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Late night TV surfing usually hits you with the latest miracle diet infomercial. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, especially if it promises a quick deflation of that spare tire around your waist.
This advice is especially true for the latest trends, Juice Fasting and Intermittent Fasting. (See Why Intermittent Fasting Is Unsuitable for Athletes.) Individuals on a juice fast eat no solid food, taking in only water, juice, tea and broth for up to 30 days. Those practicing Intermittent Fasting (e.g., the 5/2 Diet) eat whatever they want on the first five days of the week, then restrict themselves to 500 calories on the remaining two days.
Such gimmicky plans may promise good results, but restricting calories and skipping meals can cause irreparable damage to your body.
What are we doing to our bodies?
Skipping a meal or severely restricting calories tells the body to prepare for a famine. In response, the body slows down its metabolism in order to burn fewer calories and store more body fat. Since carbohydrates are the body's preferred fuel choice during high intensity activity, skipping meals and restricting calories results in a carbohydrate deficit.
This is where the confusion begins. Any time the body is in a carbohydrate deficit, it taps into fat storage for an alternate source of fuel. Promoters of fasting advertise this fact to prove a benefit. Unfortunately, it's not a benefit at all. Without carbohydrates, fats do not burn completely and they produce a byproduct called ketones. Long periods of fasting lead to high ketone levels, making the blood more acidic and damaging the kidney and liver.
Is skipping meals sustainable?
The National Weight Control Registry has investigated weight loss practices in over 10,000 people. The answer was a resounding NO! Skipping meals does not lead to successful weight loss. If you are looking to lose weight, the National Weight Control Registry recommends the following strategies:
1) Get active and stay active
Engage in physical activities that you love and feel motivated to continue. If you don't like to run, try biking, yoga, zumba, swimming or boot camps. Once you find an activity you like, stick with it. When you reach a comfortable weight, don't decrease your physical activity. You will regain the weight you worked so hard to lose.
People who severely restrict calories or skip meals lack the fuel to use high intensity training to burn calories. Even if you complete the exercise, your body is preparing for a famine, so it burn fewer calories to conserve its energy stores.
2) Commit to a lower calorie diet
Consuming a diet that is too low in calories and fat is counter-productive, but a diet too high in these nutrients won't yield results either. A registered dietitian (RD) can design a meal plan that is perfect for you. RDs are trained nutrition professionals who analyze body composition, calculate calorie requirements and create eating plans that meet specific needs. The problem with trendy fads like juicing and intermittent fasting is that people view them as customized diets, but they're not. They are one-size-fits-all prescriptions that don't suit individual needs. (Find an RD that works with athletes.)
3) Eat breakfast
Adult breakfast-skippers are at a higher risk for becoming overweight or obese. According to the National Weight Control Registry, nearly eight out of 10 adults who maintain a 30-pound weight loss for at least a year eat breakfast daily. People who skip breakfast consume 40% more sweets, 55% more soft drinks, 45% fewer vegetables and 30% less fruit than people who eat breakfast. This is a small sample of the piles of research that show skipping breakfast is not a successful weight loss strategy. If the thought of breakfast makes you nauseous, try a liquid meal (like this fruit smoothie).
4) Stay consistent
People who maintain a consistent pattern of eating (even on weekends) are more likely to maintain their weight loss than those who practice a stricter diet. Skipping meals and fasting are unsustainable practices. They are designed for short durations. No one commits to a lifetime juice fast. The most successful way to lose weight and keep it off is to commit to a lifetime of healthy eating and exercise. This lifestyle should leave a little room for treats, so that you don't feel the need to abandon your healthy habits for days, weeks or months. Unfortunately, mistakes can happen, because lifestyle change is difficult. If you fall off the wagon, recommit yourself to healthy practices and keep moving forward.
The truth is that skipping meals slows metabolism, making it difficult to perform high intensity exercise. It creates a pattern of yo-yo eating that increases the risk of becoming overweight and obese. If you want to lose weight, make a lifestyle change and work every day to maintain it. As Maya Angelou once said, "Nothing will work unless you do."