It’s the season of magazines telling you to get your body summer-ready but don’t let the media scare you into starvation.
With the end of winter comes an inevitable influx of magazine covers showcasing bikini-clad celebrities who have transformed their bodies from truly awful regular-person bodies into beacons of lean, tanned perfection. Transformazing! If your brain’s terror centre isn’t fully engaged by this point, then the same covers will remind you – only 12 weeks until summer! Is your body ready? Although, summer bodies are apparently made in winter, haven’t you heard? IT MIGHT ALREADY BE TOO LATE. As the weather warms up and layers start coming off, many people crash into frantic and often ill-informed diet plans.
A study published by the lauded New England Journal of Medicine compared weight loss across three diets: the Mediterranean diet, a low-fat diet, and a low-carbohydrate diet.
The Mediterranean diet included plenty of fruit and vegetables, poultry and fish, and minimised intake of red meat and dairy. Whole grains, legumes and nuts were included, as were fats from olive oil. The low-fat diet predictably emphasised low-fat grains, fruit and vegetables, and legumes. Participants in both the Mediterranean diet and the low-fat diet conditions were restricted to 1500 calories per day for women, and 1800 calories per day for men. Participants in the low-carbohydrate diet condition were not calorie-restricted and were instructed simply to consume only 20g of carbohydrates per day. They were also advised to choose vegetarian sources of fat and protein, and to avoid trans fat (aka the Devil).
The average weight lost over the course of the study was greatest for the low-carbohydrate group (4.7kg per person), followed by the Mediterranean diet group (4.4kg per person), and the least for the low- fat diet group (2.9kg per person). Interestingly, more participants were able to maintain the low-fat diet over the two years of the study, with 90 per cent of participants still adhering to the diet after two years. Over 85 per cent of participants adhered to the Mediterranean diet, and 78 per cent stuck it out with the low-carb lifestyle. One interpretation of these results is that the low-carbohydrate diet is the most difficult, but the most effective diet, at least for weight loss. Not surprising really, considering that basically everything is a carb. The majority of participants in this research were men and the mean age of participants was 52 years old. Whether these results apply outside the patriarchy remains to be seen. As the authors note, “personal preferences and metabolic considerations might inform individualised tailoring of dietary interventions”.
The most famous low-carbohydrate diet, and the one on which this study modelled their low-carb eating plan, is arguably the Atkins diet. The Atkins diet, named after its eminently modest creator/physician Dr Robert C Atkins, involves cutting down to less than 20g of carbohydrates per day for the first two weeks. That’s about one potato, or half of a bread roll. This puts your body into a state of ketosis. The currently popular ‘keto’ diet also uses ketosis to induce weight loss. Under ‘normal’ dietary conditions, the body gets energy by metabolising glucose obtained primarily from carbohydrates. When this energy source isn’t available, the body breaks down fat to convert to energy and the liver produces ketones – energy-rich molecules that enter the blood stream and fuel the body and brain. Bam! You are in ketosis, your trusty body is basically eating its own fat, weight loss begins. Soon – people may even begin to ask: “Are you ill?!”
The first couple of weeks of being in ketosis apparently feel pretty bloody awful; weakness, fatigue and insomnia have all been associated with this physiological state. However, once the body has adapted to burning fat instead of glucose, the keto diet is reportedly associated with increased mental focus and energy, and a reduction in appetite. Like most diets, the addition of exercise ramps things up another notch. A 2016 study published in the journal Metabolism found that runners on a low-carbohydrate diet burned a whopping 230 per cent more fat than runners on a traditional high-carbohydrate diet.
By the time you read this article, magazines across the nation will likely be self-combusting with panic about the imminent beach season. Don’t let them scare you into starvation. Make the healthiest, evidence-based choice you can, taking into account your unique circumstances.
And remember, as the oft-circulated feminist meme instructs on How to Have a Beach Body: 1. Have a body, 2. Go to the beach.