Hailey Middlebrook: Vote to crush the crash diet

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 5:39pm

This summer I interned with Running Times magazine, which is the smaller, quieter, more intense brother of Runner’s World, Men’s Health and Women’s Health magazines. The internship took place in Emmaus, Pa., where the Rodale publishing company headquarters are located — a tiny, organic-­enthused, active town about an hour away from New York City and Philadelphia.

Naturally, the place is packed with fitness nuts, granola geeks and muscle heads. It’s awesome. Employees (and interns) are encouraged to take bike rides or run at lunch, buy meals at the organic cafeteria, promo running shoes and yoga mats and attend free fitness classes at Rodale’s state­-of-­the-­art gym. The company motto, “Live your whole life,” is taken to heart by its employees — a wholesome, healthy lifestyle is truly what they practice and preach.

So when I met my roommate for the summer, an intern for Runner’s World, I was taken by surprise. I walked into our shared dorm room in the middle of a workout video, my new roommate splayed on a yoga mat in the center of the floor, holding a slightly sagging plank pose. Nothing out of the ordinary. I skirted around her, plopped my bags on the nostalgic twin XL bed and pulled on my running shoes, bracing myself for the East coast humidity. I asked my roommate, now clearly in the cool­-down phase of her tape, what workout she was doing.

She promptly began to tell me about the “21 Day Fix.” Which, unfortunately, I would continue to hear about for the next 21 days. To save you the lengthy explanation — trust me, if there’s one thing people love to drone on about, it’s their latest diet — here’s the 21 Day Fix in a nutshell: three weeks of daily, half-­hour workout tapes and seven color­-coded food containers.

The food containers are key. According to Beachbody, the mastermind behind the Fix, the reason diets go awry is because dieters don’t judge portion sizes correctly. To eliminate this problem, they’ve created containers of varying size that hold the “precise” amount of fruits, vegetables, protein, carbs, fats, seeds and dressing that you need in a day. The color of the container signifies what goes inside — the (relatively) hefty green container is for vegetables, whereas the thimble­-sized orange container is for dressing. Basically, you “fill them up as directed in the Eating Plan, and you will lose the weight!” At least that’s what Autumn Calabrese, the manic Fix coach, promises.

But wait — there’s more. Think you can stuff a piece of bread in the yellow carb container? Think again. The containers give you the “freedom” to fill ‘em up as you wish, but if the food doesn’t fit ... it won’t make you fit. This means no bread, no snack bars and no beer — or really any drink, other than water and morning breakfast shakes. Certainly no eating out. And once your container quota is met for the day, don’t try to sneak anything more. (Once, when my roommate was groaning about hunger, I mistakenly suggested eating an apple; she angrily replied that she had no more red containers left.)

As you can imagine, the 21 Day Fix makes it difficult to make plans. Sunday trips to the farmer’s market turned into exhausting rants from my roommate on how she couldn’t buy the fresh pies (because, have you heard, I’m on the Fix), triggering more than a few rolled eyes. I’d come home from my usual eight­-mile run to cook dinner, only to have her leering over my shoulder, eying my chicken and veggie stir fry with contempt. Then she’d quit the room altogether, claiming that she’d eaten all of her containers for the day and might as well go to bed.

I think I began counting down the days until the Fix’s finish more voraciously than she did. At its sweet, sweet end, my roommate did a final weigh-­in: in 21 days, she’d lost eight pounds, but nary an inch from her waistline. I congratulated her on the loss, but waited warily for the weight to creep back — as it does, time and time again, for whom I call “quick fix” dieters.

The “instant gratification” phenomenon has been beaten into our heads, but it applies to diets too. Our culture perpetuates it — how many magazine covers have screamed, “Get Your Bikini Bod Now!” or “Bombshell Butt Fast!?” Summer means beach season; winter means fitting into that party dress.There’s no shame in wanting to look good, stat. The shame is that too many people only aim for the “stat” factor — immediate results — and set themselves up for long-­term frustration and even serious bodily harm.

Here’s the bottom line: the pounds you lose on a quick-­fix diet are primarily muscle and water weight. Yes, the number on the scale is lower, but that doesn’t mean you’re more fit — and it definitely doesn’t mean you’ll stay that weight for long, largely because of lost muscle.

“Metabolism” is a buzzword that gets thrown around often in weight loss discussion (“I have a slow metabolism” is a popular explanation for stubborn excess weight), but it comes into play here. The Mayo Clinic defines metabolism as “the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy”; that energy is then used for basic body functioning (breathing, blood circulation, cell repairs) and physical activity.

When calories are drastically restricted, metabolism shuts down and becomes less efficient. Think of a car running on empty: you’re slow to react, have less power on the highway and run the risk of damaging your engine. Without the necessary proteins and nutrients to perform basic body functions, your body breaks down muscles for fuel. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so muscle loss is linked to a slower metabolism — which makes it even harder to keep the weight off than before the diet began.

Of course, metabolism isn’t the only factor in determining weight loss. Across the board, experts agree that a combination of exercise and (proper) diet are crucial to maintaining a healthy body. Remember that energy is also used for physical activity — the more you exercise, the more calories you burn and the more muscle you build, which then promotes a faster metabolic rate.

The real secret to a lasting beach body? Making healthy habits. Find an exercise you like — maybe it’s running, maybe it’s a workout video — and stick to it. Eat balanced meals, making sure to fill up on protein and vitamin-­rich vegetables, like a spinach omelette with grilled chicken. Work to eliminate processed food from your diet, but do so gradually. Your health doesn’t need a 21­-day “fix,” but rather steady, positive improvement.

And please, for everyone’s sake, eat an apple if you’re hungry.