A Breakdown of Popular Diets from a Registered Dietician’s Perspective

A Breakdown of Popular Diets from a Registered Dietician’s Perspective

Sona Donayan MS, RD is a registered dietitian who has been teaching at Glendale Community College and Calstate Northridge for last ten years while doing  outpatient nutrition consulting. She recently joined the food service management company Sodexo as a patient services manager at Huntington Memorial Hospital.

I interviewed her so that my followers can get expert advice on things to consider when starting a dieting plan. Sona’s knowledge is vital when considering what kind of diet program to use if you plan to lose weight, especially if you wish to make weight loss a permanent goal that doesn’t jeopardize your health.

Sona is also my local hero of the month. If you want to learn how she won her battle with obesity and cancer, check out this link:


Rhea: What is the difference between going to a registered dietitian and nutritionist?

Sona: Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. A registered dietitian (RD) has a minimum of bachelors, and often a master’s degree and a one year of internship and is registered with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. RDs have to keep up their continuing education in medical nutrition therapy. They work with prevention or treatment of disease with nutrition intervention. For example: Diabetic patients, stroke patients etc… They work in hospitals and other health care settings.

Rhea: What are the pros and cons of most popular diets, such as Atkins, the Zone, etc?

Sona: These diets “demonize” a particular food group or nutrient such as carbohydrates. But the actual goal is to cut back on calories which translates into weight loss. Modern nutrition science believes that all food groups contribute to your nutritional health.

The Atkins diet believes in eliminating carbs and emphasizing protein. It tricks the body into using stored fat as fuel in the form of ketones. Ketones are byproducts of fat metabolism in the absence of carbohydrates.  On the first day on the diet, you might have some reserves of carbs which you use up. The next day, you start mobilizing fat from stores, turning it into ketones and using it as fuel. It works in the short term.

However, you are changing your metabolic reactions and messing with nature. You are not meant to burn calories this way. In the long term, if you keep your carb intake below a certain threshold, you remain in a state of ketosis. It is very much like being in starvation mode. At the same time, protein coming from your organs or muscles is sacrificed. Going on an Atkins diet while training is against medical advice because you weaken your muscle mass and a lack of carbs will ruin athletic performance. In the absence of carbs in your diet, you will quickly run out of fuel.

Rhea: I see that happen in my classes when someone is on a low carb diet. They have to stop because they get nauseous or dizzy. Can you explain what ketosis is?

Sona: There are three ketone bodies. Two are acids and they build up in your blood and are eventually cleared by the kidneys. The third ketone is acetone, the same chemical found in nail polish remover. Someone on a diet with very low carb intake is at risk of reaching a state of acidosis where the blood PH level shifts into an acid state. You can die from this or your kidneys can shut down. You can tell if someone is in ketosis when you smell acetone in their urine or in their breath. Most people get off the Atkins diet and they recover and restore kidney function but they start to gain the weight back. So they go back to it and it becomes an up and down cycle.  In the long term, people tend to go up and down and end up where they were in the beginning.

Rhea: I once heard that this diet is used by athletes or models that need to lose weight fast because it causes fast water loss

Sona: When you stop eating carbohydrates, you might see rapid weight loss which is from water in your muscles that is usually stored with the glycogen. After the first day, glycogen in muscle breaks down and turns into blood sugar. The water that is part of the glycogen is eliminated, thus the sudden weight drop. What you lost is not fat, just water.

Rhea: What do you think of popular cleanses that sell herbs and other supplements for people to take while they fast?

Sona: The food and drug administration (FDA) polices these practices. Unlike medications, FDA’s regulations on supplements are very “loose” and often do a disservice to consumers instead of protecting them.  Basically, it comes down to “If no one has died from a supplement or a non conventional therapy, FDA allows it to be on the market. They will investigate and possibly pull a product off the market if an adverse effect is reported. Proponents of supplements and therapies such as “colon cleansing”, etc claim that they are FDA approved just because FDA has not banned it yet.  The FDA is not endorsing it. It is not saying “do this. It works.” They are just saying that you are free to do it at your own risk.

The insides of your body are not dirty. Our body cleanses itself fine. If we eat enough fiber and water, our body will stay “clean”. If we eat junk, our gut will not perform well. That doesn’t mean we have to “cleanse”. We just have to fix our diet.

Rhea: What would you say to people who wish to go on a cleanse in order to lose weight?

Sona: If cleansing works and your large intestines empties your stool, it won’t make you lose fat. Fat is all over your body. It is not in your colon. You might lose some water weight or a pound of weight from your stools but that doesn’t mean you will take off the fat.

Drinking herbs and fasting has not been proven to kill you but it hasn’t been proven to work either.  If you do this today, what about tomorrow? In the long run, you will be severely malnourished.  If you can’t keep up what you have started, you will gain the weight back. Instead, have a long term plan for not just weight loss but, also, maintenance in the future.

Rhea: What about dieting programs such as Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig or Lindora?

Sona: Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers emphasize food groups with balance and variety. Indirectly, they teach you to eat better by using points or selling pre-packaged food. There is some merit in these programs but the question still remains, can you stay on this diet and keep it up in your own world? What happens when you run out of money? Can you keep it up on your own? If you go on a diet several times, you are probably wasting your money. If you have to go back on it, because after you stopped the diet you regained the weight,  then whatever you are doing IS NOT WORKING.

Lindora is similar to Atkins in terms of protein emphasis and carbohydrate reduction, but you are medically monitored.  I still don’t recommend it if you can’t sustain your way of eating over a lifetime. Can you be on Lindora for life? What happens when you get off of it?

Rhea: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a diet program?

Sona: Any diet you get on, you have to get off in the end. That’s a bad idea. Instead, make small, incremental, radical but permanent changes in your food and activity habits. These changes have to be incorporated into your lifestyle. You have to like to do them and they have to become second nature to you.  Take small steps.

Plan ahead what you are going to eat. If you wake up in the morning but you have not shopped the day before for healthy foods and you only have junk food in your fridge, you can’t eat healthy. If you wait till you are starving, you will overeat or eat whatever you see.

Always eat breakfast. Always include some of the major nutrients: complex carbs, healthy fats, protein, vitamins and minerals. Breakfast will fuel you for the rest of your day. . Examples of a healthy breakfast: Egg whites, whole grain bread and yogurt, or a cup of fruit, yogurt, peanut butter on whole grain bread. These examples incorporate all food groups.

Want a permanent change?  Plan meals with a shopping list. Have snacks ready to go. Maybe cook some chicken breast over the weekend and have it ready to go so you aren’t stranded and left to resort to high calorie food. Write down what, when and how much y you eat in a food diary for a week, then look over your notes to get some clues about your own ways around food so you can fix your mistakes Use the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines and the “My Plate” system for guidance on proper food selections and portion sizes for a healthy diet. And, for expert advice, find a registered dietitian (RD). To find one in your area, or for additional reliable nutrition information, you can use www.eatright.org, the official site of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

If you have any questions for Sona, you can email her at: sonamsrd@aol.com

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