There are many popular diets which promise rapid weight loss and health benefits. Some of these diets, however, such as the Atkins and Dukan diet – while they may offer rapid weight loss – do not really offer any substantial health benefits. In fact, rapid weight loss can be regarded as an unhealthy change in itself. A healthy body weight can be achieved and maintained in a much healthier way and on a long-term basis with a more balanced and plant-based diet. Other diets claim they are optimal based on appeals to human nature (such as the Paleo diet), but as we will see, this diet is flawed in several ways.
Atkins and Dukan Diet
The Atkins and Dukan diet are very similar – some say the Dukan diet, developed by Dr Pierre Dukan, is just the French version of the Atkins diet. It is a high protein, low fat, low carb diet. That’s good, isn’t it? I mean, isn’t protein good and fat and carbs bad? That’s what most people are led to believe, but it isn’t entirely true. The diet consists of four stages: attack, cruise, consolidation and stabilisation. The first involves eating as much non-fatty high-protein foods as you want; the second stage introduces vegetables but no fruit; the third brings in bread, cheese and fruit, with two weekly “celebration meals” such as dessert and wine; and the fourth involves “anything goes” for 6 days of the week with one day of only protein – for the rest of your life.
By following these steps you can apparently achieve instant weight loss and maintain it throughout your life. First of all, rapid weight involves a number of health risks. Losing weight slowly allows your body to adjust to the changes gradually, as opposed to stressing it out with a regimented dietary program. Ironically, rapid weight loss can lead to rapid weight gain. Rapid weight loss leads to a slower metabolic rate, which means you burn calories at a slower rate, eventually leading to rapid weight gain. This is known as the body’s starvation response.
A dieter may be thrilled by how fast they lost weight but may feel fatigue and depressed from their restrictive diet. They may reward themselves with unhealthy food (as the Dukan diet allows), but because of their hunger pains, they may eat more of these foods than they usually would. Psychologically, they may seek instant gratification for their weight loss by reverting back to your old eating habits. An unhealthy and unsustainable ‘yo-yo effect’ can occur, where the dieter initially loses weight, gains weight, tries to lose it again, gains weight again, and so on. This yo-yo effect, otherwise known as weight cycling, can have harmful effects on your health, including an increased risk of heart disease caused by high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Weight cycling can affect your mental health too, leading to feelings of depression and general stress about your weight.
Both the Dukan diet and Atkins diet are dangerous because they are high protein, low carb diets. So are other diets in fact, including the Power Protein diet and the Paleo diet. People believe that carbohydrates should be avoided at all costs and that by cutting carbs you will experience rapid weight loss. You may experience rapid weight loss (even though you’re likely to rapidly re-gain that weight), however cutting carbs can be damaging to your health. In these low carb diets, it is common to experience bad breath, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, nausea and a dry mouth from cutting out carbs.
You need carbs for energy. Also, as with fats, there are carbs which are good for you. (Unsaturated fats are the good kind – they lower the bad LDL cholesterol which collects in the blood vessels and can be found in nuts, seeds and avocados. Our brains are more than two-thirds fat, so for healthy cognitive function, we need an adequate intake of high-quality fats. Interestingly, a recent study published in the British Medical Journal reveals that saturated fats – the kind people are told to avoid – do not increase your risk of heart disease). Refined carbohydrates are what you should really avoid. These include sugar, grains that have been made ‘white’ by stripping the germ and bran from them: white flour, white rice, white pasta. Corn starch is another refined carbohydrate to look out for.
With the ‘white’ refined carbs, all of the beneficial fibre has been stripped away, leaving only the easily digestible part of the grain. Wholegrain carbs, which are high in fibre, slows down the absorption of nutrients, including the carbohydrates. This slowing down can prevent valleys and peaks in blood sugar levels, reducing your risk of diabetes. Furthermore, fibre leads to a feeling of satiety, feeling full, making you less likely to binge eat and gain more weight. So contrary to what the Dukan or Atkins diet will have you believe, a diet high in wholegrain carbs is what will allow you to lose weight and maintain that weight in a reliable and healthy way.
For this reason, it is also wrong of these diets to exclude fruit, which is very high in fibre. Also, it is mistaken to think that just because fruit contains sugar that it should be avoided. Yes, fruit contains fructose, but it is difficult to overeat fructose just by eating fruit. You would never be able to consume the amount of fructose in refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup as you would by consuming fruit. And this is because the fibre in fruit leads to a feeling of fullness and satiation. The high fibre content in fruits also means that any fructose that is consumed gets digested much more slowly.
In contrast, any fructose you get from refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup is digested much faster, which is why the consumption of these products increases your risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. And let’s not forget the various health benefits of fruit either, which the Dukan and Atkins diet ignores. Fruits contain a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which can reduce the risk of a variety of health problems, including some forms of cancer. Antioxidants, for example, protect cells from damage caused by highly reactive free radicals, damage which could lead to cancer. The carbohydrates in fruit will also give you that much-needed boost of energy. A lack of whole grains and fruit in these popular low carb diets can create constipation. It is important to consume whole fruits and retain that healthy fibre.
Diets high in animal protein also carry a number of risks. Such diets are linked to high cholesterol, which increases your risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer. A new study suggests that a diet rich in animal protein carries a similar cancer risk to smoking. The Paleo diet, also known as the caveman diet and popularised by Dr Loren Cordain and Robb Wolf, consists of foods that can be hunted, fished and gathered. It is supposed to hark back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and is claimed to be the most natural and optimal diet around. The diet consists of meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. It excludes dairy, oils, cereal grains and anything processed, which came with the invention of agriculture (10,000 years ago) and signifies a departure from our hunter-gatherer diet. First of all, there are no accurate records of the Stone Age diet, so the Paleo diet is based on educated guesses and many of its health claims lack scientific evidence. The fact that grains, legumes and potatoes are restricted, which should be part of a healthy and balanced diet, has no evidence to back it up.
Professor Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Minnesota, argues in her book Paleofantasy that the diet is based on pseudoscience, speculation and misconceptions about how evolution actually works. Rather than being stuck with Stone Age genes, as the Paleo diet suggests, she argues that we evolve more quickly than expected. The ability to consume dairy evolved with our domestication and herding of cattle. Now 35% of the world’s population can tolerate milk products – so a food that was unsuitable for our Stone Age ancestors is now suitable for us. Whether dairy is good for us is an entirely different matter; the point is that it is unwise to emulate the lives of our ancestors, thinking that their way of living would be beneficial for humans today.
Dr Christina Warriner, an archaeologist from the University of Oklahoma, says that Paleo diets have “no basis in archaeological reality”. Firstly, primitive diets varied greatly according to latitude – sure, Arctic people would have a diet consisting mainly of meat, fish and seafood (since plant foods were largely unavailable), but plant foods were abundant in the tropics and so would have featured heavily in the diets of people living there. Primitive diets also varied with the seasons – plants produce seeds and fruit at different times of the year and animals migrate and fish spawn at different times of the year.
In all likelihood, many of our ancestors would not have eaten meat or fish every day but hunted for both whenever the circumstances permitted. Warriner argues it is a myth that our Paleolithic ancestors did not eat grains and legumes. She cites evidence that 30,000 years ago primitive humans were using stone tools to crush grains. Fossilised dental plaque also shows remains of grains, legumes and tubers – all banned according to the Paleo diet. Furthermore, the modern Paleo diet is nothing like the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Most fruits and vegetables are the product of modern agriculture and do not resemble the wild counterparts from which they were bred.
The meat we consume today is also hugely different from the meat that our ancestors consumed. We consume domesticated animals, whereas our ancestors consumed wild game. We feed domesticated animals a very unnatural diet, give them antibiotics, force them into unhealthy conditions where disease can spread, and so on. The small wild game animals that our ancestors ate would have lived a natural and healthy life. Our ancestors probably ate a lot of their meat raw as well and evidence suggests they ate the organs, fat and bone marrow of these animals as well. Following the Paleo diet can also be risky because it is high in animal protein which, as I pointed out before, is associated with many different health problems. It is important to keep in mind that animal protein is the only source of dietary cholesterol. The only good thing the Paleo diet teaches us is that processed foods should be avoided.
Based on the evidence, it seems that these popular diets are just fads – they offer the hope of quick fixes (Dukan and Atkins diet) or a return to a healthier mode of existence (Paleo diet). But as we have seen, these high protein low carb diets are full of health risks and are not supported by reliable scientific evidence. Based on the evidence available, it seems that a healthier diet is a varied, balanced, whole food, plant-based diet. This diet recognises the importance of combining a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. And it excludes processed foods, including sugar, ‘white’ carbs, high fructose corn syrup and processed oils.
But a diet is just one piece of the healthy lifestyle puzzle. Regular exercise is also necessary, especially cardio exercise, which keeps your heart healthy and burns calories (if you want to lose weight). Aerobic exercise may also be the most efficient way to raise your levels of good HDL cholesterol. This kind of cholesterol is good because it removes the bad LDL cholesterol that accumulates in blood vessels and transports it to the liver where it is broken down. The removal of LDL cholesterol will reduce your risk of contracting heart disease. Counting calories or calculating points like in the Weight Watchers diet is just far too time-consuming, obsessive, boring and unnecessary. So long as you eat a healthy diet with regular exercise, you will be able to maintain a healthy weight throughout your life.