Diets…When Science Meets Gimmick

Does Chocolate Really Lead to Weight Loss?

Image: graur razvan ionut /

I’ve been in Florida on vacation the past few days and I came across an article in a local newspaper describing a “dark chocolate” diet run by a psychotherapist that involves:

  1. Drinking shakes, eating high-quality dark chocolate as snacks and a “reasonable” dinner resulting in around 1500 calories a day for men, and 1200 calories for women.
  2. A series of behavior modification sessions with the psychotherapist designed to have you become better attuned to your relationship with food and eating…while having shakes and chocolate?!?

Can we really become attuned to our true eating habits when we are drinking shakes, chomping down on chocolate and significantly restricting our calories all day?  A tasty option, but is it really a solution?  This is the problem with most diets…they work, but do they LAST?

Most diets work.  Most people who design diets are not trying to “scam” you.  They’re just scared that when you hear the “truth” behind living healthfully such as eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, having more whole grains and consuming less fried foods, pizza, soda and booze, you’re going to run away screaming.  Are their fears really unfounded?

Wouldn’t you rather eat steak, butter, bacon and eggs all day, every day (Atkins) or just have two shakes, chocolate and a “sensible” dinner every day?  It’s a heck of a lot easier to give up your relationship with food and say, “Yep, no carbs for me” or “Just shakes for breakfast and lunch every day”.  And it works, until six months later and that 120th chocolate or butter pecan-flavored shake looks less appetizing than a can of lima beans…or when you’re eyeing the bread basket at a restaurant like a long lost friend.  And in both cases, you’d probably much rather be having a slice of pizza.

The science says, eat less calories than you burn and you will lose weight.  And, studies have shown that you need to consume at least 1200 calories from “balanced” food sources to ensure you get enough vitamins and minerals in your diet.  A bit more for men, hence the 1500 calories.  No need to explain more for most people.  They just want to lose weight, regardless of whether it means the weight they are losing is the:

  1. Unsightly, physique hiding fat that jiggles for seconds after stop moving or…
  2. Calorie-burning, shape-defining, toned lean body mass (muscle, bone, etc.) that will ultimately keep their weight off for good.

Most people just want to see the scale go down.  No one gives us the nitty-gritty details, mainly because people don’t want to hear about it…or diet promoters don’t think we do.  Also, because when given the full details, it includes the other key to maintaining your shape-defining lean body mass: consistent physical activity (diet’s dreaded brother…exercise!).  But to stay physically active AND lose fat, we need to fuel our body with more than a “bare-bones” 1200 to 1500 calorie diet, or we are going to feel exhausted, cranky, unmotivated and in dire need of a cookie.  But at this point I’m sure all of this information is making your head spin and you’d rather just have a shake twice a day.

So we go on these diets, lose the weight, but fail to truly understand what it means to eat mindfully.  If we stop the diet but we don’t change our fundamental eating habits…what do you think happens?  We go back to our old meals, our old snacks…and our old weight (or worse).  But this weight gain usually makes us worse off than when we started, because we tend to regain more fat and less muscle.  And the more fat we have on our body, the harder it becomes to burn fat and lose weight in the future.  This is why yo-yo dieting is such a vicious cycle.  Each diet results in less muscle and more fat.

At least the psychotherapist’s diet plan involves behavioral modification, which is a fancy way of saying helping you become more mindful of your eating habits.  In the end, our mind controls what we choose to eat and what we eat controls how much we weigh.  When we can understand how our current eating habits lead to our current weight, we can then take the steps and make the choices necessary to improve our eating and our weight in a healthful, fat-burning, muscle-sparing way.

Of course, many things impact our mind, such as stress, hormones, sleep (or lack thereof), nutrition, etc. so it’s not always that simple, but it’s a great first step:  A fully aware mind can create a fully aware stomach.

Why Long-Term “Dieting” Doesn’t Work

The NY Times article, “Why Even Resolute Dieters Often Fail” is an excellent example of why small, sustainable changes are the key to long-lasting weight loss.  Going on a “diet” implies something to be done for a period of time and then stopped.  Sure we may lose weight during a period of restriction/control, but have we fundamentally changed our relationship with the food that we eat? If we haven’t, then odds are we will regain that lost weight once our diet is over.

While some moderate restrictions/changes can be good to kickstart our lifestyle change, we must remember that these changes are part of a larger lifestyle change, not just a “diet”.  At the end of the diet, some of these changes need to stick…forever.  They could be changes in how we eat and/or changes in physical activity level.  The key is finding the changes that you can stick to consistently and keep on doing them.  As you are losing weight consider which changes you made that were “easy” and write them down.  Those changes can be the first ones you make permanent and the ones you can later reflect on if/when you have some struggles a number of months down the road.  You can look back and say, “Hey, look what I’ve already accomplished.  Even though I may be at a plateau at the moment, I’m steps ahead of where I was when I started.”  Then look at your current habits with resolve and choose the next couple of easy changes and sure enough you will start getting results again.

Sometimes it is worth sweating the small stuff.  What successful small changes have you made?

Low-Calorie Meals: Friend or Foe?

A recent study out of Cornell University (Go Big Red!), looked at the impact of low-calorie meals on overall daily calorie intake.  People were given access to all-you-can-eat buffets for all meals.  However, part of the time they were asked to eat a small, 200 calorie lunch (i.e. Lean Pocket, Granola Bar) instead of their usual “lunch buffet”. One those low-calorie lunch days, they ate 245 less calories in total, despite consuming about the same number of calories at breakfast and dinner.  In other words, the subjects did not compensate for the smaller lunch with a bigger dinner or breakfast.

But how realistic is it that we are faced with “all you can eat” meal scenarios for all 3 meals? (College campuses!)  Also, were some of the foods offered in the buffet “out of the ordinary” for the participants?  Then they may have been able to choose healthier options (i.e. seafood, grilled chicken) just because they were there rather than having to deal with choosing them in a real-life scenario (everyone else is ordering out for lunch at the pizza place…are you going to get the grilled fish?).  Or do they normally skip breakfast but ate it during the study because “it was there”.  This is always the issue with controlled studies; usually the better the control, the less realistic the study becomes.

I think what is interesting to note is that, despite being low calorie, the 200 calorie lunch is similar to that offered by meal replacement diet plans (bar/shake for breakfast, lunch and a sensible dinner, etc.).  However those plans tend to quickly put someone in a significant calorie restriction situation, which is not ideal for long-term maintenance and metabolism.  But overall it’s better than skipping a meal.

Recently I met someone who lost an impressively significant amount of weight by becoming more active and consuming whole-food based nutrition supplement bars every few hours until dinner time (sensible dinner).  For him, the decision to eat the supplement bars throughout the day allowed him to avoid the “decision making” and emotional processes with food. (Eat a bar every few hours…that’s it.)  But at the same time does it stunt his relationship with food?  Will he ever be able to transition back to a food-based diet or will he slip back into old, unhealthy patterns if he tries?  Or does it matter if he can continue to eat the supplement bars for the rest of his life?

Have you ever used a low-calorie meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) to lose weight?  Was it successful in the long-term? Have you tried using supplement bars to lose weight?  Do you think they can be a long-term solution?  I want your input!

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