The facts & fiction of fad dieting

For many, fad diets are a quick fix for weight loss, but are they actually effective in the long run?

Kinesiology professor Robert Ross says our society has become obsessed with seeking quick fixes to lose weight rather than seeking good health.
Kinesiology professor Robert Ross says our society has become obsessed with seeking quick fixes to lose weight rather than seeking good health.

It’s hardly surprising that, for many people, January means starting a new diet. Some turn to exercise, some try to cut out junk food and others turn to a fad diet.

Fad diets are generally defined as diets that focus on a specific food group (or elimination of a food group) in order to generate quick weight loss. Popular ones include Atkins, South Beach, Zone or HCG diet. But when it comes to any diet, the question people want answered is: does it work?

Dr. Robert Ross is a professor of Kinesiology who studies weight loss. According to him, there is no evidence that popular fad diets are any more effective than regular diets.

“Diet composition is not as important as calories consumed,” he said, adding that a fad diet can work if it includes calorie reduction.

However, Ross said there’s really no way to sustain this type of diet. Whether it demands low consumption of fat, carbohydrates or another isolated type of food, these diets are impractical, he said. Such diets can actually promote poor health, because of a lack of vitamins and nutrients, excessively low calorie consumption, or promotion of low-calorie junk foods (like 100-calorie snack packs or products that contain aspartame) over higher-calorie whole foods.

Fad diets, and most diets generally, are generated by our society’s desire to focus on quick fixes. Ross identified this as a willingness to focus on weight as the problem, rather than the outcome of a problem. The problem, Ross said, is unhealthy eating and lack of exercise and weight gain is merely the result of an unhealthy lifestyle. Obesity in all age categories is increasing, including among university-aged individuals. Ross blames our obseogenic society.

Obesogenic, he explained, means encouraging obesity.

“[We’ve] engineered physical activity out of our daily lives, and now have a high prevalence of cheap, calorically dense food,” he said.

University students are especially prone to weight gain, as noted by the popularity of the “Freshman 15” concept. Ross cited lack of parental supervision, access to unlimited food and lots of socializing, which leads to greater consumption of alcohol and junk food, as the main reasons why most first-year students gain weight. Losing weight or maintaining one’s weight in first-year, he said, is highly irregular.

So, what can someone looking to lose weight do instead of adopting this sort of diet?

Ross recommended aiming to exercise most days of the week, and to reduce unhealthy food. He stressed the importance of reducing caloric intake as the single most important tool in weight-loss, but said that weight loss is nearly impossible to maintain without exercise.

“It is unfortunate that, in our society, we have been almost punished into the belief that we exercise to lose weight, rather than for physical health,” Ross said.

Anne-Marie Beliveau, ArtSci ’12, said she started counting calories in high school. Beliveau, who has been a synchronized swimmer for nine years, said the calorie-counting began more out of curiosity than a desire to lose weight.

“I started to care more than I should have,” she said, adding that discovered her calorie intake was higher than what was recommended for her age group. “It just made me stressed out.”

Beliveau said she no longer counts her calories and instead looks to maintain a balanced lifestyle to remain healthy.

“I feel like there’s more to being healthy than calorie intake, and it’s something that a lot of people take too seriously,” she said. “To be well-rounded and healthy you just need to eat right and exercise. Living is simple life is way less stressful.”

Ross said exercise is a crucial component in a healthy lifestyle, adding this is something that many fad diets overlook.

Even if someone takes up a healthier lifestyle and sees little change in weight, Ross said they’ve still done something highly beneficial for their health.

“The overall health of your body is so much more important than losing five pounds.”

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