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Questions & Answers About Fad Diets & Rapid Weight Loss

Q: New diets are always popular because so many people want to lose weight. Why shouldn’t someone get too excited about a new kind of magical solution for getting the perfect body?

A: Simply put, if some kind of magical solution for achieving the perfect body did exist, we would all have the perfect body. Weight loss is a complex process that requires significant behavior changes, psychological shifts in perspective, and considerable effort over a sustained period of time.

Even when weight loss is physiologically facilitated (as it can be with weight-loss surgeries and medications), individuals must still eat less and move more in order to experience long-term success.

Weight loss tactics that result in rapid drops on the scale are usually due to water loss in cells and muscles. Fat loss, from a physiological standpoint, requires a sustained calorie deficit that can takes weeks and months to create.

It is alluring, in our quick-fix culture, to believe that there is a short-cut in this process. However, basic biological principles ensure that this is unlikely to be the case.

Q: The K-E diet sounds like a pretty extreme solution. But how dangerous can it really be?

The K-E diet is essentially an 800-calorie liquid diet that is administered through a nasogastric tube for a period of 10 days. Patients are instructed not to consume additional food or drink (except for non-caloric water, unsweetened tea, and black coffee), and a weight loss of 10% is expected.

It should be noted that there is nothing about the delivery system of the 800 calories – the novel nasogastric tube in this case – that makes this diet any more effective than any other 800-calorie diet. When such low-calorie diets are utilized (and they are only employed for severely obese individuals for whom weight loss has become a medical necessity), they are typically undertaken in a hospital-based setting where patients are under close medical supervision.

Thus, the danger of following such a low-calorie diet in an outpatient setting is grave. Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and muscle wasting are all possibilities.

Furthermore, the psychological danger of this method should not be underestimated. If, after several unsuccessful attempts with more reasonable weight management approaches, a person has success seeing the scale number decrease (which would really only be a reflection of water and muscle loss over the 10-day period), she may draw the erroneous conclusion that this diet is the only effective means of losing weight.

To make matters worse, the clinic that administers this diet allows patients to repeat the 10-day protocol multiple times. Thus, this option could become form of addiction for some individuals.

Q: Most women who are trying to lose weight want to see results as quickly as they can. Why is it so hard for us to set a loss weight goal and follow a healthy plan for a couple of months?

A: We have become accustomed to a society that often provides us with instant gratification, but the process of safe and lasting weight loss is a slow and measured one.

Weight loss competition television programs have only helped to reinforce the message that significant weight loss – on the order of 10 to 20 pounds in a week – is realistic and can be achieved consistently, week after week after week. In fact, when individuals follow diet and exercise plans that provide sufficient nutrition to maintain their health, a healthy rate of weight loss is about one to two pounds per week in an outpatient setting.

Thus, even when individuals are losing weight in a healthy manner, they become discouraged when they do not observe the losses that they expect. Most of these folks then conclude that the diet “isn’t working” (negating the pounds that have been lost) and abandon their efforts. They then regain the weight, which reinforces their belief that healthful and safe methods of weight reduction are ineffective.

Since this type of reasoning is so common, it is not surprising that most people do not “stay the course” long enough to achieve their weight loss goals via sound practices.

Q: How can our brains change in order to follow a more constructive and healthy way to lose weight?

A: We can change our brains by changing our behavior. For many people, overeating and leading sedentary lifestyles are the results of deeply ingrained habits related to food choices and patterns of activity. We reach for the same unhealthy foods over and over again because that’s what we’ve become accustomed to.

We go on autopilot. We stop thinking about the decisions that we make, and we ignore their potential consequences. However, when we start to act differently – perhaps planning our meals ahead of time, keeping a food journal, counting our calories, and resisting high-fat choices – we re-wire our brain so that the healthy behaviors become the habits.

After repeatedly making healthier choices, we start to see the benefits. We have more energy, we are losing weight, we look better in our clothing. These benefits serve to reinforce the healthy habits, and we continue to practice them over and over again. Eventually, we become so used to practicing the healthy behaviors that it feels strange to engage in the unhealthy ones.

This is the surest sign that we have re-wired our brain circuitry – when unhealthy habits that were once familiar become unfamiliar to us.

Q: We know that not every woman has the budget to visit a nutrition expert. So, what can women do in order to learn how to eat in a healthier way?

A: Psychologists have discovered several strategies that help most people lose weight and eat in a healthier manner.

First and foremost, keeping a food journal – a document in which all food eaten is written down and calories are tabulated – has been called the closest thing to a “magic bullet” for weight control. Making a commitment to write down everything we eat brings a level of awareness that naturally leads most people to stop and think before they engage in the mindless eating that can result in the excess calories that lead to weight gain.

Second, women can make an attempt to start their day with a healthy habit. Exercising or meditating first thing in the morning goes a long way toward creating a mindset that enables people to make other healthy choices (including, but not limited to, choices around food) as they go about the rest of their day.

Third, women can surround themselves with other men and women who have made healthy eating a priority. When everyone at the table has just ordered a heart-healthy, low-calorie meal, it is not as easy to choose the fat-laden item that may be tempting in another setting.

About Katie Rickel, PhD

Dr. Katie Rickel graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Florida. She completed an APA-accredited clinical internship in health psychology at Duke University Medical Center, with advanced training in behavioral and bariatric obesity treatment as well as the psychological management of chronic pain and illness. Dr. Rickel also has expertise in treating anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Her research has been presented at various professional conferences and published in scientific journals. Dr. Rickel has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and has been quoted in several popular media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Health magazine, Yahoo! Health, Women’s Health magazine, Weight Watchers magazine, and abcnews.com.

View all posts by Katie Rickel, PhD