Instant Health Binges


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Alan Cleaver.

It’s almost impossible to get through modern life without overhearing a passing mention of a new dietary or exercise fad, sweeping everyone you know in its wake.

Maybe your co-worker absolutely swears to cutting out sweets and carbs, eats fresh fruits and lean proteins from Monday through Wednesday, then is back at it with pastries and bagels by Friday. Perhaps you yourself want to quit beer–which lasts until happy hour, mid-week, so then, why not just continue drinking through the weekend? Meanwhile, you’re tired of hearing about your friend’s relentless “start exercising” proposal, which always means she will run for a few mornings in a row–before she gets lazy again for the next few weeks until she gains enough motivation for the same small fitness spurt.

Does any actual benefit entail from these brief, sporadic efforts? BTR inquired diet and fitness experts to discuss such binges.

Karen Ansel, a New-York based nutritionist, says that she wishes she could attest to some benefit in going on sporadic dieting changes–but there really isn’t any.

“When it comes to healthy eating, it’s really what you do most of the time day after day, month after month,” she tells BTR, “so a small change for a couple of days–whether for better or worse–makes little difference as far as your health is concerned.”

Ansel continues that, “if it helps them cut calories it could be somewhat helpful, but the results would be minor compared to making these changes every day. Plus, if they are the type of person who is likely to compensate by eating more of these forbidden foods on the days they aren’t cutting back, it might actually backfire.”

Alyse Levine, a Los Angeles nutritionist who runs the online program Eating Reset, shares her insight with BTR. She cites the phrase on “yo-yo” dieting to describe the cyclical pattern where people restrict their food intake temporarily, lose weight for a short period of time, only to gain it back in the future when they binge on the designated foods.

The tendency, she says, is incredibly common in the American population.

“So often I hear people saying they are going to start eating ‘clean’ or that they want to ‘detox’ by trying to completely cut something out of their diet, such as sugar, or processed foods, or gluten,” she tells BTR.

Levine explains that although people are not dieting in the traditional sense–like calorie counting or enrolling in Jenny Craig programs–they still are engaging in a “diet mindset,” rather than an actual lifestyle change. The mindset causes them to deem some foods as good, others as bad, and believe that by eliminating the bad foods, they will lose weight.

Again, that polarization becomes problematic because people will likely revert to eating those particular items.

If people want to actually make changes, she advises that they should actually focus on why and how they are consuming the foods. By successfully getting “back in tune with their bodies and eat for true physical hunger,” rather than reaching for snacks because of boredom or stress, people can eat “mindfully.” That way, they can naturally train themselves to consume less processed and more wholesome foods, and eventually gravitate toward a healthier palate.

“A black-and-white diet mindset where people feel like they have to restrict themselves to just eating certain foods is exactly what is hindering them from losing weight for the long run and being healthy,” Ansel assesses. “If people could learn to look at all foods as fair game and not have forbidden foods, the desire to eat any ‘off limits’ foods would be greatly reduced.”

In terms of short-lived exercising, the rules are similar: binging doesn’t work.

BTR asks fitness expert Lawrence Biscontini, Mass., whether short-term, sporadic workout spurts have any positive effect on people who have largely sedentary lifestyles.

“Most of my clients learn that fast gains do not work because what you gain fast you lose fast,” he answers.

He adds that “putting on muscle, losing fat, and getting ‘fit’ are lifelong practices,” and that trying to exercise in a speedy manner for immediate results is unrealistic.

“For normal, healthy individuals, up to two hours of movement per day produce gains that sustain desired results for the long-term,” Biscontini says.

Benefits from eating well and exercising require a long-term change, not an ephemeral health binge.