- Author, Sarah Lienard
- Paper, BBC good food
Want to try the latest popular diet? Whether it’s intermittent fasting or a low-carb paleo diet, make sure you have all the facts first.
It’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the diets that come in and out of the shadows. Add to that the emergence of healthy eating “gurus” on Instagram and YouTube and it can be even harder to distinguish between informed nutritional advice and fad diets.
Here are 11 key questions to help you determine whether a weight loss plan is right for you, whether it can be effective, and most importantly, whether it is safe to follow.
1. Are you ready to start your weight loss journey?
It’s important to set yourself up for success. If you’re not in the right frame of mind or have too many competing demands on your time and attention, it’s probably not the right time to diet. Acknowledge this and give yourself space and time to prepare when the time comes.
2. Is the weight loss plan scientifically sound?
This is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Looking at the background and qualifications of the person behind the scheme can give you an idea of its legitimacy, but sometimes the answer is unclear. Even plans developed by qualified medical professionals are not without criticism – Atkins was formulated by an American cardiologist, but has received a lot of criticism.
If you want guidance and assurance that you are following a well-balanced plan, seek help from a professional, such as a licensed nutritionist.
3. Is the weight loss plan safe?
Just because your friends or family have had success with a specific diet doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Check with your doctor before starting a weight loss plan – this is particularly relevant if you have a diagnosed medical problem, including diabetes or a history of eating disorders.
Children, adolescents, the elderly and pregnant women have special nutritional needs and should not follow a restrictive diet unless under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
4. Does the diet provide enough calories?
As science advances, we are beginning to understand that the “calories in, calories out” theory may be an oversimplification of the way our bodies use energy. Like most processes in the body, energy consumption, expenditure and storage are strictly controlled. This means that the body struggles to maintain a constant supply of energy. Therefore, when you detect a calorie deficit, you compensate by reducing the energy you use, thus slowing down your metabolism. This keeps your energy stores at a fairly constant level and no longer leads to weight loss.
The best way to approach this is to understand your calorie needs. The average daily requirement for moderately active adults is 2,500 kcal for men and 2,000 kcal for women. When we diet, we reduce our energy intake and create a calorie deficit. How you determine this number is important because you need to eat enough calories to maintain your metabolic rate and continue to lose weight.
A general guide is to aim for fat loss of around 0.5 to 1 kg (1 to 2 pounds) per week. To achieve this, it is suggested to create a deficit of around 500 calories per day. The best way to monitor your calorie intake is to use a nutrition app – this will help you understand exactly how much, what and when you eat and drink.
Once you have this information, you can assess your calorie needs for weight loss and identify areas where you can reduce them.
5. Is the weight loss plan balanced?
Diets that encourage cutting out or severely restricting entire food groups or macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, are likely to be unbalanced and difficult to adhere to. Any diet that favors eating just one type of food (like the cabbage soup diet) can also put you at risk for nutritional deficiencies. These diets are short-term and do not offer a long-term solution to weight management.
6. Are you interested in foods for weight loss programs?
Regardless of your current diet, foods and meal plans should be appealing and match your dietary preferences. If they don’t appeal, you’ll likely look for alternatives.
Another important factor is whether you prefer some flexibility in your food choices or whether you are more suited to a normative way of eating. The latter may be effective during the weight loss period, but is less useful in weight control.
7. Does the plan fit your lifestyle and commitments?
If you generally don’t have time to shop and cook, a plan that involves a lot of meal prep won’t be right for you. Instead, look for one that offers quick-prep solutions, or even a service that offers ready-made, portion-controlled meals.
If you cook for other people, you might want to choose a plan that the whole family can follow – take a look at our healthy eating plans. Our recipes are designed to be adaptable to a greater number of people.
8. Does the weight loss plan include support?
Many of us appreciate the support of group meetings or online forums where we can ask questions and get extra encouragement when our commitment starts to flag. Being part of a group of like-minded people can also make the process more enjoyable.
9. Is the weight loss plan sustainable?
Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet is something you need to make a permanent part of your lifestyle – if you go back to your old eating habits, you run the risk of gaining weight again. Can you adapt your chosen dining style to your commitments? If you eat out or travel a lot for work, try to plan in advance how you might adapt to these scenarios – if the plan is too prescriptive, you may struggle to stick to it in the long term.
10. Does the plan promote physical activity?
If you’re starting to experience a plateau in weight loss, the key may be in your activity level. Studies suggest that optimal weight loss results are achieved when calorie restriction and activity are combined. Look for a weight loss plan that incorporates physical activity – it doesn’t have to be in the form of structured classes, it can be as simple as adding a daily walk to your routine.
Learn about walking and its many health benefits, as well as other money-saving exercises.
11. Is the end goal realistic?
Some diets can lead to rapid short-term weight loss, but weight loss is rarely maintained once you return to a more balanced eating style.
It’s important to aim for an appropriate target weight. You don’t want to risk losing too much weight too soon or losing too little weight. The NHS has an easy-to-understand tool for calculating your BMI – use it to determine your BMI and find out if your target weight is healthy for you.
Kerry Torrens is a Qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a Postgraduate Diploma in Personalized Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association of Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and the Guild of Food Writers. Over the past two decades, she has contributed to numerous nutrition and cooking publications, including BBC Good Food.