January is the month for weight loss resolutions. The weight loss industry uses advertisements, testimonials and blogs with vague language to promise quick results from plans such as detoxifying and cleansing using juices, gluten-free diets or high-protein diets like the Paleo diet. Rather than promoting taste, health and the social aspects of eating, the diet industry encourages us to view our bodies and food through a weight-centred lens. We have a long way to go to shift our culture from weight centred to health centred. Here are some questions answered by our Registered Dietitians that may help you shift the perspective.
Q: Is that true, that cleansing or detox diets really improve our health?
A: Real detoxification refers to the treatments used in a hospital setting when someone has consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol, drugs or other poisons. We need to be sure what someone means when they say they are “cleansing”. If the person means she is eating less processed foods and alcohol and eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins then that’s a wise way to eat. But there is no credible scientific evidence for the claims made about cleansing that involves juicing, pills, herb supplements and/or laxatives. The information used to sell these products is based on old myths and studies using rodents instead of humans. More than 100 years have passed since we started to learn that our bodies are efficient and effective detox systems! The star player is our liver and together with our skin, kidneys, lymphatic and gastrointestinal systems we are well protected.
Q: Can cleansing and detoxifying programs cause harm?
A: People with diabetes, kidney, heart or liver conditions or pregnant and lactating women are at the highest risk of negative consequences. Never put children on a cleansing or detox diet. Even healthy people can be at risk for abdominal pain and diarrhea which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Diets high in juice will often be too low in protein. Too much juice can cause diarrhea and bloating; it can mess up insulin response and can alter the effect of up to 85 different prescription medications. The herbal laxatives can be dangerous mixtures on their own or when they interact with medication or other herbs. To have a healthy bowel and to keep your own detoxifying organs functioning at their best eat lots of whole vegetables, fruits and grains, drink water to quench thirst and enjoy regular physical activities.
Q: I have a cousin who has celiac disease. Whenever they would come to visit all the meals and snacks we served had to be gluten free. It seemed to be very important.
A: Yes, when someone has celiac disease they have to avoid gluten which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. If they don’t, the gluten will cause an immunological reaction, like an allergic response, in the small intestine and this badly impairs our ability to absorb nutrients needed for good health. We might expect to see one in a hundred people with diagnosed celiac disease here in Canada.
Q: But it seems everyone is eating gluten free. And there are so many gluten free products on the grocery shelves. What’s that all about?
A: Where to begin! If we look at the nutrient facts tables on many of those products we’ll see they can be higher in sodium, sugar and/or fat and lower in fibre and iron. So eating gluten free when it’s not really necessary can have potentially negative consequences when it comes to blood pressure, bowel health, iron stores, cholesterol levels and maintaining a healthy weight!
Q: Still, many people swear by gluten free eating. What do you say to them?
A: Well, we start by saying that gluten-free eating should not be carb-free eating. Our bodies need those carbohydrates for energy and optimal brain function. Carbohydrate foods contain vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and magnesium so strictly avoiding carbohydrates can put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies. Carbohydrate foods are also an important source of fibre which helps maintain blood sugar, reduces cholesterol, and supports good bowel function. So in addition to keeping vegetables, fruit and legumes as part of your everyday carbohydrate intake I would also suggest that people learn about and try other grain crops such as oats, buckwheat, quinoa and brown rice. Wild rice, which is really a grass, is another tasty alternative.
Q: The Paleo diet also known as the Paleolithic, caveman, Stone Age or the hunter-gatherer diet is diet is everywhere. Itís rated as the top diet search term on Google in 2014. Break it down for us.
A: The Paleo diet promotes mostly meat, fish, vegetables and fruit and nuts. It eliminates foods that come from agriculture such as grains and dairy, as well as added sugar and salt and processed foods low in nutrients. The Paleo diet also suggests that legumes, such as chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils are toxic.
Q: Well, what’s your opinion?
A: Well its strengths include good omega3-fat-rich foods such as fish, nuts, seeds and vegetables and fruit, the darker in colour the better for us. As well we don’t need added sugar or salt in our diets and we will get these from a eating a lot of highly processed food. Unlike other fad diets we do have some evidence on the Paleo diet. In two of the three randomized control studies that evaluated the Paleo diet there was a decrease in triglycerides which is a good thing. But other weight loss diets that do include dairy and whole grains have also been shown to reduce triglycerides.
Q: What about Paleo for weight loss and other health benefits.
A: Over the longer term, say 2 years, Paleo did not perform any better on sustained weight loss, LDL (or bad) cholesterol levels, systolic blood pressure or C-reactive protein levels which are a marker for inflammation. I’d be concerned about potentially low intakes of fibre, calcium, vitamin D and surprisingly iron in the Paleo diet.
Q: I eat a lot of beans. Should I stop? Am I poisoning myself?
A: Well raw or undercooked beans can temporarily give you diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain because of a protein type known as lectin. Soak beans before you cook them, make sure you boil them for 10 minutes and the beans will be safe to eat. For canned beans, rinse them well and be sure the foods you add them to come to a boil.
Q: Do you have some tips to help decide if a weight loss program or diet is safe and doable over the long term? What are some red flags that might indicate that a weight loss program is a scam or potentially dangerous?
- A promise you will lose more than 2 pounds or 1 kilogram per week is a red flag – that’s too much weight loss too fast.
- A very low calorie diet plan, for example less than 1200 calories per day without credible medical supervision would be dangerously low. You really want to consider if the plan is something you can do for life and that is safe – otherwise the weight loss results may be short lived.
- Think critically about a program that makes you dependent on the company’s special foods or supplements rather than helping you learn to make the best choices possible from a regular grocery store.
- Being pressured to sign up right away by offering a "special price" is a red flag. Stop and think about all the good things about yourself. Your smarts, your talents, your spirit – don't be pressured to commit to a change you may not need.
- Run away, if you are not told about risks that may go along with weight loss or their specific program (for example: if you have diabetes and take prescription medication, it may affect you differently after you lose weight).
- A plan that promotes weight loss aids like starch blockers, fat-burners, herbs, supplements or amino acids is not based on good science and can be very scary! Speak with a Registered Dietitian or other regulated health professional to find out more about these kinds of products.
Q: So if a person wants to lose weight, what would you recommend?
A: Be very cautious of weight loss plans that claim to provide miracle weight loss. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Rather than focusing on the number on the scale enjoy tasty and healthy food and regular physical activity. This will energize you and help you feel good about yourself. If you’re not sure about realistic changes that suit your life and your health, make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian or call Eat Right Ontario to speak to one for free at 1-877-510-5102 for some professional nutrition and weight loss advice.
Adapted from “Guidelines for Choosing a Weight Loss Program. (2014) Dietitians of Canada.