The holidays are here and many people are thinking about food – lots and lots of delicious food. And when the holidays are over, many will be considering the vast array of dieting options available.
From Paleo to protein, the choices are endless, with each diet claiming to be the optimal approach for weight loss and health. Whether you choose a fad diet and eat endless amounts of grapefruit and cabbage soup, or choose a well-balanced, low-calorie approach, the simple truth is you will likely lose weight if calories-in are lower than calories-out.
The problem with most fad diets is that they fail miserably in the long term. It’s simply not possible for most people to sustain an endless regimen of unpalatable, bland food or an eating plan that imposes excessive or unreasonable dietary restrictions. In fact, diets that are too restrictive can actually be harmful by producing loss of both lean muscle and fat tissue, resulting in a higher proportion of total body fat.
We are faced with a vast amount of information, from websites to news/talk shows to popular magazines, each claiming to have expertise. Nutrition is no different. With authoritative-sounding websites claiming to “dispel nutrition myths” while perpetuating incorrect or incomplete information, it is hard to separate hype from fact and find reliable information about nutrition.
What people can do to feel more confident in their nutrition choices is to consider the source of the nutrition information and the potential for bias.
For example, websites that sell nutritional supplements may not be the best places to find information about whether supplements are useful or necessary. It’s no surprise that a website such as Bodybuilding.com might espouse the need for excessive amounts of protein in the diet. But in fact, for most healthy people, a varied diet that includes fruits and vegetables is sufficient to avoid the need for dietary supplements.
Instead, people should try to use websites that give neutral, reliable information. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has an extensive and user-friendly website for finding evidence-based nutrition information and for promoting healthy lifestyles – including free built-in tools for tracking food intake and physical activity to help with weight loss goals.
It’s also important that those seeking nutritional and dieting information look for nutritional-related credentials, such as registered dietitian nutritionist or certified nutrition specialist.
Individuals with these credentials have a college degree in nutrition or a related science-based field, have undergone hundreds of hours of practical training, and have passed a rigorous examination process. A registered dietitian nutritionist can give sound, evidence-based nutrition guidance because he or she is trained to interpret and communicate the latest research thoughtfully and critically.
Although “Dr.” is a credential that implies medical training, any number of individuals, even psychologists such as “Dr. Phil,” can possess this title without any medical or nutrition training. Sadly, it doesn’t stop them from writing diet books and providing weight loss advice.
Likewise, popular public figures, even medical doctors, who promote nutrition-based products without scientific evidence of their effectiveness may be blatantly irresponsible in perpetuating misinformation.
It’s true that many of us will be in need of a post-holiday strategy for losing a few pounds, but simply put, don’t look for a quick fix – there just isn’t one.
Many weight loss plans provide sensible approaches for shedding those unwanted plans, but the trick is to find one that you can incorporate into daily life with minimal, or at least natural, changes in behavior to maximize results. Personalizing eating plans through genetic analysis is an area of avid research, but don’t be fooled by online advertisements that claim to prescribe the “perfect diet” based on genes. There are currently no gene-based dietary programs with strong research evidence to support them.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that people just need to be kind to themselves. Rather than viewing the process of weight loss as a painful “quick fix,” more people can use the opportunity to incorporate healthy habits into their lives for lasting health.
Molly Bray is chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. Sara Sweitzer is a registered dietitian and the director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and the Online Learning program in Nutritional Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
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