The Boston Medical Center estimates that 45 million Americans go on a diet each year. In 2018, nearly half of all Americans resolved to lose weight or get into better shape. That’s a lot of people. So it’s no surprise many turn to fad diets or other extreme measures in attempt to kickstart their weight loss. Unfortunately, while doing so may produce quick results, they rarely last.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “evidence shows that people who lose weight gradually and steadily (about 1–2 pounds per week) are more successful at keeping weight off.” This slow-and-steady mentality is most associated with an ongoing, healthy lifestyle that incorporates nutritious eating and regular exercise, rather than a fad diet or any particular weight-loss program.
But, where is the line that divides healthful eating from unsafe dieting? And what does the latter do your health? To find out, we spoke with Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, and owner of Active Eating Advice.
What Is Extreme Dieting?
Bonci says common tenets of extreme dieting include limiting your calories, protein and fluid intake to unsafe levels. It’s also inadvisable to take any sort of diuretic supplement or appetite suppressant or attempt sauna-induced weight loss. Such methods aren’t necessarily labeled or associated with name-brand diets like the kind you see championed in ads and on the news. But any diet that deprives you of nutrients and calories, or promises quick fixes over sustained benefits, is one to be wary of.
The Consequences of Extreme Diets
We’re all familiar with the short-term irritability associated with being “hangry,” but an unsafe eating plan leads to a lot more than misplaced moodiness. Bonci notes that some of the more serious effects of an extreme diet can include dehydration, dizziness and fatigue. Continue on that unhealthy eating trend, and you may experience low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, vitamin deficiencies and even muscle loss from the inadequate number of calories.
Going on a crash diet may help you drop a few pounds in the short-term, but this weight loss will likely be accompanied by several discomforts. Because such diets aren’t sustainable, the long-term effects might sabotage your goals with rebound weight gain.
Better Options for Healthy Eating
“Instead of depriving your body to lose weight, consider a better approach to what goes on your plate,” says Bonci. “Aim to fill up, not out, with fiber, choose protein to prevent muscle loss and improve satiety, and choose to chew, instead of sip, your calories.”
Bonci also advises being consistent with the number of meals you eat every day, rather than loading up on certain days and cutting back on others. If you’ve got a craving, go for it — just be smart about it.
“Budget for your indulgences rather than denying foods you enjoy,” says Bonci. “So instead of rice, have a dessert or a beer.” That way you’re swapping one caloric item for another, rather than having both — or neither.
In general, she suggests aiming for an eating plan that’s about 50% produce, 30% protein and 20% grains, potatoes or corn. This type of “diet” — a better term would be “lifestyle” — doesn’t come with a flashy name or an influencer hawking products, but, along with getting plenty of exercise, it’s a tried-and-true method for staying fit.