By Toni Reyes
The world we live in is swamped with new-fangled diets promising to transform the way we look. However, the key to a good diet is to eat healthily. It's that simple.
We live in a health-conscious society that recognizes that what we eat has a huge effect on what and who we are. In addition, we have become obsessed with body self-image, and everybody now feels compelled, to the point of being coerced, to lose that flab, shed those pounds, and show off that toned flesh.
It’s all around us, drummed home by TV adverts, billboards, social media, health and fitness magazines, and even dinner party conversations or friends’ advice. It’s all-pervasive in its nature and dizzying in its effect, and the truth is that maybe we are just getting a little confused by it all. As a result, we can end up doing more harm than good.
The reality is that over 90 percent of people who go on a diet do not end up with any sustained weight or fat loss, and around 70 percent end up gaining weight (usually after a short spurt of weight loss in the beginning). Even worse, the process of dieting can actually have unhealthy effects.
Let's deal first with the fact that diets do not work in the long term, and this is mainly because dieting slows down your metabolism. Our metabolism exists to burn the calories we need in order to perform the vital functions in life, and the natural order of things is that our bodies burn roughly the number of calories that we consume.
When we diet, we take in fewer calories and thus, at first, our body uses our fat reserves to function and we lose some weight. However, the body then gets used to only burning a certain number of calories and, as soon as we revert back to our old selves and eat a little bit more, we gain those pounds back in no time because we are taking in more than our body is used to using. Dieting to lose weight only works if we keep cutting down on what we eat.
Also, dieting is just not the natural way of doing things. The tail should not wag the dog but the other way around, and similarly, our body should tell us what we need to eat. Eating is not a learned skill which we hone over time; it’s an instinct we all have from birth.
We have a natural calorie-counter which tells us when we need to eat and how much - although, of course, food that tastes good makes us want to eat more than we need - and our body is adept at telling us when we have had enough. Eat too much and we feel bloated. The trick is not to eat too fast because, if we do, we can overload before our body has a chance to send us the warning signals.
Dieting is not natural because we end up not taking in certain much-needed vitamins and minerals. The best examples of this are diets that rely on eating only one type of food for an entire week, like apples or bananas, or which rely on a small group of foods. You are, quite simply, denying your body things it needs.
If you cut out wheat, bread, potatoes or rice, you will not be taking on enough fiber and vitamin B. No dairy means not enough protein, calcium and vitamin D. Not enough fruit means not enough potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A. And so on. Alternatively, too much protein (which many diets rely on) dehydrates the body and may result in acute kidney failure. Dieting is bad for your health and it has been linked to an increased risk of cardio-vascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Then we have the other side of the coin: the mental and emotional effects of dieting.
Dieting is a stress-stimulant like no other. It has been proven, biologically, to result in increased cortisol, which is the stress hormone. This makes sense, since the more concerned you are with dieting, and considering how hard it is to succeed at it, the more you will stress if you don't hit your target weight, plus you will be denying yourself the enjoyment of eating what you want.
Dieting puts food at the center of your life. You are constantly thinking and worrying about your diet, using it as the barometer of the things you can and cannot do. What should you have for lunch if you know you are going out for dinner with friends? Or will you be able to survive your best friend’s wedding without gorging on the selection of delightful dishes on offer? Food shouldn’t be as all-consuming as that, but dieting makes it so.
Finally, and largely because of the aforementioned points, dieting can have serious effects on your sense of self-worth because you start to measure your life and your happiness by the success, or lack of it, of your diet. If you stick to your diet, it becomes a good day; if you don’t, then it spoils your mood. You find yourself not enjoying an occasion because you are thinking too much about sticking to your diet. You lose out on so much that cannot be quantified.
Reasons for Eating Healthily
Eating healthily is the key, not going on an obsessive drive to starve yourself and change the natural metabolism of your body. And there are many reasons to eat healthily, some of which are not as obvious as others.
Weight loss or maintenance is of course an obvious one. There are certain foods which are healthy in this respect, like fruits and vegetables, and some things, like fiber and lean proteins, are better for you than others, and can result in weight loss without reducing the number of calories you consume. And it’s surely worth it since obesity can lead to heart disease, poor bone density, cancer and diabetes, not to mention a loss of self-worth.
Furthermore, eating healthily can actually prevent cancer. Studies have shown that diets (as in what you eat, not the type of diet designed only to shed weight) rich in fruits reduce the chances of getting cancer of the upper gastrointestinal tract, a diet rich in fiber, fruits and vegetables lowers the chances of getting colorectal cancer, and a diet rich in fiber reduces the chances of liver cancer.
Also, if you maintain a diet which has limited saturated or trans fats (found in fried foods), and you curb your intake of salt and added sugar, you will not only lose weight but also manage your glucose levels and prevent the onset of diabetes, and keep your blood pressure and cholesterol within target range.
Almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds and green vegetables are rich sources of vitamin E, which can stop blood clots from building up and thus reduce the risk of heart attacks. Saturated and trans fats are directly linked to heart diseases, especially coronary heart disease.
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, fish, tofu and legumes, as well as many cereals and milks, are fortified with calcium, while leafy green vegetables are rich in magnesium. Calcium and magnesium are important for strong bones and teeth, which in turn prevents osteoporosis and osteoarthritis in later life.
Surprisingly, eating healthily can also improve memory and help to prevent dementia and cognitive decline, which means we need to consume enough vitamin C, D, and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and flavonoids and other polyphenols. For that, look no further than the Mediterranean with its diet rich in vegetables, such as tomatoes, broccoli, spinach and cucumbers, fresh fruit, olive oil, cheese and yoghurt, legumes like cashews, sunflower seeds and eggs, among other stuff.
Also, a diet high in sugar and fat alters your gut microbiome which increases inflammation of the gut, causing gut ache. In contrast, foods like vegetables, fruits, yoghurt, sauerkraut, miso, kefir and whole grains provide prebiotics and probiotics which help healthy bacteria to thrive in your colon, while fiber-rich foods help with regular bowel movements, thereby preventing bowel cancer.
Finally, there is an often overlooked factor which many people still think is some type of hippie theory: a healthy diet improves your mood. Basically, a diet with a high glycemic overload, such as soft drinks, cakes, white bread and biscuits, can lead to depression and fatigue. A diet without those will not.
And there you have it. It’s pretty straightforward. Dieting by eating less, or only eating from one group of foods, is a bad thing, while eating healthy foods is a very good thing. The rest is mumbo jumbo designed to confuse and manipulate.
Aim for a healthy diet, not unhealthy dieting.