The start of the new year is resolution season, and for many people, losing weight is at the top of the list.
Coming after all the cookies, sweets and sumptuous family meals during the holidays, many people are eager to find ways to shed pounds - and quickly.
Popular methods range from water fasting, over-the-counter diet supplements and diets that typically cap calories at 800 per day and may involve eating the same food throughout the day, like grapefruit or cabbage soup. But do they work? And more importantly, is it a good idea to try and lose weight quickly?
“Following very restrictive fad diets or taking over-the-counter diet pills that claim to produce quick weight loss is not advisable,” says Wendy Miller, M.D., medical director for Beaumont Weight Control Centers. “You should always consult with your doctor first if considering a specific diet plan.”
Physicians sometimes use very low-calorie diets, such as meal-replacement shakes, for certain medical conditions or to prep a patient for surgery - but only under close monitoring. That’s because there are serious health risks associated with losing weight too quickly, such as developing gall stones or loss of muscle. It can also cause electrolyte abnormalities, which can lead to serious complications like irregular heart rhythms or fainting.
For a young person who’s in good health, doing a water-fasting diet one day a week may not be a problem, but they should still consult with a physician beforehand, Miller says. What’s more, many over-the-counter diet pills or supplements haven’t been shown to be effective in clinical trials. Others have been yanked from the market over safety concerns.
There’s another problem with thinking about fast weight-loss.
“Losing weight quickly has not been shown to help you keep the weight off unless you have developed long-term healthy lifestyle changes,” Miller says. “When you lose weight quickly, you’re not working on changing your habits, you’re just focused on the program that you’re following.”
Rather than just going on a diet, Dr. Miller suggests focusing on creating healthier habits as a way to shed pounds. They focus on dietary changes, but also ways to get more exercise:
- Incorporate more vegetables and water intake into your diet. You can flavor water with things like lemon or cucumber slices, but limit the amount of fruit juices or sugary sodas you drink. “Lots of people are getting tons of calories through their drinks that they don’t realize or focus on,” Miller says. And people don’t tend to eat less to compensate for those so-called empty calories.
- Eat more lean proteins - white meats, fish, legumes, nuts and low-fat dairy and less red meat or processed meat, like lunchmeats or bacon.
- Focus on eating high-fiber complex carbohydrates - in other words, whole-grain breads or crackers - instead of heavily processed carbs that pack a lot of empty calories.
- Physical activity is important to burn calories. If you find it hard to set aside time to exercise, try to find ways to increase your steps. Using a FitBit or other device, try to work your way up to 10,000 steps a day over time. That might mean parking further away from the office or store, taking the stairs instead of an elevator or opting to walk what would otherwise be a short drive.
- People who struggle with weight loss should consider getting help at centers that specialize in weight management.