes to provide easy access to playgrounds, biking, walking paths and activity areas would also be a plus. In the meantime, while public policies evolve, skip the next fad diet and begin creating an individualized plan using the behavioral techniques supported in research to give you the results you really hunger for.

Jan Beauregard, Ph.D. is the Clinical Director of the Integrative Psychotherapy Institute in Fairfax, VA where she maintains a private practice specializing in addictive behaviors and trauma. For additional information please contact us.

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