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Fad Diet Lowdown: What Really Works?

Who wouldn't want to lose 10 pounds in a week? See your waist shrink without moving an inch? Or eat french fries and chocolate cake as the weight just disappears? Diet "experts" around the country continue to market their no-fail strategies for losing weight-some with pretty telling success stories. So, how do you know which ones are safe, which ones really work, and what will truly give you the results you are looking for in the long run?

Diane Andrea, a registered dietitian for St. Luke's Hospital, provides some answers to help us wade through the sea of weight loss programs and diet promises.

"Fad diets provide a false sense of reality," says Andrea. "Many people get caught up in their short-term effects, but are left worse off than when they first began."

Andrea explains that while some fad diets will produce quick weight loss (anything over one pound/week), it is weight that cannot be kept off in the long-term and can actually inflict physical damage on the body-preventing the ability to lose weight naturally in the future.

She says that the quick weight loss promised by these diets is usually water weight-not loss of fat-caused by dehydration of the body, and will be gained back when normal eating resumes. The weight returns because most fad diets produce results by severely restricting the calories consumed (less than 1200 calories for women and less than 1600 for men). When this occurs, the body is triggered into believing that it is in starvation mode and will burn less calories to conserve energy-lowering the metabolism and actually working against weight loss.

"Many individuals who are on fad diets actually gain more weight back than they lost because of this change in metabolism," says Andrea. "If they continue on this path, their metabolism will be permanently altered, making it more difficult to lose or even maintain their weight in the future."

So how do you know if you're being lured to a fad diet? Andrea provides six basic red flags characteristic of fad diets. Be aware of a diet if it:
  1. Claims it can work "miracles" or is centered on "magic" foods such as cabbage soup or grapefruit.
  2. Promises rapid weight loss. Usually these will induce a diuretic effect, producing a loss of water weight.
  3. Doesn't recommend exercise-which is critical to improving energy, fitness, health and weight loss.
  4. Is centered on specific food combinations such as never eating protein with carbohydrates or only eating grains with fruit. There is no scientific basis for the benefits of these food combination claims.
  5. Enforce too rigid of menus. Eating only a few different foods is not realistic for lifelong weight management.
  6. Use over-the-counter medications to produce weight loss. Again, many of these merely act as a diuretic, but some also include potentially dangerous ingredients that can lead to heart problems and do not work for long-term weight control.
Instead of succumbing to the promises of fad diets, make basic, healthy changes to diet and exercise including setting realistic weight-loss goals (1/2 to 1 pound/week), incorporate exercise into your daily routine, eat balanced meals, and seek support from a weight loss group, dietician or physician.

"The people I've worked with who have lost weight and kept it off are those who gave up dieting a long time ago," says Andrea. "You just have to realize that weight control takes lifelong maintenance and decide to make that commitment to yourself."