The Perils Of Diving Into Strict Diets Headfirst
By Tom Venuto, NSCA-CPT, CSCS
By Tom Venuto, NSCA-CPT, CSCS
Every so often you read a sad story in the newspaper about someone who dove headfirst into a river or lake, without checking to see how deep the water was beforehand. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a shallow 18 inches and the consequence of this miscalculated plunge was a broken neck and a wheelchair.
This reminds me of the way most people impatiently dive into strict, extreme, or unbalanced crash diets, without thinking about the long term consequences, invariably crippling any chance they had for keeping the fat off in the long run.
One thing that almost all mainstream popular diets have in common is an "induction phase" (or the equivalent). This is often done under the scientific-sounding auspices of "making the metabolic switch" from "carb burner" to "fat burner."
Another common way that popular diets begin is with a "liquid fast" or "internal cleansing" phase. This is often suggested as necessary for clearing out all the gunk that has accumulated on your insides which (says them), is the reason you feel like "blah" and can't lose any weight.
Larrian Gillespie, the About.com guide to low carb diets, made a keen observation in a recent article. Writing about the Induction plan on programs such as the Atkins diet, she noted:
"Frankly, the only thing I object to is the induction plan concept...for ANY diet. It's a cheap trick approach to weight management, since we as Americans are fixated on quick fixes or we toss a plan and go onto the next marketing promise."
Not only do I agree - I would take it a step further. I believe that this radical beginning phase actually increases the chances of failure in the long term.
Gillespie continues with advice about what to do if you choose a low carb approach such as Atkins.
"This (induction) approach will trigger a rebound weight gain. Don't overdo the induction phase. Better yet, go directly to stage 2 of the plan and begin there. There is nothing more irritating to a physician than having a patient come in with health problems as a direct result of following some crazy diet, like eating ONLY cabbage, or only grapefruit."
"Induction" is simply a politically correct way to say you have to crash diet and starve yourself in the beginning. Look at the forums and message boards: They're filled with posts from people about to start these programs, dreading the "initial" phase and wondering if they'll be able to hack it (and with people telling war stories about how they "survived" it ...or tried it and failed).
"Induction" has nothing to do with science, health or permanent fat loss. It has everything to do with marketing and instant gratification. Dieters flock to the gurus that promise 12 to 15 pounds of weight loss in the first two weeks, while sneering at the idea of losing a paltry 2 pounds of fat per week.
"Give me results now" is the mindset, with no thought given to body composition, health or long-term consequences. What sells more books: "Quickly Lose 8-10 pounds in the first week" or "lose 8-10 pounds of fat per month and never gain it back?" Unfortunately, it is usually the former.
Over the past decade and a half I have almost always used the opposite approach with my clients - and that is, never dive into diets - instead, ease into a new way of life, one habit at a time, if necessary.
My clients are introduced to words such as habits, balance, lifestyle and patience. I sit them down, look them in the eye and ask, "Do you want to lose weight quickly and gain it back or do you want to lose fat slowly and keep it off forever and never have to "diet" again?"
When confronted face to face, the answer is always the latter (but often begrudgingly so). The patience pays off, and those who are wise enough to listen enjoy the fruits of lifelong health, leanness and fitness, never having to endure the repeated yo-yo losses and gains so many people suffer for an entire lifetime.
Consider these concepts: Do NOT crash diet only to relapse to your old, unhealthy ways. Do not even put yourself in "emergency" situations where you feel pressured to lose weight quickly. Build a foundation and master the fundamentals first, then nit pick, sweat the small stuff and try "advanced" techniques later.
Once you've mastered the basics, then you can slowly make your plan stricter - if necessary - based on your results. You can reduce or eliminate cheat days, and tighten up your food choices.
Yes, carbs can be s-l-o-w-l-y reduced to find that optimal level for your body type where fat loss really kicks in. Calorie levels can dropped, more cardio added, rest between sets decreased, and training intensity increased.
On and on your regimen can be gradually "tightened up" and compliance increased until the desired results are achieved. Then, it's a gradual, comfortable transition to maintenance phase, which is never far away from the fat loss phase.
Contrast this sensible, healthy, lifestyle approach, (which most people view not only as slow, but flat out "backwards"), with the crash diet or "induction" approach:
The new dieter STARTS from day one with the strictest, most extreme version of the diet. It's often very unbalanced with entire food groups removed, or it emphasizes only one food or food type. Sometimes, the restrictions are so tight, you even have to limit the amount of vegetables you eat! Is that CRAZY or WHAT????
The weight comes flying off. SUCCESS! Or so it appears.until all the weight has returned 6-12 months later along with the rest of the 95% of dieters who fail because they insisted on following the herd and hopping on the latest quick fix bandwagon.
No two people are exactly alike and no single nutrition program is right for everyone. For example, some people really do thrive on reduced carbohydrate diets. But one thing that's true for 100% of people 100% of the time is that starvation and crash dieting are a one-way ticket to eventual weight regain and metabolic destruction.
What should you do instead? Ease into it. Stick your toes in the water first. Isolate bad habits and replace them with good ones - one or two at a time - for life. Psychologists say it only takes 21 days to form a new good habit, and habits, not diets, are the key to long-term fat loss success. Any nutrition program not built squarely on a strong foundation of nutritional fundamentals and good long-term habits is an accident waiting to happen.