Lighter Life Health Update
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Extreme diets are rarely out of the news and this April was no exception. This time, the LighterLife plan was in the spotlight on BBC East programme Inside Out.
The programme reported stories from some dieters who had tried the LighterLife plan but had suffered unpleasant side effects, including hair loss, disrupted menstrual cycles and water poisoning. In several instances, the dieters reported that their LighterLife counsellors had brushed off these side effects.
As a result, Inside Out sent two reporters undercover to find out from two randomly picked counsellors what the side effects might be. They were told that at worst, they might get a headache. The programme also filmed the diet being offered to someone with an eating disorder.
In response to the programme, Bar Hewlett, a founding director of LighterLife said, “The possible side effects of very low calorie diets are rare; minimal in comparison with the dangers of staying obese and we spell them out to clients. In addition, any counsellor who does not abide by the terms of their contract and company protocol will be investigated. We take this very seriously and will deal with it accordingly.”
Yet despite the negative aspects of the programme – which focussed mainly around a few poor counsellors – overall, the LighterLife plan was shown to be effective, linked to health improvements with ongoing weight loss and appeared to have the support of several obesity experts.
It’s important to recognise that the LighterLife plan is a very low calorie diet and so is unsuitable for many people.
It provides adequate amounts of nutrients needed for good health in the form of meal replacement products, but provides just 530 calories a day. This means weight loss is dramatic and usually far more than the maximum of 2lb a week, widely recommended by health professionals.
To join the LighterLife plan you need to have at least three stone to lose and a minimum Body Mass Index of 29. The plan should be followed for no less than 14 weeks, during which time you can expect to lose three stone. If you have more weight to lose, you can continue with the meal replacement products until you’ve reached your target weight. As well as swapping all meals for soups, shakes and bars, and drinking lots of water, the plan is combined with counselling.
The counselling is an excellent idea. However, very low calorie diets (VLCD’s) are unsuitable for certain people including those with heart, kidney or liver diseases or psychiatric problems.
VLCD’s also have a range of side effects. According to the National Obesity Forum these include fatigue, dizziness, constipation, diarrhoea, dry skin, hair loss, menstrual changes and intolerance to the cold. Other serious side effects include gout, gallstones and heart disturbances. The risk of gallstones, in particular, increases when weight loss is repeatedly more than 3lb a week.
LighterLife counsellors should be trained to discuss potential side effects, so if they appear to provide inadequate information, participants shouldn’t hesitate to contact head office – and make an appointment to see their GP if they are suffering with unpleasant symptoms. The LighterLife website provides details about possible side effects in the Frequently Asked Questions section.
When it comes to the suitability of using VLCD’s to treat weight problems, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) sets out clear guidance. Its guidelines state that VLCD’s should only be used for obese adults with a Body Mass Index of 30 or more, should only be continuously followed for a maximum of 12 weeks, and any diet providing less than 600 calories a day should only be followed under close medical supervision.
The LighterLife plan is close to – but doesn’t stick rigorously – to the NICE guidance. To start with, adults with a BMI of 29 (overweight) can sign up to the plan and are encouraged to follow it for a minimum of 14 weeks, although it’s recommended that calorie intake is increased for one week after 12 weeks of following the diet.
With regard to medical supervision, the LighterLife Customer Charter states that before starting the plan, participants need to complete an initial LighterLife Medical that needs to be approved by the LighterLife medical department. LighterLife then puts the emphasis on the participant to ensure they visit a healthcare professional such as a doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist every 28 days for a check up. Although counsellors should remind participants they are due for a health check-up, it’s the participant’s responsibility to ensure these checks are carried out and the authenticated forms are returned to their counsellor. It’s also debatable whether 28-day check-ups can be considered ‘close medical supervision’!
The LighterLife plan won’t suit – and isn’t suitable – for everyone. Effectively, the information and support given will only be as good as the counsellor.
Prolonged periods of time without eating ‘normal’ food aren’t much fun and largely eliminate the social aspects of eating! However, the diet does result in large weight losses in a relatively short amount of time and this may be advantageous for extremely obese people where health is at serious risk due to excessive weight. In contrast, people who have three stone to lose are unlikely to have the same immediate health risks associated with being overweight and so the plan may be more likely to be viewed as a quick fix.
Finally, it’s worth noting that although VLCD’s can produce a greater weight loss initially, according to the National Obesity Forum, long-term results don’t seem to differ that much from those achieved using less extreme diet plans. In other words, a healthy balanced diet that restricts calories, combined with an increase in exercise, is likely to achieve the same result. It might take longer to reach your target weight, but you’ll be less likely to suffer from unpleasant side effects and will still be able to enjoy delicious, tasty dishes and a meal out from time to time – and that, after all, is a large part of what eating is all about!
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