One of the UAE’s leading experts on treating obesity says people wanting to lose weight should be careful of relying on ‘fad’ diets and celebrity advice, and instead focus on understanding and changing the bad habits pushing their calorie intake too high.
Dr. Mohammed Al Hadad, Head of the Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery Centre at Healthpoint in Abu Dhabi, says many people are tempted by diet plans that seem to promise a magic formula for quick weight loss – often made popular by celebrity endorsement and social media influencers. Dr. Al Hadad names the ketogenic or ‘keto’ and Palaeolithic or ‘paleo’ diets as two current trends which may not suit everyone.
While he says some diets can offer fast results, many people will find they are not sustainable.
“Fashionable diets work because they give us a set of clear rules that remove the most calorie-heavy foods from our plates, without us needing to think for ourselves – we just follow the rules given to us,” Dr. Al Hadad explains. “The problem is that you can’t keep following those rules for ever, and not just because you become bored. These plans are not nutritionally balanced, and in the case of extreme high-protein, high-fat diets popular at the moment, they can cause long-term kidney or cardiovascular damage.”
Dr. Al Hadad is not against trying a fad diet, as long as it isn’t too extreme in its advice. However, he says short-term results must be backed up by a long-term plan, based on a balanced diet, with an enjoyable mix of nutritious foods, eaten in moderation. This is particularly important when dealing with childhood obesity. A child’s diet must be diverse enough to provide sound nutrition for a growing body, while at the same time encouraging a healthy relationship with food that will last a lifetime.
“It’s essential that we understand enough to make our own decisions about food, know what a healthy diet looks like, and see where we go wrong in our everyday habits. That includes looking at how much we eat, and what types of food, then making better choices based on this learning. That’s the way to achieve a sustainable lifestyle change and maintain good health.”
Healthpoint’s Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery Centre is usually associated with surgical procedures for weight loss, such as gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy, but it is also a leading clinic for medically supervised diet and exercise plans. Lifestyle modification programs are required before any patient is approved for bariatric surgery, as well as being available to those who either don’t qualify for or don’t want surgery.
Dr. Al Hadad says lack of knowledge is often the biggest barrier to weight loss. Many people don’t understand the nutritional or energy content of different foods, or the mechanics of how the body stores unused energy as fat.
“People often tell me they don’t eat very much, but they still can’t lose weight, or they keep getting fatter,” says Dr. Al Hadad. “They blame their metabolism, but the real problem is that they don’t understand how many calories can be hidden in small amounts of food and drink. There is too much sugar in their diet, including as refined carbohydrates or in fruit juice, and in processed foods that we think of as savoury rather than sweet. People also give themselves a few more treats, maybe a chocolate bar in the afternoon, than they remember eating. Learning about healthier alternatives and changing those bad habits, even just a few small details of what we eat, can make a surprisingly big difference.”
As an example, Dr. Al Hadad describes what used to be his own morning ritual – a coffee and muffin on his way to work. That routine was responsible for a disproportionately large part of his calorie intake each week, for very little nutritional benefit.
“A coffee and a muffin seem like a fairly harmless treat, but a large caffè latte can easily have around 200 calories and a muffin can have around 400. That’s 600 calories just there, which is over a quarter of what I needed for the whole day, five days a week.” he explains.
“The same sized black coffee is less than 20 calories, and some fruit will have probably 100 calories or so. Just switching that snack to an Americano and a banana cuts out somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories every week. Almost anyone who struggles with their weight can find small changes like this across their diet.”
For those who do struggle to control how much they eat, as well as what they eat, Dr. Al Hadad suggests placing limits on where and when we have meals and snacks. To help maintain his own weight, he uses the approach known as ‘intermittent fasting’, in which he avoids eating during specific time periods. While some people pick whole days – one or two each week – for fasting, Dr. Al Hadad follows an 8-16 diet, keeping all meals within eight hours of each day and fasting for the other 16.
“It’s a trick that works for me and for many other people, but it’s not necessarily for everyone,” Dr. Al Hadad says. “Some people find it leaves them without energy, so need to have regular, healthy snacks, and it can be inadvisable for people with some medical conditions, such as diabetes.
“The important thing is to find a weight management plan that works for you, and that will help you maintain a healthy weight for life. That’s where a generic diet falls down – it isn’t built around you.”