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Why diets don't work: The reason that weight you lost comes back with a vengeance

The Ketogenic Diet, intermittent fasting and the various forms of high-protein, low-carb diets may be the rage now but experts say don't get your hopes up.

Hands up, if you’re on a diet. Hands up, too, if you have tried everything, from slimming centres to the Ketogenic Diet, and haven’t nudged a gram.

Nope, the 2kg loss from losing water doesn’t count. And neither does the 5kg drop that comes back a year later as an 8kg gain.

The comfort you can take from this is, you’re not alone. There’s always someone in the office who is dieting.

Even in your circle of friends, there’s bound to be one or two individuals who have bandied around the D word from time to time.

On average, Singaporeans go through at least two diets in their lifetimes, said Pamela Er, senior dietitian at National University Hospital.

Other experts such as dietitian Jaclyn Reutens from Aptima Nutrition And Sports Consultants say it could be at least three diets.

“They try one diet, they fail. Then, they try again. The third failure could be the final try,” said Reutens.


In fact, according to Er, the local diet scene has hit its peak scene right about now.

“It’s been gradually building up over the last five years and gaining more traction in the last two years,” she said.

The surge could, in part, be caused by technology. “Food is now easily accessible with just an app,” she said.

While food-ordering apps create the supply, social media platforms create the demand. “Instagram and Facebook often push food content to users," said Er.

"They can be surfing these platforms in the middle of the night and they see such content, which triggers ghrelin, the hunger hormone that controls both eating behaviour and the physical processes involved in food metabolism.”

READ: Scientists reveal 'ideal diet' for peoples' and planet's health

The proof is in the amount of calories Singaporeans consume daily: Six in 10 Singaporeans ate more than the recommended 2,200 calories for men and more than 1,800 calories for women a day, according to the Health Promotion Board.

As of 2017, 32.8 per cent of our population is overweight, making Singapore the second-fattest kid in the Southeast Asian class.  

There’s also the pressure to be seen as trendy, noted Er.

Health food companies have been increasingly using marketing and advertising tools on social media to cash in on the health trend, and promote products such as juices or ketogenic diet meal plans, she said.

(Photo: Unsplash/i yunmai)

On the other hand, Reutens believed that the number of Singaporeans who diet isn’t as high as we think it is.

“I believe that the number of people who are on a diet make up a small percentage,” said Reutens. 

“And of these people, the majority is on a fad diet, which means that there are no results or the results are not lasting.

The weight rebound effect is even greater. You can lose 3kg in two months but put on 4kg in a month.”


If you think dieting to look good and be healthier is a modern concept, it actually goes a long way back.

All the way to 1863, to be exact.

Back in the 1800s, an obese English undertaker by the name of William Banting was frustrated that he was losing the battle of the bulge.

At 165cm tall, the 64-year-old weighed 91kg and had to go down the stairs backwards to avoid hurting his knees. He was also losing his hearing.

Nothing budged the weighing scale’s needle for Banting despite walking, horse riding and boat rowing for a few hours each day as well as undergoing numerous slimming treatments, consuming weight-loss drinks and being put through low-calorie diets (Sounds familiar?).

(Photo: iStock)

He was almost at wits’ end when his ear, nose and throat specialist, whom he saw for his hearing loss, wrote him a diet plan: No potatoes, bread, sugar, milk and beer.

Instead, eat four meals a day consisting of meat, vegetables and wine at almost every meal.

And it worked. So elated was Banting with the results – he apparently lost 16kg in nine-and-a-half months – that he wrote and published Letter On Corpulence, Addressed To The Public to share his diet plan.

It was the genesis of the world’s first diet plan – and probably the beginning of the many forms of low-carb diets that you see today.

In fact, Banting’s diet became so popular that people used to ask, “Are you banting?” instead of, “Are you dieting?”. And his book was still being published as recently as 2007.

The word “diet” isn’t a modern construct, either. It was invented in ancient Greece but it didn’t mean eating less of certain foods to lose weight.

In its original context, “diaita” represented a way of life that encompasses food, drink, lifestyle, and exercise. 

“They didn’t get everything right but they did know that a healthy mind and a healthy body made for a healthy society,” said Louise Foxcroft, author of Calories And Corsets: A History Of Dieting Over 2,000 Years.


If “diet” was already a word in your lexicon in the 90s, you’d already have swung from associating fat as the ultimate diet saboteur to a delicious weight-loss ally.

You’d have heard of names such as Atkins Diet (thanks to Jennifer Aniston), Zone Diet, South Beach Diet and macrobiotic diet (that would be Gwyneth Paltrow).

“The first few diets that really stood out were the Atkins Diet, Hay Diet, Blood-type Diet, Cabbage Soup Diet, and the grapefruit diet,” said Reutens.

However, those diets focused on single nutrients, single foods or some unsubstantiated theory on how your body works, she said.

(Photo: Pixabay/PublicDomainPictures)

Then, the new millennium came and with it, the age of reality TV.

Nothing was private anymore, much less the sweaty, unglamorous and very real struggles of obese people trying to lose weight on TV shows such as The Biggest Loser.

While such shows might have motivated those with weight issues to get off the couch, critics have argued that the quick and sudden weight loss – as much as 15kg in a week – isn’t healthy.

The biggest gripe though: Contestants often regained the weight they’d lost, according to the medical journal Obesity Biology And Integrated Physiological, which followed 14 The Biggest Loser contestants for six years after completing the show. 

The early 2000s saw a revival in meal replacement products such as shakes, food packs and bars.

“Some people found this easier than having to think about purchasing or preparing low-caloric, healthy meals,” said Er.

However, Reutens said that you still needed to be monitored by a dietitian to ensure you are using them correctly to see the best results.

In Singapore, “the more popular diets used to be the vegan, Atkins and Mediterranean Diets, whereas in the last two years, it’s becoming the Ketogenic Diet, Paleolithic Diet, intermittent fasting and juicing detox diet,” said Reutens.

Another trend in dieting that she sees is not so much to lose weight but to improve health. “Juice-cleanse diet, vegan diet, gluten-free diet ... eating organic food is not really a diet per se but the demand for it has surged,” she said.


While the diets of today have generally moved away from severely limiting the number of calories you consume, they still require willpower to keep to them.

And therein lies the problem.

“As the saying goes, old habits die hard. Any weight management diet plan can achieve some sort of weight loss if you’re able to stick to it.

"However, people get tired of being on the same plan daily,” said Er.

(Photo: Pixabay/stevepb)

It’s not surprising that the one thing that has consistently stood out in the various dieting methods over the years is that of keeping the weight off for good.

The number on the weighing scale’s counter just doesn’t seem to stay down in the long run.

“Typically, 5 per cent and up to 20 per cent of body weight loss can be achieved over six to 12 months, depending on their compliance levels, physical activity and consistency in keeping to a diet,” said Er.

She added: “Most, like intermittent fasting, may be able to yield weight loss within days of commencement, but this is usually from the loss of fluids.

"Research has shown that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of people who have lost weight almost regain them all or even more after two years.

"The real work starts when you’re trying to maintain the weight you’ve lost”.

Reutens noted that the lost kilos can be regained even quicker. “The weight can come back as quickly as two days.

"A 3kg weight gain in two days is not unheard of if someone just binges for a few meals.”

And there’s the rub – you have to keep at your diet. There’s no day off, no weekends, no holidays.

“As weight-loss programmes, diets don't work,” said Meg Selig, author of Changepower! 37 Secrets To Habit Change Success on Psychology Today.

“Yes, you lose weight, but about 95 per cent of people who lose weight by dieting will regain it in one to five years.

"Since dieting, by definition, is a temporary food plan, it won't work in the long run.”

That aside, diets also “fail from a practical point of view,” said Reutens.

“Dieters often find themselves being socially distant because they are unable to find the foods they are supposed to consume when they eat out,” she said.

“Imagine you are on an intermittent fasting diet and your 4/8 hours end at 6pm; you will be unable to go for a dinner gathering at 8pm.”

It doesn’t help that your body is constantly conspiring against you. Those on a high-protein, low-carb diet would be familiar with the mood swings that come with it.

“It is common for those on such a diet to be angsty, grumpy and short-tempered. This is because of the lack of serotonin being produced,” said Reutens.

“Other side effects include hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), constipation, nausea and headaches.”

Furthermore, your body goes into compensatory mode when it senses that it’s not getting the amount of fuel it used to.

You feel lethargic. Your metabolic rate gets tuned down, so that your body doesn’t burn as many calories as it used to when it’s at rest, said Er.

And when that happens, the weight loss plateaus.  

A heightened sensitivity to insulin is another way your body is telling you that it wants to go back to its original weight.

“This means the uptake of glucose back into the cells for fat storage leaves you vulnerable to weight regain,” said Er.


A big part of the answer lies in our love for novelty and the need to be seen as “in”, said Reutens.

“It seems almost trendy to say you are on this or that diet,” she said. “I have numerous queries on the latest ones such as keto and intermittent fasting.”

If weight loss sounds like an impossibility, there is hope yet. “Weight loss is not difficult once you understand the logic,” said Reutens.

“It’s a misconception that all diets are difficult to follow. Yes, the fad diets are but a well-planned, sensible diet with a wide variety of foods is actually easy and enjoyable to follow.

"Going on a diet is not about eating or limiting one food; it is about having a healthier attitude toward food.”

So, forget gimmicky diets. They are a waste of not just your money but your time and more so, psychological well-being, said Reutens.

Source: CNA/bk