Forget fads: How we really diet now

Weight Watchers are increasingly becoming popular among millennials
Weight Watchers are increasingly becoming popular among millennials

So long clean-eating, a new generation is turning to old fashioned methods to lose weight. But do they work, asks Victoria Lambert

When Georgie Callé decided to lose weight last year, the 25-year-old PR executive opted for a surprisingly old-school approach. Eschewing trendy regimes like intermittent fasting, carb cycling and the alkaline diet, Callé favoured the diet programme more commonly associated with her parents’ generation: Weight Watchers.

So she would gather in the local town hall for weekly meetings, scrupulously record her food intake via its points system and, crucially, ditch the high-octane HIIT gym classes favoured by her peers.

A year later, she is 60kg lighter, with just 3.6kg to go to achieve her goal weight of 68.5kg.

Callé seems to serve as proof that, in spite of the endless fashionable diets being touted, when it comes to weight loss the traditional idea of eating less and moving more may work best of all.

And she is far from alone: millennials are increasingly reverting to classic club-based systems of dieting, with Weight Watchers, or “Dub-Dub”, as new fans call it, claiming a global membership of 4.5 million.

That’s an increase of more than two million since the start of 2016, likely helped by the US strand enlisting endorsements from the likes of DJ Khaled and actor Kevin Smith to give the brand a fresher face.

Meanwhile, Slimming World, the UK’s biggest operation of its kind, now boasts around 900,000 members across its 18,000 weekly groups. Its official Instagram channel has more than 664,600 followers, and the hashtag #SlimmingWorld has been used more than 18.2 million times.

Yet it is not only diet clubs that seem to herald the revival of Seventies-style slimming tactics, but diet pills, too: a recent study of 12,000 overweight and obese people published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that those taking a new appetite suppressing drug, lorcaserin, lost weight safely with no risk to their hearts.

Those surveyed lost 4kg in weight over 40 months (compared to a 1.3kg loss by those who followed traditional diets) by taking the pill, which activates neurons in the brain that control feelings of fullness, and has been hailed as the most effective of its kind. At £220 (R3,740) a month, though, it is unlikely to be licensed by the NHS anytime soon.

In a world where we are surrounded by hi-tech gyms, celebrity low-cal recipe books and “clean-eating” diet advocates on social media, why are so many of us harking back to the past to get slim?

The tyranny of choice, perhaps, as there’s an endless stream of faddy ways promising to help you beat the scales. We have been urged to “backload” carbohydrates, eating them only at night when excess is stored as sugar not fat, a diet said to enhance weight loss and banish bloating, as favoured by “Made in Chelsea’s” Louise Thompson.

At the same time, we also are urged to eat a late breakfast and early dinner as new University of Surrey research has found that making our first and last meals of the day later and earlier respectively could help advocates to burn more body fat.

Bupa research, meanwhile, shows juicing to be the world’s most popular quick fix, as well as finding that two thirds of people worldwide have been on at least one diet in the past five years.

Whatever we are doing, however, we can’t be doing it that well.

Almost one in three British adults are now estimated to be obese, according to research from University College London and pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk Obesity, with the condition predicted to affect 48% of us by 2045 if current trends are not halted.

That figure is more than twice the estimated global average of 22%, rendering Brits the fattest in Europe, and second only to the US in the developed world.

The problem appears to be that while shifting a bit of excess timber is easy, lasting weight loss is difficult.

“Keeping weight off is the biggest challenge that dieters face,” says Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, a behaviour change psychologist. “Society’s solution to weight gain appears to be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.”

This may well be why we’re trying to usher a more straightforward era of weight control back in.

“The only way to lose weight for good is to go back to basics,” says Galia Grainger, whose Slimmeria retreat in Battle, East Sussex, is the subject of a Channel 4 documentary The Extreme Diet Hotel on Wednesday at 8pm. “Portion control,” she says. “Burning more calories than you consume. And taking control of your life.”

At Slimmeria, which offers guests the chance to lose 5.5kg in a week, Galia Grainger runs a tight ship. Each day includes at least four hours of exercise and no more than 450 calories of vegan food.

Sleeping is banned during the day and Grainger is not afraid to offer home truths if her guests start to rebel against the programme.

“I retrain my clients like Pavlov’s dogs. I tell them resistance is futile.”

In the documentary, guests are seen breaking down emotionally over the week only to register delight at losing 6go or more by the time they go home.

For Callé, from north London, the impetus to choose Weight Watchers came from hearing about too many fashionable methods that seemed very short term-ist.

“I heard friends talk about going on a Bikini Body programme,” she explains, “or the Size 2 diet and getting quite depressed with it. Those diets didn’t feel like sustainable lifestyle choices. I knew I needed something long lasting and steady with group support and check-ins.”

Having struggled with her weight, it was only last year that she felt able to lose it once and for all. “I looked around and thought, ‘Why haven’t I sorted this out?’.” What helped convince her was that Weight Watchers has changed with the times.

“You can track everything on its amazing app,” she says. “And there’s a great community on social media.”

Callé blogs her weight loss journey on Instagram as @inpursuitofhealthyness, which she believes helps to keep her on track.

Though there is a stereotype that Weight Watchers’ gatherings are full of older women, “half of mine is under 40,” she adds.

Dr Aria, who specialises in weight loss through his own Focused Insight Training (FIT) method, is cynical about this reboot of old means, pointing out that all diets tend to fail in the long run.

“There is clear and consistent evidence that regardless of which diet you go on, the outcome will be the same. Studies show that people on diets typically lose the largest amount of weight in the first six months, but then gradually regain it. This has shown to be the case for all diets, whether low fat or high fat, low carb or high carb,” he says.

Weight Watchers’ own research, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, shows that on average participants regain over three quarters of the weight they lose.

And Dr Aria is not thrilled by new slimming pills, either, pointing out that “nearly half of the group taking lorcaserin dropped out of the study, with more patients withdrawing due to headaches and dizziness than the placebo group“.

The other most common adverse side effects were respiratory infections and nausea; not to mention “the possible psychological impact of slimming pills on someone’s self-concept“, which Dr Aria believes is “rarely highlighted.

“The implicit message is that you cannot lose weight on your own and that you need an external, quick fix because you’re incapable of making long-term changes to your lifestyle. This can have further effects on all aspects of your life, from relationships to your career,” he adds.

Of course, many of us do love a quick fix — at least as a boost to start up a new regime.

But, warns Grainger, “fitness and weight loss are on the surface” - the only way to succeed is for dieters to “believe in themselves and that they can control their own life when they go home“.

Dr Aria agrees: “In order to shift weight, first we have to shift our mindset. Diets are not the answer. We’ll be a lot better off once we drop the illusion that a short-term fix can miraculously be a long-term solution.”

The answer he says is not in radical makeovers, but in small, gradual changes that become habits.

“Sustainable weight loss is about the long game: little changes compound over time and lead to big results. The simpler the behaviour, the easier it will become second nature.”The Sunday Telegraph