Extreme diets get a bad rap — but is it deserved?
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To keep pounds off for good, you should lose weight slowly over time, right? Not so fast. Adding to a growing body of research on the benefits of quick weight-loss programs, a new study in The Lancet: Diabetes and Endocrinology found that subjects who followed a short, extreme diet were more likely to hit their long-term pound-shedding goals as compared to people who followed a more moderate plan.
The study involved 200 obese adults, who took part in a doctor-supervised clinical weight-loss program. Half of the subjects ate no more than 800 calories per day for 12 weeks. The other half cut their normal calorie intake by 500 calories per day — a standard amount recommended by experts — for 36 weeks. All of the study participants also received weight-loss counseling.
The results contradict everything you’ve heard about how gradual change is best. During the initial diet, 80 percent of the fast pound-shedders reached their goals, compared to 50 percent of the moderate dieters. But here’s the catch: After three years, both of groups gained back roughly the same amount of weight — meaning the fast weight-loss group still ended up ahead.
“Some of the biggest misconceptions about fast weight loss are that it is unhealthy, it causes yo-yo dieting, and that people are more likely to regain more weight than if they lost it slowly,” said Catherine Rolland, PhD, a weight-loss researcher with Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Rolland published a study in the March 2014 issue of the International Journal of Clinical Practice that analyzed data on nearly 6,000 adults who ate less than 800 calories per day for 20 weeks. Again, the subjects did so under a doctor’s supervision, and also received lessons on long-term weight management. Data was available for 530 of the subjects three years after their diets. The results: The participants had kept off an average of 28 pounds.
Experts call these programs VLCDs (very low calorie diets), and it’s important to note that they are almost always done with clinical oversight to make sure people get enough of the nutrients they need. They also typically involve group support and therapy on behavior change. “VLCDs can be very useful for people who have dieted a lot in the past and have become resistant to weight loss, as well as those contemplating bariatric surgery,” Rolland told Yahoo Health.
Experts also say that quick, extreme diets might be more feasible for people who find a long diet period daunting. In addition, the faster initial results might help people stick with the more restrictive diet.
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Typically, every dieter tends to regain weight, studies show. By losing more weight initially, people on very low calorie diets may still have better long-term results even after packing on a few pounds. For example, researchers from the University of Florida compared 125 obese women who were on either a 1,000-calories-a-day diet or a 1,500-calories-a-day diet. After 6 months, the 1,000-calorie group had lost an average of 22 pounds, while the other group had lost 14 pounds. After one year, the results evened out — to 19 pounds versus 13 pounds, respectively. So while the 1,000-calorie dieters did indeed regain more weight, they still ended up slightly ahead, reported the journal Obesity.
However, averages tend to hide the fact that some people do well on a program while others don't respond to it. So another way to look at the results of the University of Florida study is the percentage of people who lost 5 percent of their weight or more. Even then, the very low calorie approach won out. At the end of 12 months, a significantly higher percentage of the 1,000-calorie group had lost 5 percent of their weight — 62 percent, versus 43 percent of the other group. People who had a very large amount of weight to lose were less likely to be able to stick with the extremely restrictive diet.
If you're thinking about weight-loss surgery or feel like nothing you try is working, talk with your doctor about the very low calorie diet options available to you. “There is an enormous amount of variation in how people respond to different weight-loss strategies, and no one plan is right for everyone," Rolland said. "But new evidence suggests that rapid initial weight loss may result in better long-term weight maintenance for some people."