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Diets: What works? The Experts Look at 5 Options

By February, health resolutions are still being made with firm conviction and weight-watchers are still cringing at their post-festivity bathroom scales. For anyone planning on losing some of that holiday weight, there are hundreds of diet options out there – but which one to choose? We take a look at five popular diets, and gets the experts to weigh in, too.

weighing scale
We take a look at some popular diet trends

1. The Paleo Diet

Also known as “the original human diet” or “the hunter-gatherer diet”, the paleo diet is a nutritional and lifestyle approach that rejects synthetic and heavily processed foods, focusing instead on “foods your body was designed to eat”; no cereal or dairy products, for instance.

In his book The Paleo Diet, Dr Loren Cordain, Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University, explains how research shows that the modern diet, full of refined foods, trans fats and sugar, is at the root of degenerative conditions such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and infertility.

The paleo dieter eats mainly lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meat and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and fish oil. Grain-fed animals are avoided, as their meat contains higher amounts of saturated fats.

How doable is this?

The paleo diet gets my thumbs-up for two reasons. First, there is scientific evidence that supports at least some of its general theories. Second, it seems doable, as you’re not required to eat less or go hungry (always a deal breaker for me!), but simply to switch to healthier food alternatives. I’d try it!

Experts say…

We check in with DR MELVIN LOOK, General Surgeon with Pan Asia Surgery, who has a special interest in surgery for obesity and diabetes. He says, “Eliminating processed foods and refined sugars is definitely a good thing. The food items recommended in the paleo diet are all healthy and nutritious, but the strict avoidance of farmed products seems to be a hypothesis that has little scientific backing.

“Prohibiting whole grains, beans and legumes eliminates good sources of prebiotics, fibre and vitamins. Dairy, likewise, provides proteins and calcium. Also, a stringent paleo diet may not be easily accessible and will certainly be expensive, as wild game and grass-fed meat can be costly. Paleo is mostly good advice, but being too dogmatic may severely limit your food choices.”

Atkins diet
Meats or other animal products are not allowed in the raw food diet

2. The Raw Food Diet

In her book The Raw Food Lifestyle, Dr Ruthann Russo, educator, health counsellor and passionate raw foodist, defines raw food as anything that is grown in the ground and then eaten uncooked in its “organic, unprocessed, unpasteurised and unpreserved” form. Meats or other animal products are not allowed in the raw food diet; “If it wasn’t grown in the ground (on a plant, a tree, a vine or as a root) it’s not raw or living,” Russo writes.

The idea behind this is that in any form of cooking, living enzymes are destroyed. Since enzymes are essential for digestion, going raw allows the body to rely on those enzymes, making digestion more efficient. “Living foods also have a high level of energy that translates into higher energy levels for us when we eat them,” she adds.

How doable is this?

For the simple reason that I enjoy meat, I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to a diet that avoids animal protein completely. I also reckon that it would take a massive commitment in time, effort and money to ensure that nothing that isn’t organic goes into your body – and almost impossible if you don’t prepare every single meal and snack yourself. But if I had the time and resources, I’d be curious to try it.

Experts say…

“This is essentially an uncooked vegan diet, based on the belief that cooking destroys natural plant enzymes. This may not be logical, since the acid in our stomach breaks down most of these plant enzymes anyway. Plant enzymes have almost no role in human digestion,” says Dr Look.

He adds that there are significant benefits to cooking some types of food, and notes that cooking breaks down fibres and cell walls to increase the bioavailability of certain nutrients and anti-oxidants. Overcooking or charring foods, however, can be bad for your health.

Also, he says, certain chemicals in raw vegetables inhibit the absorption of important minerals, so you may end up with deficiencies in zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, among others. “Children in particular should not be put on this diet, as it could cause neurological and growth problems.”

3. The Atkins Diet

The Atkins Diet, created by American physician and cardiologist Dr Robert Atkins, focuses on minimising carbohydrate intake. A four-phase programme aimed at shedding fat quickly and then maintaining your desired weight, the diet combines exercise, vitamin supplements and low-carb meals. The goal is to shift your body from burning primarily carbs to burning mainly fat, for more effective and sustained weight loss. In the first two-week phase, an Atkins dieter must limit carb intake to 20 grams per day.

How doable is this?

While limiting carb consumption so severely would be a real test of will power, the first stage only lasts two weeks, and the diet does allow for a variety of other foods, so you probably won’t feel like you’re starving. I like that the diet slowly reintroduces carbs in phases three and four, so that you can eventually get back to eating a decent amount of them while keeping the weight off.

Experts say…

MS BIBI CHIA, Principal Dietician at Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre, sounds a note of warning. “On the Atkins Diet, your metabolism switches from burning glucose as fuel to burning your own stored body fat – this switching is called ketosis, and is caused by low glucose and insulin levels. Side effects of ketosis can include nausea, headaches, mental and physical fatigue, and bad breath. A diet that severely restricts carbohydrate intake can, in the long term, result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, bone loss and gastrointestinal disturbances, and may increase the risk of various chronic diseases.”

Dr Look agrees, and cautions that the diet plan may not be suitable for those with diabetes or kidney problems.

Being vegetarian in Singapore is very doable, as there are loads of vegetarian items on restaurant menus throughout town.

4. Vegetarian/Vegan Diet

According to Medical News Today, studies over the past couple of decades have shown that vegetarians tend to have a lower body weight, better cholesterol levels, a lower risk of disease, including cancer, and generally live longer than people who eat meat. While some people do “go vegetarian” for a time to lose weight, many others adopt vegetarianism for philosophical reasons.

How doable is this?

Being vegetarian in Singapore is very doable, as there are loads of vegetarian items on restaurant menus throughout town. It will significantly limit your food choices, however, if you tend to eat at food courts or hawker centres. Be wary of Chinese or Indian dishes with lots of sauce, oil or gravy – they sneak those calories in!

Experts say… “You can lose weight by following a healthy vegetarian diet, as long as it’s low in fat and sugar,” says Ms Chia. However, the excess calories in a vegetarian diet that includes too many deep-fried or sugary foods will prevent you from losing weight. She agrees that a vegetarian or vegan diet, if done right, can have many health benefits – for example, a lower risk of cancers, inflammatory disease and cardiovascular conditions – but emphasises that it may also cause nutritional deficiencies if not well planned.

Dr Look agrees, adding, “Vegetarians are, in general, leaner than omnivores, but it does not mean you can’t get fat. Beware of excessive intake of high calorie foods such as starches, beans and carbs. Sweets, snacks, desserts and processed foods can also be very unhealthy even if they are vegetarian.”

5. The Blood Type Diet

Naturopath Peter J. D’Adamo is the leading proponent of this fad diet, which is based on the idea that people with different blood types digest lectins (carbohydrate-binding proteins) differently, and that eating food that is not compatible with your blood type makes you susceptible to health problems. Conversely, eating blood-type-compatible foods will help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and protect you from disease.

How doable is this?

Depending on your blood type, this diet can be pretty restrictive. You’d need to be very committed and do a lot of reading. What’s more, when members of the same household have different blood types, meal planning and supermarket shopping can become a nightmare!

Experts say…

“There is simply not enough scientific evidence to support the rationale behind blood type dieting,” says Dr Look. “You are allowed only specific foods and even types of exercises for your blood type. The diet doesn’t allow for personal preferences, or even take account of medical conditions. If you have diabetes or heart disease, for example, you might find that blood type diet recommendations contradict your doctor’s advice.” Ms Chia agrees: “I don’t see any reason why a blood type diet would work. If there is any weight loss, it will be due to lower calorie intake.”

This article first appeared in the February 2017 edition of Expat Living Singapore. Subscribe now!

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