Do Diets Really Work?
“For 59 years we’ve been brainwashed by governments, by industries, by NGOs and experts who believe that a diet that’s killing us is actually good for us,” shouted the man into a microphone, gesticulating in front of a lecture hall filled with neatly groomed doctors and scribbling scientists. “The evidence is all around us, but for some reason we can’t see it!”
The ancestors of the people in this room believed for several millennia that they lived on a flat planet. Then, around 300BC Plato surmised we didn’t. (Although it took years of sailing seas – that were allegedly cordoned off by fixed horizons with a fear that we might fall of the edge of the planet – until Christopher Columbus proved Plato’s theory in 1492.) Some 355 years later, an Austrian doctor named Ignaaz Semmelwes suggested the radical notion of washing hands when delivering babies, sending infant mortality rates plummeting from 35% to 1%. In the 1960s, cigarettes were conversation-starters with a mild buzz, and adverts reminded us that they kept doctors going through long hours in the ER. Now you can’t light up in any public place in South Africa. And that’s the basis of scientific progress: everything is okay until it’s been proved that it isn’t.
The man behind the microphone is Professor Tim Noakes. If you didn’t know him a year ago, you do now. Thanks to the diet he promotes, he’s achieved heretic status amongst an overwhelmingly large medical fraternity. Many of whom are sitting in front of him in the lecture hall in the University of Cape Town, where he is challenging Dr Jacques E. Rossouw, who is representing America’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, at an academic debate on the severity of cholesterol.
The academic discussion concludes, but the debate continues. Noakes remains smilingly steadfast with his opinions while most dieticians would gladly eat him in a low-GI wrap. But while scientists bicker, the waistlines of South African males are expanding by the minute. The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) established the South African National Health And Nutrition Examination Survey (SAHNES) that examined a cross section of the country. Their latest results are grim. A step-fitness test found almost a third of South African males are classified as physically unfit.
“I looked at deaths from cardiovascular diseases in the BRICS countries and it’s only Russia that’s worse than us,”
says Dr Craig Nossel of Discovery Vitality.
South Africa is not only fat; it’s also delusional. Despite the fact that obesity has risen and waist circumferences have expanded since the South African Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2003, two thirds of South African men believe they eat and drink healthily, and there is no need for them to make changes in their diet.
Here are 5 Common Diets Debunked.
Why Diets Don’t Work
Perhaps you’ve tried the Noakes diet, as I did upon hearing I would have to eat bacon every morning. Perhaps you realised you couldn’t maintain it, as I did, because you missed sandwiches and ordering off the same menu as the person you’re having dinner with. Maybe you were one of 8% of South African males, according to SAHNES, who attempted to lose weight in the past year. And, perhaps, when you step onto a scale, you don’t see the result that informercials promised that you would. These statistics that speak of a country of swelling bellies confirm what nutrition and dietetics consultant and past president of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa ,Megan Pentz-Kluyts, maintains about fad diets: they don’t work.
Word of mouth is a weight loss diet’s principal advertiser. People prefer anecdotes to empiricism. Weight loss diets are often whatever the flavour of the month is, says Pentz-Kluyts. “You tend to follow a diet if you see or hear from someone close to you has gained muscle mass or lost weight.”
A lot of these diets are built on anecdotes and that’s the principle criticism of Noakes’s diet. “I’m not going to touch on anecdotes, anthropology or agricultural policy,” said
Rossouw, wryly, in opposition to Noakes’s colourful explanation of our collective slide
to obesity. “I will focus on controlled clinical trials which offer the best evidence.”
The big problem with diets, she explains, is that they take food groups out and earmark them as “bad”. “The downside of a fad is that it can’t always give you the nutrients you require while you’re looking at weight loss.”
If you follow diets verbatim, you’ll lose weight, says Pentz-Kluyts. But you might also experience side effects that aren’t as easily noticeable as tumbling figures on a scale. “Many people don’t really mind, because they’re getting the results they need. But you have to realise the moment you start excluding food you’re not necessarily going to see long-term compliance.”
In Defence of Carbs
While these diets have been pushing protein, they’ve given carbs a bad name, says Pentz-Kluyts. “Good carbs and bad carbs have been lumped together. While refined carbs may not be that healthy, wholegrains are among the healthiest foods.” Refined carbohydrates have had their fibre stripped away, she says, citing white bread, pies, cakes, biscuits and sweets. “But wholegrains have a lower glycaemic index and release sugars slowly, meaning that the blood sugar is easily absorbed by our cells and converted into energy.” Examples of these are brown rice, oats, wholegrain cereals, millet, barley, quinoa and legumes.
There are side effects of a fad diet go beyond simply getting tired of eating skinless chicken everyday. When carbs get cut, the fibre goes too, says Pentz-Kluyts. “When we say ‘carbs’ people don’t realise that vegetables contain carbs. We’re not talking starchy vegetables; we’re talking vegetables and fruit. These have other nutrients that we need in our intestines. We’ve got the prebiotics that help to produce more probiotics. Any plant food can potentially increase good bacteria in your gut, which improves not only your immune system but your digestive system. This gets taken away very often when you’ve got a high-protein, low-carb diet.”
Eliminating foods alters the pH of a body, she says. “A high protein diet is acidic, and acidity leads to inflammation. Heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are linked to inflammation. “If you cut out carbs, you’ll only feel fatigued and find it difficult to sustain your energy levels,” says Lila Bruk of Lila Bruk & Associates, consulting dieticians in Joburg. “Weight loss that comes from cutting carbs – and is usually mainly water rather than fat – comes back when you start eating carbs again.” Pentz-Kluyts mentions that sometimes it’s not what’s in the food but how it’s prepared. This is where the big potato gets a bad rap. Potatoes are often overcooked and buttered, or made into mash which often means a larger portion. Sweet potato (potato’s nutritious cousin) can also be destructive if it’s drizzled in honey or slathered with butter.
Here are 7 Common Nutrition Myths Busted!
Why Meal Plans are Better
You might be on a fad diet without knowing it. Pentz-Kluyts advises that you ask yourself: am I eating regularly? And: is every food group in here? If you can’t say yes to both of them, then it’s time to upgrade the way you eat. A researched meal plan will bring variety to your plate that you won’t get from a diet. You’ll get the nutrients you’ve been missing out on, you won’t suffer from taste fatigue, and a good meal plan promises more compliance than other fad diet. For a healthier, stronger version of you, learn How Men Should Eat.
– Ian McNaught Davis