Shall I go on a diet or annoy my friends some other way?

tape-403586_1280 (1)Dieting. Just the mere mention of the word is enough to send people into a fear-ridden frenzy! Everywhere you turn, someone has some advice on what to eat, how much and how often. Every few weeks, a new all-conquering-diet is thrust into the limelight to show us how we can get thin and beautiful by eating to a particular plan. But what about the health? And not just physical, psychological too? I’m going to preface all of this by saying this is just my opinion. Although as a doctor, I advocate healthy eating and moderation, I am not an expert in dietetics or nutrition. I just want to share my experience and my interpretation of some of the scientific advice out there. If you want personalised advice, I strongly recommend talking to a registered dietitian (visit http://daa.asn.au to find a fair dinkum dietitian near you). My experience I grew up with a pretty standard diet. Meat and two veg, sanger for lunch and ceral for breakfast. Once a week, we had a treat such lollies with a movie on Friday night or even *gasp* Maccas. I know, terrible. But it was in moderation and I think I had a fairly healthy relationship with food. Not craving, needing so called junk food. Just food because it tasted good and gave me the energy to do what I wanted to do. Fast forward to the early 2000’s – as a uni student and a young woman, I started to think heavily about my body and how it looked. I had weight fluctuations (the good old freshman weight gain) and started to eat complete and utter crap. For no other reason than I could. But what really screwed things up was when I decided on the advice of a personal trainer that I should enter a body building contest – not the awesomely muscled girls, the bikini section where you look fit and toned. And so it begun. I was put on a diet of no carbs, protein shakes and weight training. I ate a third of a cup of oats with two egg whites for breakfast, a protein shake mid-morning, brown rice and veggies with chicken for lunch and chicken or beef and veggies for dinner. No carbs. It worked. If by worked I was aiming to be gaunt, angry, snarky and tired. I was the medical student everyone wanted to force feed a Big Mac then tuck away for bed because she looked exhausted. But what was worse than the physical effects was the way it changed my attitude to food. Rather than sneaking a small bowl of ice cream, I had a tub. A whole tub. And immediately wanted to vomit or run 5km after. I’m ashamed to say, to this day, it is a pattern that I still struggle with. Thankfully, before the contest, I pulled out. The chorus of people saying to me “You are just too thin and sad” finally got through to me and I enjoyed bread and pasta and all the other things that were ‘banned’ once more. So what do we know about dieting? What’s actually good for you, what’s not so good? And just for good measure, a few of my own thoughts from my own experiences.

  • The Mediterranean Diet has the best support from the scientific literature for preventing heart disease – one major study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 saw a good reduction in the number of cardiac problems in those who had the mediterranean diet compared with people who just ‘limited dietary fat’
  • The Mediterranean Diet consists of high intake of olive oil, fruits, nuts, vegetables and cereals with a moderate intake of fish and poultry and low intakes of sweets, red meat and alcohol.
  • Drinking sugar-sweetened drinks increases your risk of having a heart problem as per Circulation journal in 2012. So no cola right?
  • What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander – whilst high protein diets have been linked to good weight control, they’ve also been linked to kidney disease (including kidney failure and kidney stones) and bowel problems (especially constipation) and feeling generally unwell with headaches and tiredness featuring.
  • But protein probably does help you feel fuller for longer (and now my head hurts)
  • So what about low sugar, paleo, raw foods, GOOP-esque diets?
    • Put simply, the evidence to say one of these is better than any other diet doesn’t exist
    • What is probably beneficial from these diets is: a focus on fresh produce and unprocessed food, reduction in ‘sometimes’ foods like sweets and highly processed foods. Plus they truly do promote a ‘health’ message
    • What isn’t so good? Deprivation, both physically and mentally. Cutting out huge chunks of the food choices available may deprive some of us to nutrients we really need. For example, saying no to dairy. Dairy contains calcium and calcium builds strong bones. Strong bones are less likely to break when we age. Don’t underestimate for a second a broken hip for an elderly lady – it can be seriously dangerous.
    • BUT – if you are using these as a gentle guideline to eat ‘healthily’ and not costing yourself nutritionally or socially, that’s fine – everything in moderation
  • Total calories are important but some calories are better than others – fat, carb or protein and specific sources of each. Try to include some omega-3 containing foods like fish, complex carbohydrates (wholegrains, whole foods) and loads of fruit and veg

I think as diet and disease gets more scientific attention, the feelings and advice will change and probably rapidly. My advice? Be good most of the time, stay sane the rest of the time with whatever makes you feel happy and is tasty.

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