Fad Diets & Long Term Fitness

It would be funny, if it weren’t in some ways sad, how many friends I have who are pursuing weight loss and better fitness. Perhaps, the older you get, the more you value your health and fitness. Certainly there’s a perception that being healthier and more physically fit will stave off our arch enemy – death. For all that, being “healthier and more physically fit” seems to somehow morph into “lose weight” all too often. Maybe it’s because general practitioners, cardiologists and every other doctor in the world seem to say, “You need to lose weight,” as if it’s a miracle cure. For sure, it can have a positive impact on your quality of life, but it’s not the end all be all of fitness. Yet the diet industry thrives.

If you talk to any one of your friends today (who isn’t a nutritionist) about your diet, you can almost be assured of getting questions back: Which one? How’s it working? How long have you been on it? “Diet” means you’re eating in some special way so to lose weight, right? Oh, wait. That last question was mine; not one your friends would ask.

If you look up the word “Diet” on dictionary.com you won’t find mention of weight loss until the third definition. The first two definitions show that “Diet” is a general term used to describe what you consume overall, or as controlled for the specific purpose of making sure you take in certain nutrients or limit others. But that’s “Diet” as a noun. “Diet” as a verb has four definitions and the third one of those relates to weight loss. To “Diet” as a verb’s first definition is about improved physical condition. And then there’s “Diet” as an adjective which describes food or drink items as suitable for weight loss, i.e. “diet Coke.” (Think about how silly that one actually is.)

So, thinking about all that, when someone says, “I’m on a diet,” and everyone around them thinks they’re trying to lose weight, understand that it might be a false assumption. Of course, with the “diet” industry being what it is today, it may just mean they’ve picked the latest fad diet to try out. Here’s what really concerns me about such diets – and the intended primary focus of this article: most diets, as we get exposed to them today, are short term, targeted for reasonably quick weight loss, and accompanied by no long term plan for maintaining that weight loss or increasing other aspects of fitness while losing the weight. In other words, they are programs sold to help people reach a goal in a relatively short amount of time (usually six to twenty-four months) but with no support or plan after that. Some of these diets include an exercise program to go along with the supplements they sell and at least they have the overall benefit of increasing your strength and flexibility (depending on the program) if you are disciplined enough to do the exercise in addition to controlling what you eat (use the supplements instead of your usual food intake).

My challenge is that people get so focused on weight loss and the quick-fix of a given diet program, that they don’t think long term. If you’re a 40-year-old man who has been overweight for years and then your friend says, “You should try the keto diet,” because it worked so well for them for the past three months, you might jump on that bandwagon. The keto diet, focusing on the intake of protein and fat, reducing carbs to a bare minimum, has worked for a great many people. When there’s little to no sugar in your body to burn, it starts burning the fat stores that you have. My question is: what happens when your body fat gets down to 10% or less? Can you stay on that diet indefinitely? What about folks who have diabetes? Or are hypoglycemic? Did you talk to your doctor or nutritionist (or cardiologist) before starting this diet? That 40-year-old man tries out the keto diet and does well.  Three months later he’s easily lost the 10, 15 or 20 pounds he wanted to lose. He may have even done some exercising along the way so he looks better and feels good with what he sees in the mirror. But now what? Without a proper long term plan, he may well think, “Cool! I hit my goal weight. Now I can go back to eating ‘normal’ and just pay attention.”  Why yes… yes he can. But paying attention means exactly that: keeping track of his intake in protein, fat and carbohydrates and continuing to exercise. Otherwise there’s a good chance he’ll be back to the same weight he started in a year or two. See-saw dieting like that is not good for your health in the long term… but it’s great for the diet industry. When someone loses weight, gains it back, loses weight, gains it back… see-saw up and down… then they start to think the last diet worked, but not for long and they start looking for the next diet to try.

Here’s an idea: why not start out doing what has worked for generations upon generations? Eat clean and exercise. Every one of us has different nutritional requirements. Our bodies react differently to everything we take in. Diabetics and folks with hypoglycemia have different concerns. People in their 20s who are trying to stay in shape have different concerns from people in their 50s. If you want to jump start your fitness program by losing a large chunk of weight as quickly as possible, recognize that for what it is: a temporary effort using a specific dietary intake plan to help you reach your goal weight. But it is NOT a fitness plan and it won’t necessarily increase your quality of life or extend your life any.

Fitness, as I’ve said before, isn’t just weight loss or avoiding being obese. Fitness is a combination of factors that make up your overall health profile: weight, strength, flexibility, blood pressure, cardiac health, etc. Controlling what you eat will have the greatest impact on your weight and it may benefit your blood pressure as well (most weight loss helps blood pressure be lower). But will it do anything to increase your strength? Your flexibility? Your endurance levels or cardiac health? (Weight loss does result in less strain on your heart, so there’s a benefit.)

If you’re going to buy into any given dietary control model, whether it is the keto diet, Adkins, NutriSystems, Beach Body, Jenny Craig, paleo… whatever it is, make sure you understand whether it is short term or long term and the limited value of it unless you equally commit to exercising along with it. Understand what the goal(s) of the dietary program are, how it works with your body and whether it can be used long term or not. Select a program that works for you in your lifestyle; one that you can maintain even after you’ve reached your goal weight, and that you can stay on for the rest of your life. Otherwise, you’re just see-sawing your weight and ultimately not doing yourself any good. The diet industry loves you though… after all, they’re there to make money of your desire to lose weight and they want you to pick their solution. If you do it several times it just helps them get richer and ultimately doesn’t do you much good at all.

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