Friday, May 14, 2010

Diets Don’t Work? …Really?

Have you ever noticed how an idea gains popularity but the idea may not be true? Drinking eight cups of water a day is one such concept. It seems like a good idea, but there are many people who do fine drinking less and many people who need more. Another such idea is that diets don’t work. This is a common idea circulating within the nutrition community and one that I’m sure many “dieters” have also heard. The purpose of this idea is to move people away from the “dieting” mentality to encourage them to engage in healthy eating and lifestyle habits, and to become more aware of their bodily need for food. It also, unwittingly lays blame with the “diet promoting” community for the failure of dieting efforts.

As a practicing dietitian for 20 years I have to say that diets DO work! I’ve been witness to many people achieving their goals by following a specific dietary plan. The problem is that people can be limited by their ability to follow recommendations consistently. There are all sorts of reasons for this, too numerous to describe, but here are a few: emotional eating related to the need for comfort, lack of time to prepare meals due to social pressures, and medical problems (and medications) that change the body’s response to food.

Perhaps the first myth to dispel is that "diet" is a four letter word. It depends on how you look at it. The word “diet” as a noun describes a way of eating. All living creatures have a diet, ranging from the worms and bugs that birds eat to the broad variety of items my dogs eat – dog food supplemented with small rocks, twigs, shoes, undergarments and broccoli. Change diet into “dieting” and viola—it becomes a verb. This is how many of us are most familiar with the word. Dieting implies that we are doing something to change our eating regimen—not necessarily a bad idea. But when one “goes on a diet” they inevitable must “go off a diet” abandoning all the good changes that they previously made. It seems best to focus on the word diet as a noun to grasp the long term nature of what our commitment should be to a healthy diet. As long as we are living and eating, our commitment shouldn’t end.

Research conducted by the National Weight Control Registry showed that people can lose weight on ANY diet plan. So weight loss doesn’t seem to be the problem as much as weight maintenance. And weight is not maintained when the permanence of an eating regimen is not considered. As is the case with weight loss, there are many diets that are successful in improving other aspects of health. The Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy. The DASH diet lowers blood pressure, and has recently been shown to help prevent kidney stones. And there are many different diet manipulations that can improve intestinal function, reduce the risk of cancer, lower cholesterol levels and control blood sugar. Diets do work!

I agree with my colleagues who espouse the non-dieting approach, but don’t say that diets don’t work. Let’s go back to looking at the word “diet” as a noun and encourage each individual to choose the best diet to achieve and maintain their health.