Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
You’ve undoubtedly heard about those quickie weight-loss diets that promise amazing results in days or a few weeks. They have catchy names like the Grapefruit Diet, the Master Cleanse, the Cabbage Soup Diet, even the Taco Diet. Is one of these or their ilk the dietary equivalent of a magic bullet, the one program that will deliver the results you want — ASAP?
Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes, because any old diet that limits your intake to one or just a few foods will most likely help you shed a few unwanted pounds. But then it doesn’t. No one can go very long eating just a limited array of foods when we live in a society filled with a smorgasbord of choices. Birds may be happy feeding on only seeds and hummingbirds on just nectar, but we humans are omnivores. To get all the nutrients we need, we are programmed to eat a diverse array of foods.
So, let’s take a peek at some of the faddish programs out there, but understand that I am not, repeat, not endorsing any of them.
Life Is Just a Bowl of Lemons
The Master Cleanse, or lemonade fast, has been around forever, or so it seems. For a minimum of 10 days, you begin the day with a quart (4 cups) of warm filtered or bottled water mixed with 2 teaspoons of natural sea salt. For the rest of the day, you’ll drink at least six glasses of lemonade, sweetened with maple syrup (not pancake syrup, which is mostly corn syrup) and spiked with cayenne pepper. And that’s it. After 10 days, you segue back to solid food by sipping orange juice and vegetable soup for several days.
The real reason it works. The quart of warm salty water acts as a diuretic. Six servings of lemonade add up to only 668 calories a day. No wonder you’ll lose weight.
Dieter, beware. Ironically, consuming that much of a liquid laxative can cause you to vomit and become dehydrated. Not to mention it doesn’t contain any of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients your body needs to survive. Sure, you’ll lose a few pounds, but you’ll be miserable, light-headed, devoid of energy in brain and body, sick to your stomach and the weight loss will only last as long as you continue the diet. As soon as you transition back to normal food, the pounds will come back (with a vengeance).
Grapefruit for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
This diet does allow solid food, but the 12-day program is pretty monotonous. It consists of basically a protein source, such as eggs and bacon for breakfast and meat or fish for lunch and dinner, accompanied by a salad or cooked vegetables. With each meal, you have a cup of grapefruit juice or half a grapefruit. Although its advocates claim there is an enzyme in grapefruit that magically burns fat, research has not backed up this claim.
The real reason it works. This low-carb, low-calorie program delivers about 1,000 calories a day, which would likely result in weight loss regardless of the composition of the diet.
Dieter, beware: Grapefruit has been shown to increase the absorption of certain drugs in the bloodstream, meaning you might inadvertently overdose yourself. Alternatively, interactions with other drugs could diminish absorption, interfering with efficacy.
Not by Bread Alone
The Bread for Life Diet is a catchy book title, but on closer examination, it does distinguish between complex carbohydrate (low-glycemic) foods and the simple carbs that quickly raise your blood sugar levels. Women and men can eat up to 12 or 16 slices of whole grain bread a day, respectively; however, the bread must contain no more than 40 calories per slice. Top it with a thin layer of hummus, non-fat cream cheese, peanut butter, mustard, or mashed avocado, but no butter or margarine. Most vegetables, but not potatoes, are allowed, and sugar is proscribed. The only sources of animal protein allowed are chicken and turkey (minus skin and fat), eggs, low-fat cheese, and plain unsweetened yogurt. You can have one piece of fruit a day. The second phase of the program is slightly less restrictive. The theory is that consuming lots of complex carbs boosts serotonin levels in your brain, helping reduce appetite and cravings.
The real reason it works. This is not just a high-carb diet, it is also a very low fat diet, and a relatively low protein diet, so once again, the calorie intake accounts for weight loss.
Dieter, beware. Very few whole-grain breads actually contain no more than 40 calories a slice and many are not low glycemic. In fact, a slice of some bread is as twice as high or even higher in calories, impacting both insulin and serotonin levels, and therefore hunger. Many people find eating lots of carbs increase their cravings. Protein is satiating, but the relatively low protein content may also aggravate hunger.
Soup, Soup, and More Soup
The cabbage soup diet debuted in the mid 1990s in The National Enquirer, and has turned up in numerous iterations since then. In addition to cabbage, the original recipe includes onions, carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, garlic, celery, canned tomatoes and tomato juice, lemon juice, plus a package of Lipton soup mix and bullion cubes. You can have as many servings as you wish over seven days. Over the years, the recipe has morphed into multiple variations, including the use of more natural seasonings. Some followers alternate the soup with salads made of many of the same ingredients, and allow as much fruit (except bananas) as you want. You follow the diet for a week.
The real reason it works. Once again, it’s the low-calorie, low-fat recipe. The fiber content of the vegetables also means you are unlikely to get constipated.
Dieter, beware. Eating lots of vegetables filled with fiber and other nutrients is great, but the low protein content may leave many people with cravings. Consuming adequate protein while shedding pounds protects muscle stores and maintains energy levels while staving off hunger.
One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, More
America’s favorite vegetable by a mile is the potato, so the potato diet was inevitable. The diet comes in three variations with durations of 3 days, 1 week and 15 days. In all cases, you eat 3 pounds of roasted ‘taters spread in four to six portions a day. Depending on the duration of the diet, they are served with or without seasonings and with or without butter or olive oil.
The real reason it works. Yup, it’s the calories, roughly 1,200 a day.
Dieter, beware. Again, boredom. Even the most dedicated spud lover has her limit. Potatoes are starchy vegetables high on the rungs of the glycemic index, meaning they can spike your blood sugar, and then stimulate hunger when it falls. And man cannot live by potato alone – you’re robbing your body of the nutrients it needs that can only be found in variety.
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The Voice of Reason
Part of the appeal of these gimmicky weight-loss programs is that there is no need to count calories. The limited array of foods effectively does this for you. But almost inevitably, one tires of eating thing day in and day out, and retreats the old familiar habits that made you put on the pounds in the first place. And in the case of a fast such as the lemonade protocol, you simply can’t regard this as a permanent way of fueling your body.
Don’t forget that every time you yo-yo diet (or “weight cycling” as it’s commonly called), it makes it more difficult to lose weight the next time. Even worse, it wreaks havoc on your body, especially your cardiovascular and and immune systems. You’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole that soon enough will be nearly impossible to escape.
What’s the Answer?
Think of losing weight like trying to pay off a big credit card debt on a fixed income. The ‘crash diet’ scenario is that you cut your budget down to the bone by slashing your budget to the absolute bone for a couple months. You move in with your parents, sell your car and furniture, eat nothing but rice and beans and before you know it, you’re debt-free! And you think, wow, that was miserable, but at least I paid it back! And it wasn’t so bad because you knew you only had to do it for 8 weeks or so. So you go back to your normal life doing the exact same things you were doing, and before you know it, you’re in debt again. Because your spending habits haven’t changed. And now it’s going to be even harder to pay it back, because your parents won’t take you in again.
If you want to lose weight and keep it off, there’s only one answer: to change your everyday habits. You need sustainable and realistic solutions that won’t wreck your body or make you miserable.
Check out my books 5 Pounds or The Body Reset Diet for what I’ve found to be the easiest and most effective ways to lose weight and keep it off, and stay tuned to this blog for weekly tips!