The No White Foods Diet sounds simple: Just eliminate everything white from your plate, and weight loss will follow.
Longtime dieters have probably heard of the Grapefruit Diet, aÂ high-protein, very low calorieÂ diet that involvesÂ aÂ limited menu ofÂ food choices and half a grapefruit or a glass of grapefruit juice with every meal. Then of course there’s the Atkins Diet, extremely low on carbohydrates and high on proteins and fats.
What these and many other fad diets have in common is restriction. Restriction in variety, restriction in quantity, restriction in calories, restriction in food groups such as carbs, sugar or dairy.
In theory they help people lose weight and become healthier. But do they really? More to the point, can any restricted diet be sustained over the long term?
It’s not an idle question. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are looking for a better way to eat and many of them are wondering: Should they eliminate carbohydrates? Should they cut out sugar? What about going vegetarian?
But the jury is still out on many of the restrictive fad diets. Although the highly popular Atkins diet has helped countless people lose weight, it remains controversial for its high-protein, low-carb philosophy. For one thing, it limits the consumption of fruitsÂ and vegetables, which nutrition experts unanimously agree are important for a healthful diet. For another, critics are concerned that long-term pursuit of the Atkins diet may lead to heart disease and increased risk of kidney stones and gallstones.
Then there’s the restriction on carbs – no more than 40 grams a day, although the human body generally needs at leastÂ three times that much in orderÂ to function properly. Refined sugar, milk, white potatoes, white rice, and bread and pasta made with white flour are supposed to be eliminated completely and forever.
When WebMD reviewed the Atkins diet, one of the experts they spoke with was Barbara Rolls, author of “Volumetrics” and a professor at Penn State University, who had this to say:
“No one has shown, in any studies, that anything magical is going on with Atkins other than calorie restriction.Â The diet is very prescriptive, very restrictive, and limits half of the foods we normally eat. In the end it’s not fat, it’s not protein, it’s not carbs, it’s calories. You can lose weight on anything that helps you to eat less, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
The sad truth about many of these diets is that they ultimately fail, at least in part because many people find the restrictions too unrealistic and too difficult to live with for the long term.
I learned this firsthand a few years ago when I made a short-lived foray into veganism. Initially, the prospect of eliminatingÂ meat, fish, dairy and eggs sounded doable. But soon I found myself spending more and more time and energy planning meals and tinkering with recipes, trying to meet the vegan restrictions and still achieve some kind of nutritional balance. Besides being high-maintenance, it was monotonous beyond belief – something the proponents of restricted diets often don’t warn you about. When I began contemplating whether I needed to take a multivitamin supplement to make up for the nutrients I wasn’t getting at the dinner table, it became apparent that a vegan diet didn’t really make much sense, at least for me. I’m sure there are people who happily subsist on veganism but I’m not one of them.
Indeed, amid all the clamor about obesity and overconsumption of food, there’s an issue we seem to have missed: malnutrition.
A study from Australia that recently appeared in the Nutrition and Dietetics journal found that as many as one in three elderly hospital patients and up to 70 percent of nursing home residents are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. Author and researcher Karen Charlton also found that malnutrition often isn’t seen as a clinical priority and hence is underdiagnosed. She called it “the skeleton in the closet of many Australian hospitals.”
Malnutrition is more likely to be a risk for certain populations – people who have undergone bariatric surgery, for instance, or have cancer or kidney disease. For those with eating disorders, it can be deadly. And althoughÂ undernourishment isÂ far more common in developing nations where many people go hungry, it also occurs in wealthy countries, in the form both of hunger and of overconsumption of an unbalanced diet.
The National Eating Disorders Association makes several important points about what can happen when people pursue diets that are overly rigid or restrictive: For one thing, restrictive diets are often short on vital micronutrients such as calcium. For another, they can affect muscle strength, metabolism, coordination and the ability to concentrate.
Perhaps one of the best-known studies on the effects of food deprivation was carried out at the University of MinnesotaÂ from 1944 to 1945. Known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, it involved 36 male volunteers who were subjected to an extremely low-calorie diet, then renourishedÂ with a specially designed rehabilitation diet.Â Although the main purpose of the experiment was to study the effects of famine and famine recovery in the aftermath of World War II, it resulted in several other important findings as well, one of them being the psychological effects of food restriction and calorie deprivation. During the starvation phase, the subjects became extremely preoccupied with food and experienced distress, depression and social withdrawal. Physical effects that were observed included a lowering of heart and breathing rates, reduced body temperature and reduced basal metabolism.
The average American consumer isÂ unlikely to reach these extremes. But on a lesser level, it represents some of the issues that can arise when diets become highly restrictive.
So what’s the answer? A balanced diet, defined as “getting the right types and amounts of foods and drinks to supply nutrition and energy for maintaining body cells, tissues, and organs, and for supporting normal growth and development.” It should include all the major food groups in adequate proportions.
While the food pyramid might sound trite to many people, it’s as good a place as any to start. Concerned about carbs? Instead of cutting them out completely, consider whole-grain products instead. Want to reduce your fat intake from dairy? Try low-fat or fat-free options. It can be harder for vegetarians to meet all their daily nutrition requirements but it’s entirely possible, as long as they’re including enough protein, iron, calcium, zinc and other key nutrients.
The DASH eating plan is one of the few so-called diets that seems to have stood the test of time. Short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, it was designed to reduce blood pressure but has been found to help with lowering cholesterol, insulin resistance, weight and even neurocognitive functioning as well. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or non-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, nuts and legumes, plus limited amounts of sugar. The health benefits of following the DASH diet have been well studied and mostly reinforceÂ its positive effects. Although it has some restrictions -Â mainlyÂ calories and sodium – it’s not unrealistically rigid, nor does it demand that people eliminate entire categories of food from their plate.
Making dietary changes isn’t easy, period. Even with a balanced diet, it can be challenging to manage the many requirements. Extreme restrictions can make it harder than it needs to be, though. It really does come down to achieving a good balance – not too much and not too little of anything.
Food photos: Wikimedia Commons. Logo: Troy Murphy, West Central Tribune