Nine popular weight-loss diets and how they work

weight-loss diets doctor with appleI’m always intrigued by the names of the various weight-loss diets that come along from time to time.

You usually hear about them at the beginning of January when everyone is trying to lose a few pounds as one of their new year resolutions, or in late spring/early summer when everyone is trying to squeeze into their swimsuits.

I suppose the intriguing names are designed to draw us in, and make us think that maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time you will lose weight, and keep the weight off.

Making weight-loss diets less boring

I’m a firm believer that if you want to lose weight you just need to eat less and exercise more, but that’s a bit boring isn’t it? Following a diet with a catchy name and a clear philosophy behind it must help to motivate us.

I thought I would have a look at some of these weight-loss diets with the intriguing names to see how they are supposed to work. This isn’t really meant to be a review of these diets – just a look at what they are and what they could help with weight-loss.

Also, I’m only looking at diets where the main purpose seems to be to help you lose weight. There are other diets designed to promote general health, like the Mediterranean and Alkaline Diets, but I’ll leave those for another day.

Some of the diets ended up looking a bit similar when I examined them, so I have grouped them together where this is the case.

5:2 Diet

The idea behind the 5:2 diet is that you only eat five days’ worth of food over seven days of each week. This is also know as the intermittent fasting plan.

So if you only eat on five days out of every seven, you are eating just over 70% of what you normally eat. So, less calories in = more fat burned for energy = weight loss.

Clearly you don’t eat nothing on the other two days each week, so your calorie intake will be more than this. Maybe 80-85% or normal, but that’s still a reduction, and that can lead to weight loss.

There are some potential problems with the 5:2 diet though.

Firstly, you might not reduce calorie intake very much on the two calorie reduction days. But, isn’t any kind of calorie reduction good when you’re trying to lose weight?

Secondly, the 5:2 diet seems to say that you can “eat whatever you like” on the non-calorie restriction days. This means you might feel that it is okay to overeat on these days, which could undo the good done on the calorie restriction days.

Paleo Diet

The Paleo in “Paleo Diet” is short for Paleolithic, which is a period of time in pre-history. The Paleolithic period spanned from 2.6 million years ago to the end of the Ice Age, which was about 10,000 years ago. That’s a long time.

The thing that seems to characterise the Paleolithic period is the use of stone tools. So I guess we’re actually talking about the Stone Age. That’s probably why the Paleo Diet is sometimes referred to as the Caveman Diet.

So, what did Cavemen eat? Maybe that should be, “what did Cavepersons eat?”

The idea of the Paleo (aka Caveman) Diet is that it consists of foods that can be hunted or fished or gathered. This is because in the Stone Age people were hunter-gatherers, who went out looking for stuff to eat, rather than farmers, who grew stuff to eat.

So, on the Paleo Diet you eat meat, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables and other things that you might go out and find (if you lived in a cave in the countryside). Things to avoid then are cereals and grains, such as wheat, and potatoes, that you might grow. Also, Cavemen didn’t have access to processed food, so you need to avoid that too.

I’m not sure what the idea is here in terms of weight loss. There are all sorts of variations of the Paleo diet, such as the 80/20 rule, which seems like a new diet on its own.

The foods you do eat on the Paleo diet seem sensible and healthy in moderation, which is how it would have been for our Cavemen friends. The foods to avoid also seem sensible, since people who become obese often eat too much bread, pasta, potatoes, which are high in calories, and too much processed food, which is generally not very good for you.

Atkins Diet

The Atkins Diet has been around long enough and has had enough publicity for most people to know how it is supposed to work. You cut carbohydrates out of your diet, initially at least, and eat pretty much what you like other than that.

Since carbohydrates are a ready form of energy, and the Atkins diet restricts the amount you eat, your body breaks down fat stores to provide energy, which leads to weight loss. In the initial stages of the Atkins Diet the weight loss can be pretty dramatic.

It should be said that any weight-loss diet can have dramatic results in the early stages. This is because it is the body’s carbohydrate stores, in the form of glycogen, that are lost first. Glycogen is associated with a lot of water, and this is lost at the same time causing the initial success that a lot of dieters report. After this it is body fat that needs to be lost, which is a slower process that can cause a loss of motivation.

Over time the Atkins Diet becomes a little less strict, so that you can establish an eating pattern to support your weight maintenance going forward.

One modification of the Atkins Diet is called the ketogenic diet, and this has been employed in an attempt to control seizures in people with epliepsy. Ketogenic means that the body produces ketones as a result of the diet.

Ketones are chemicals that our bodies produce as a result of excessive fat breakdown. Who would break down fat excessively? People who are on a carbohydrate restricted diet.

One of the theories about how you lose weight due to fat breakdown on the Atkins Diet says that is due to ketones being excreted in the urine.

Dukan Diet

The Dukan Diet is another low-carbohydrate diet, a bit like the Atkins Diet. But whereas the Atkins diet allows you to eat most things other than carbohydrates, the Dukan Diet restricts intake of vegetables and fats, especially in the early stages.

Like the Atkins Diet, the Dukan Diet introduces fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates so that you are following a fairly “normal” diet to support weigh-maintenance in the long-term.

GI Diet

This one can be a bit confusing. If the Paleo Diet was followed by Cavemen, was the GI diet followed by soldiers? LOL, I nearly did!

This is also sometimes confused with the GM Diet, which is quite different. In this case GM stands for General Motors – so it was for employees of General Motors?

Seriously, GI stands for Gycaemic Index. Glycaemic Index is a way of showing how quickly the food you eat increases your blood sugar.

Simple carbohydrates, like the sugar in your coffee, cakes, soft drinks, and candy, for example, are all absorbed into your blood very quickly. This increases your blood sugar quickly, and these rapid increases in blood sugar are difficult for your body to deal with. These foods have a high Glycaemic Index (GI).

Complex carbohydrates, like pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, etc, are all absorbed into your blood quite slowly because they have to be digested first. This increases your blood sugar slowly, which is easier for your body to deal with. These foods have a low Gycaemic Index (GI).

Foods with a high Glycaemic Index can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, for example, and should be avoided. Which is one of the ways the GI diet can help. It should really be called the Low GI Diet.

Again, it’s not clear how the GI Diet helps with weight-loss, unless there’s some kind of calorie intake control as part of it. Having said that, there are claims that the reduction in blood sugar surges after meals encourages fat breakdown, so that might be it. As a way of reducing the strain on our blood sugar control mechanisms, though, it does look helpful.

South Beach Diet

The South Beach Diet is a variation on the GI Diet. It was originally developed in the United States for patients with heart problems. On closer inspection it seems to incorporate aspects of the low carbohydrate Atkins and Dukan Diets, particularly in the early stages. Just like these diets carbohydrates are introduced in the later stages to help with long-term maintenance, but in the South Beach Diet low GI carbs are emphasised.

Volumetrics Diet

The Volumetrics Diet seems pretty sensible, and should give you a good chance of losing weight. Especially if you feel hungry and are looking for something to eat, which can put your diet in jeopardy.

The idea behind the Volumetrics Diet is that you eat more foods that have a low energy density. That means food that doesn’t contain many calories for the volume it provides. The more volume – the fuller you feel. The fewer calories – the more weight you lose.

This is a diet where recipes and meal plans really make sense. For most weight-loss diets just eating less should do the trick. Or, with the reduced-carbohydrate diets, leaving them out of meals should be fairly easy. With the Volumetrics diet identifying low energy-density foods to include in meals could take a little bit of research.

Cambridge Diet

The Cambridge Diet refers to Cambridge in the UK (the town with the University), rather than Cambridge in the US (the town with the University). The University connection (I think?) comes in because of the mathematical methods employed in developing the diet plan.

The Cambridge Diet severely restricts calorie intake and is designed to replicate what happens to your body during starvation. It does this by producing starvation! However, it is said that the foods eaten on the diet help to avoid feelings of hunger, so you can follow the diet successfully.

HCG Diet

The HCG Diet is really interesting, and I’d like to find out more about it. HCG (it should actually be hCG) refers to human chorionic gonadotropin. This is a hormone produced by the early developing embryo in pregnant women that helps to support the growth of the embryo.

What’s this got to do with weight loss though? It was noticed that when using hCG injections to treat people with other conditions, these people lost weight through fat body loss, without losing muscle or other tissue. This led to development of the HCG Diet.

The other part of the HCG Diet is a low-calorie diet. Very low, in fact. And it is argued that any weight loss achieved on this diet is due to the reduced calorie intake rather than the effect of hCG injections. This seems reasonable to me.

Any thoughts?

Maybe the key to these diets is that they make you think about what and how much you eat, rather than the specific effects claimed.

If you have had some success, or not, with one of these diets please leave a comment. If you have tried another one, please share your experiences by leaving a comment below.

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