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The Lighter Life Diet Under the Spotlight

By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD

UPDATE: LighterLife now has three plan variations, all based on the original LighterLife format:

  • LighterLife Total – Aimed at those with a BMI of 30 and above, you eat four Foodpacks a day with no conventional food
  • LighterLife Lite - Aimed at those with a BMI of 25-29.9, you eat three Foodpacks a day plus one meal from a list provided by LighterLife
  • LighterLife for Men is simply LighterLife Total for men...

Plus for 2015. there's the revamped LighterLife Fast Plan, based on the 5:2 Intermittent fasting plan.

Read more about LighterLife Lite and LighterLife for Men.

We’ve had the Grapefruit Diet, the Atkins Diet, the Zone Diet and even the Facial Analysis Diet. Now the latest weight loss plan to lure slimmers is the Lighter Life diet – and it’s one of the most extreme plans ever. With followers losing large amounts of weight in relatively short periods of time it sounds too good to be true.

But as is the case with many weight loss plans, there’s a catch. And in the case of the Lighter Life Total Programme, it’s a pretty big one – you’re not allowed to eat a single thing. Not a piece of fruit, slice of wholemeal toast, pot of fat-free yogurt or plate of vegetables!

What does the Lighter Life Diet involve?

Effectively, Lighter Life combines a very low calorie diet (VLCD) with counselling. Depending on the plan followed, normal food is banned or limited and instead you have four meal replacement shakes, soups, mousses or bars every day, which provide around 500 calories in total and contain the protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals needed on a daily basis. (See Nutritional Value)

The shakes and mousses come in chocolate, vanilla, raspberry and caramel flavours; the soups are available in mushroom, chicken, vegetable and Thai chilli flavours; and the bars come in nutcrunch, lemon, fruits and toffee flavours. All products are made especially for Lighter Life and meet government guidelines for meal replacement products in terms of their nutrient content. They're not the same formulation as other meal replacement products such as The Cambridge Diet or SlimFast.

Every week, you also attend group sessions with a qualified Lighter Life counsellor. The counselling is aimed at helping you understand the relationship you have with food, so you can make lasting changes to keep the weight off for good.

The diet sounds extreme! Can anyone join the Lighter Life Programme?

The Lighter Life Total diet is only recommended for adults who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30. In other words, only those people who are verging on obesity and have approximately 3 stone to lose are suitable for the programme.

Before joining the programme, you’ll need to have a medical with your doctor to check you don’t have any health problems that make Lighter Life Total unsuitable for you. Then once you’ve started the Programme, you’ll need to see your GP every four weeks for a check up. This is an essential part of the Programme – the National Obesity Forum suggests that very low calorie diets (VLCD) should only be used under close medical and dietetic supervision and recommends people are medically assessed before starting a VLCD and are closely monitored throughout the treatment. (Side Effects)

So what’s the theory?

Lighter Life works on the theory that weight problems are sometimes about more than just eating too much. Like alcohol or drugs, food can be an addiction for some people. People who want to conquer a drink or drug problem need to do two things – stop drinking or using drugs and understand why they turn to these substances. In line with this way of thinking, the Lighter Life programme believes that to deal with a food problem, you need to stop eating and understand why you turn to food. This effectively means ‘giving up’ food for a period of time and having counselling to help you understand why you ‘use’ food to help you change your attitudes towards eating.

However, unlike alcohol or drugs, which aren’t needed to keep us alive, food is essential for life. So the Lighter Life Programme provides Foodpacks, consisting of meal replacement drinks and bars. These contain all the essential nutrients, but allow people to lose weight without them having to think about food.

Effectively, the meal replacement products are designed to take away the need to make any decisions about food by removing people from situations such as shopping, cooking, mealtimes and eating out. You don’t even need to think about the Foodpacks – every week, you simply receive them from your counsellor.

So how long do you use Lighter Life Total for?

That depends on how much weight you have to lose. The Lighter Life Total diet involves three phases. Initially you sign up to the Foundation phase, which lasts for 100 days. During this time, you stick to the Foodpacks and weekly counselling sessions. (See 16 week advice)

If you have more weight to lose after the Foundation phase, you move onto the Development phase, continuing again with the Foodpacks and counselling.

Once you’ve lost all your excess weight, you enter the Management phase – a long-term weight maintenance programme. During this time, you slowly return to conventional food, while cutting back on Foodpacks. There are various eating plans to choose from to suit your lifestyle.

And you’re not allowed to eat anything until you’ve lost your excess weight?

No, but you do need to drink 4 litres of water every day. Most people think this is because it helps to fill them up, but there other important reasons for drinking lots of water.

Firstly, food usually provides a significant amount of water, so if you’re not eating it’s essential to compensate for the fluid you’d normally get from food by drinking more.

Secondly, you need to produce plenty of urine to remove all the waste products caused by the rapid breakdown of fat.

And finally, if there’s not enough water in your circulation you might get dizzy when you stand up suddenly due to a fall in blood pressure, which occurs as a result of rapid weight loss.

What about exercise?

People following the Lighter Life plans are encouraged to be more active, especially once they have lost sufficient weight to move around more easily and start feeling better both physically and emotionally. Part of the Programme provides a pedometer, exercise bands, balls and a Pilates DVD.

The big question! How much weight can I expect to lose?

You can expect to lose around 1 stone a month with Lighter Life, although some people claim to lose more than this, sometimes shifting as much as a stone in the first week alone!

Surely there must be some side effects?

Yes! Very low calorie diets (VLCDs) cause fat to be broken down rapidly, producing a by-product called ketones. These can result in tiredness, weakness, dizziness, insomnia and nausea. However, these effects should be short lived and there’s even some evidence that ketones help to suppress appetite and actually promote a feeling of wellbeing.

Meanwhile, constipation, diarrhoea, dry skin, hair loss, menstrual changes and intolerance to the cold can also occur.

Losing weight rapidly also means you’ll be more likely to be left with loose, saggy skin – quite simply, your skin doesn’t have time to shrink to your new body shape. Usually, the only effective treatment for this is surgery to remove the excess skin.

Also according to the National Obesity Forum, there are some more serious side effects of VLCDs, including the development of gout, gallstones and cardiac disturbances. In particular, the risk of gallstones increases when people lose more than 1.5kg (3.3lb) a week.

So what are the pros?

The counselling is a fabulous idea. Exploring eating habits, behaviour and attitudes towards food is not usually a part of most conventional weight loss methods, yet it can make the difference between success and failure – particularly when it comes to keeping the weight off for good. Meanwhile, following a VLCD and losing weight rapidly may dramatically and quickly improve the health of people who have life-threatening conditions due to their excessive weight.

Having a complete ‘break’ from food may also be helpful for some people who have completely ‘lost their way’ with eating. Having the opportunity to stay away from any situation that involves food, be it shopping, preparing meals or eating itself, can be an effective way to help people get in touch with true hunger and to examine the reasons why they eat. Meal replacement diets also offer a hassle-free approach to losing weight – there’s no weighing, measuring or decisions to be made about what to eat – or what not to eat.

Finally, most people find it very motivating to lose such large amounts of weight in a relatively short period of time. There’s limited evidence to suggest that people are more likely to stick to their diet if they lose good amounts of weight in the initial stages.

And the cons?

Apart from the potential side effects, it’s not much fun!

The Lighter Life approach to losing weight tends to neglect the fact that food is an enjoyable and normal part of life. Many social events involve food or drink – parties, celebrations, dinner with friends, night’s out with the girls, even birthday cake in the office – and many people may feel it’s better to turn down invitations rather than attend them and stick to water.

This in itself may make some people feel socially isolated, although it’s true to say that some obese people already feel like this due to their excess weight.

Family Living

Family life may also present difficulties, especially if you are responsible for shopping and preparing meals for your partner or children. And surviving on shakes and soups doesn’t exactly send out a positive message about the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet to children or teenagers.

Keeping it off?

Furthermore, while the Lighter Life Programme can result in impressive weight losses, especially in the early stages, research shows that VLCDs don’t do significantly better than more conventional weight loss programmes when it comes to keeping the weight off after one to two years.

In other words, you’re just as likely to achieve the same results after a year or two had you followed a more moderate calorie reduction. On the positive side, Lighter Life seems to offer plenty of support with regard to helping people maintain their new weight.

Medical Supervision Needed

Meanwhile, despite the importance of medical supervision while following the Lighter Life Total Programme, some people are selling the Foodpacks on auction websites. Purchasing the meal replacement products and using them without being part of the Lighter Life Total Programme is not something that’s recommended.

Expensive Diet

The Lighter Life diet is incredibly expensive. Each week’s Foodpack and counselling session costs a massive £66. Of course, you’ll be saving on your weekly grocery bill and won’t be having takeaways, snacks or meals out, but it still seems a large amount of money.

Muscle Loss

In the past, research has shown that the amount of muscle lost during dieting is directly linked to the degree of calorie restriction. In other words, the lower the calorie intake, the more muscle is lost. However, newer research has indicated that very low calorie intakes might not affect our muscle mass as much as we previously thought. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings before any definite conclusions can be made. Regardless of this, experts agree that it’s important to protect our muscle mass as much as possible as the more muscle we have, the faster our metabolism and vice versa. Exercise is one of the best ways to protect against the loss of muscle. However, it’s questionable whether many people surviving on 500 calories a day would have the energy to exercise. Finally, experts say women should never have less than 400 calories and 40g of protein a day and men should never have less than 500 calories and 50g protein daily. The Lighter Life Programme meets these requirements.

What do the experts say?

In general, many experts working in the obesity field are supportive of VLCDs, especially when combined with behavioural therapy. However, they also believe they’re only suitable for certain people and need close medical supervision. For example, the National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity recommends that VLCDs should only be recommended for people who have a BMI of more than 30, have failed with more conventional weight loss strategies and have medical conditions that would immediately improve with rapid weight loss. Furthermore, due to the severe calorie restriction and the potential side effects, the National Obesity Forum recommends VLCDs should be followed for just 12 to 16 weeks.

Juliette’s verdict

Different approaches to weight loss suit different people and as a result, VLCDs together with behavioural therapy, such as the one offered by the Lighter Life Programme, may be appropriate for some. However, I agree with most other obesity experts and would only recommend such an approach for people who have struggled to lose weight for years, have health problems as a result of their weight and are clinically obese with a BMI of more than 30.

It also concerns me that people in the Lighter Life programme often follow a VLCD for more than 16 weeks. There are very good reasons why the National Obesity Forum has this guideline in place and it seems irresponsible to ignore this advice.

In the meantime, I’m a fan of counselling to help people understand the reasons why they eat in an effort to help them gain control over their weight. To me this is the real strength of the Lighter Life Programme and is the one thing that makes it truly different from other diet plans.

Food Addiction

However, I’m not convinced that all people who embark on the Lighter Life Programme are ‘addicted’ to food. The Programme infers that anyone who needs to lose more than 3 stone has a food addiction. However, for many of us, the pounds have simply crept on gradually over the years due to eating slightly bigger portions than we need, doing less exercise or enjoying a glass of wine with our evening meal.

In fact, an excess of three stone is equivalent to taking in 147,000 calories more than we need over time. That might sound a massive amount, but over five years it’s equivalent to just 80 calories – or one chocolate biscuit – extra each day. In my opinion, that’s hardly an addiction to food!

Having said that, for those people who have extremely large amounts of weight to lose, food may truly feel like an addiction.

But I’m still not convinced that a period of complete abstinence from normal food is an effective way to treat this ‘addiction’. Encouraging alcoholics, drug addicts and smokers to stop ‘using’ their vices is one thing – after all, these items aren’t needed in order to keep them alive.

However, food is essential for life and isn’t something that can be given up for good. While the Lighter Life Programme clearly recognises this – hence the Management phase where food is gradually re-introduced – it does seem to put the real issue of eating ‘on hold’.

Ultimately, food has to be dealt with at some point and I would prefer to see it taking centre stage right at the start of the Programme when people are highly motivated to change their habits and shift the pounds – rather than waiting until all the excess weight has been lost before dealing with food again.

Furthermore, I feel any weight loss plan that recommends meal replacements rather than food, associates eating with punishment rather than pleasure. I fail to see the appeal of drinking a limited number of shakes or soups every day when there are literally hundreds of delicious, fresh foods that can be combined to create thousands of meals and snacks that taste and look delicious, but can still be included in a diet plan that moderately restricts calories.

Nutritional Value

Meanwhile, though the Foodpacks might fulfil our needs for vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and protein, we now know it’s the complete ‘package’ of nutrients in certain foods such as fruit, veg and wholegrains that help to protect us from diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Of course, being obese increases our risk of these conditions, making weight loss essential. But surely it would be better to include foods that also protect against these diseases at the same time as shifting those pounds?

Think Before You Try

Ultimately, this ‘extreme’ approach to losing weight works for some people. But before signing up, I think it’s important to spend a little time trying to identify why you are obese – is it truly because you are out of control when it comes to food, or is it because you’ve gradually piled on the pounds over the years because you love food and cooking?

If it’s the latter, you’re probably better off sticking to a more conventional weight loss plan that allows you to eat normal meals.

In the meantime, if you feel you have real ‘issues’ with food, you might want to explore other areas before embarking on such an extreme plan. For example, you might find it more beneficial to spend your money on one-to-one counselling. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy will help you find a counsellor in your local area.

Follow 16 Week Advice

Finally, if you really want to try the Lighter Life Programme, I suggest you follow the advice of the National Obesity Forum and stick to the programme for a maximum of 16 weeks. After this time, have a break where you eat a healthy, balanced diet with a moderate calorie restriction for several months, before then embarking on the Foodpacks again – if you can face them!

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Further information

  • To find out more about the Lighter Life Programme, log on to www.Lighter Life.com There’s also a Lighter Life magazine to accompany the Programme, priced £2.90.
     
  • To find a counsellor in your local area, log on to www.bacp.co.uk
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Alternatively, don't go on a diet…

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