Losing weight is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions and thousands of Britons search throughout the year for ways to reduce their waistlines. One of the most effective weight-loss methods is dieting, so it’s no surprise that a number of unique diets have sprung up over the last few decades to cater to this demand, each with their own quirks and claims.
But what diets actually work? Are there any serious health risks? Here we examine some of the most famous fad diets, judging their effectiveness – and their drawbacks. Peel yourself an orange, hunt a pig, pop some cabbage on the stove, and read on…
What’s the idea? Named after the physician Dr Robert Atkins, this is a high-protein, low carb diet that became a phenomenon in the early 2000s. The theory is relatively simple. If you dramatically reduce your carbohydrate intake, your body is required to start burning its fat stores for energy. As you burn more calories through fats than carbs you should subsequently experience rapid weight loss.
What does it involve? The Atkins Diet preaches a dramatic cutting down of carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes and pasta. The initial two week induction period limits carbohydrate intake to 20 grams per day, with the majority of this intake coming from vegetables and salads. No alcohol or caffeine is allowed. Protein and fat intake is essentially unlimited, although this isn’t a licence to overindulge. Drinking eight glasses of water daily is also required. After the induction period restrictions are relaxed. Carbohydrate intake is gradually increased over time until the individual discovers the maximum number of carbs they can eat without gaining weight.
Does it work? Low-carb diets such as Atkins are certainly effective for weight loss. The fact you can eat plenty of fats and protein – red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese – means the diet itself may be easier to maintain than some of the more ‘radical’ ones on this list. Dr Atkins claimed you should lose 6-10 lb during the two week induction period.
What about the drawbacks? Heavily debated. A host of health problems have been linked with the low intake of fruit and vegetables it recommends. The Atkins diet is practically impossible for vegetarians due to its limitations on fruit and vegetables and its heavy reliance on meat, this also makes it expensive to maintain.
Many health professionals have warned that the high intake of saturated fats could increase the risk of heart disease, which would make the Atkins diet somewhat counter-productive with regards to health. However this claim itself has come under scrutiny in recent years with a growing wave of medical opinion suggesting that saturated animal fats do not increase cardiac risk (see a summary from the BMJ here). Nevertheless, the NHS maintains that you should limit your intake of saturated fats and maintain a balanced diet, so more evidence is needed to prove the true medical validity of the Atkins diet.
What’s the idea? Essentially eat what you want for five days of the week and fast on the other two. The 5:2 diet became popular in 2013 with the publication of Michael Mosley’s The Fast Diet. It differs from other diets which promote a regular daily reduction in calorie consumption, albeit less drastic than the two ‘fasting’ days of the 5:2.
What does it involve? While the 5:2 diet promotes five restriction-free days of eating, this doesn’t mean you should gorge on fast food and ice cream. Dieters are recommended to consume a ‘normal’ number of daily calories: around 2000 for women and 2400 for men. On the two fasting days you should consume a quarter of that amount: so 500 per day for women, 600 for men. You can drink alcohol (within reason) for the five days but not on the two. The two days you fast should be non-consecutive.
Does it work? As the 5:2 diet is only two years old it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions about its effectiveness. Certainly many sing its virtues. The simplicity of the diet has won many admirers and makes it easier to follow than, say, the Atkins Diet. Fasting for a single day should theoretically be easier than dieting steadily for a longer period; albeit a single day repeated twice a week. It is suggested women should lose about 1lb a week on the diet, men perhaps a little more.
What about the drawbacks? As with Atkins, health experts debate the merits of 5:2. A common criticism is an unhealthy lack of balance in greatly restricting your intake for two days while cutting loose on the other five. Energy and concentration levels may be reduced on fasting days, which obviously could have negative effects on your productivity. The long term sustainability of the diet – even after target weight is reached one fasting day is recommended – has also been called into question. Nevertheless the diet is developing an avid group of devotees so perhaps only time will tell.
What’s the idea? Also known as ‘The Caveman Diet’, the Paleo diet is based on the foods prehistoric humans ate in the Paleolithic era. It is currently the most researched diet on the planet so it is certainly the fad diet of the moment (until the next one comes along). The Paleo diet promotes itself more as a lifestyle change offering numerous health benefits over time, rather than a straightforward weight loss programme.
The philosophy is simply that for hundreds of thousands of years our genetic ancestors ate in a certain way (i.e. foraging for nuts, eating plants, and hunting animals), and so our bodies have evolved to process these types of food. The argument goes that when we analyse certain ‘staples’ of the modern diet such as bread and rice, we realise that our bodies haven’t had enough time to sufficiently evolve to process them. Proponents of the diet report that it is for this reason that so many people are developing allergies and intolerances to food staples such as gluten and wheat.
What does it involve? Natural unprocessed foods are very much the staple of the Paleo diet. However you needn’t up whittle a spear and go hunt some boar. Just stick to the type of food our ancient ancestors once ate. Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits and nuts are all encouraged. However, grains such as wheat and all products containing them (e.g. bread and pasta), dairy, refined sugar and processed food are all out. You don’t have to count calories or limit your intake: simply make sure you stay within the food boundaries set. There are numerous Paleo cookbooks available to help you on your way.
Does it work? The Paleo diet is low on carbohydrates which should result in fairly rapid weight loss in the first few weeks. However a slimmer figure is only part of what the Paleo package. Loren Cordain PHD, author of The Paleo Diet, claims Paleo dieters are less likely to get heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other health problems. Irrespective of the many debates surrounding this diet, the majority of nutritionists agree that cutting down on processed foods and increasing the uptake of fresh fruit and vegetables is beneficial to health in both the short and the long term.
What are the drawbacks? No dairy means you must look elsewhere for your calcium intake. Bad breath and headaches have been reported as potential early side-effects. The biggest problem however is practicality. Insistence on organic meat and fish means taking the Paleo diet isn’t cheap. Equally you will find it difficult to eat out at restaurants or social gatherings if you follow the diet religiously. Yet most Paleo nutritionists suggest the adoption of an 80/20 rule whereby you can stray from the ‘Paleo path’ 20% of the time for practicality and sustainability reasons.
What’s the idea? The Cabbage Soup diet requires you to live off a diet of cabbage soup. It is very much a quick fix and should not be followed for more than a week. You are allowed to compliment the soup with very specific portions of food; exactly what food depends on the day. Very low in fat and calories (and indeed pretty much anything you can’t find in cabbage soup). There is no ‘pioneer’ of the diet à la Atkins, but plenty of disciples.
What does it involve? Take a wild guess. A better question is ‘What can I have with my unlimited cabbage soup?’ Drink only water, don’t even think about alcohol. In terms of additional food, there is a very strict menu which is reproduced below.
- Day 1 – Any fruit except bananas.
- Day 2 – Vegetables (non-starchy) and one jacket potato with a little butter.
- Day 3 – Fruit and vegetables! No bananas.
- Day 4 – Bananas (maximum eight) and skimmed milk.
- Day 5 – Beef or skinless chicken and tomatoes
- Day 6 – Beef and vegetables. No potatoes.
- Day 7 – Brown rice, vegetables and unsweetened fruit juice.
Does it work? Depends what you’re after. As a drastic way of losing weight fast ‘The Cabbage Soup’ diet is undeniably effective. Very simple and lasting only a week, the diet is attractive to those who want quick results. However a long-term eating plan this is not; especially as once you’re back on a normal diet you will quickly replace the weight you lost. We also have concerns about any diet which promotes unnaturally rapid weight loss.
The Cabbage Soup diet can be used short-term as a ‘lead-in’ to a more sustainable weight-loss regime. Many people find that reaching their target weight quickly is preferable to slowly and painfully cutting calories, they then choose to maintain that weight with more sustainable diets such as the 5:2 or the Paleo diet.
What are the drawbacks? Any diet you can only practice for a week clearly isn’t brilliant for your health. You miss out on required nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein and essential fats. As mentioned, it isn’t a long-term solution and if you aren’t careful the weight will return as quickly as it left. The seven day duration means the diet shouldn’t cause any long-term problems provided you are in good health. But you will almost certainly be hungry and bad-tempered throughout. And of course, thoroughly sick of cabbage soup.
Fad diets aren’t the only answer! For more information on the benefits of losing weight and medical advice visit our weight loss guide.