The Wonga diets

    27 September 2014

    Imagine that you have a 21-year-old nephew or godson who has a problem managing his finances. In addition to a student loan, he has managed to amass debt on a credit card and overdraft. He can barely make repayments, and worse, misses the odd one.

    The poor wretch manages as best he can, but the burden is worrying him until he takes you into his confidence and, being a kindly adult who has ‘been there’, you help him out. You advance some money after extracting a promise that this is the end of it and said young man, full of relief, vows never to make the same mistakes.

    But instead of cutting up his credit card he keeps it, telling himself it’s for emergencies. With temptation everywhere, he runs up debts again. This time, he goes cap in hand to the bank and, filled with shame and guilt, asks you to guarantee a personal loan. You agree and he vows once more that this is really the end of it. He then becomes increasingly frustrated that he can’t do many of the things he wants to do because he is burdened with repayments and, knowing that the good life is only a signature away, goes on to get a loan for a car, a few new clothes etc until, in a year or two, his debts are unmanageable. Now he faces a poor credit record and his recklessness will play a role in his life for years to come.

    Now replace the spending, self-indulgence and interest rates with over-eating and repeated dieting. The same sense of entitlement would be apparent, as would guilt, shame and promises to put things right. He loses weight, feels worthy and confident and vows never to get fat. But the good habits wane and the cost of the odd week of overdoing it seems manageable (I can diet after the holiday, life is for living) and once more his weight creeps up.

    Weight loss is easy, at least it is the first time. The physiological response to eating less means that stored fat is released to meet the demand for energy not being matched by intake of calories. So we feel we can put on the pounds again, as it really wasn’t that hard to lose them. What is less apparent as we lose and gain weight repeatedly is the increasing ineffectiveness of the hormones involved with appetite. These include leptin, ghrelin, cholecystokinin, gastric-inhibitory peptide and insulin. Several are reduced when dieting, especially on a low-fat plan, because dietary fat stimulates their secretion. Meanwhile, being overweight can leave us resistant to the action of leptin, a hormone partially responsible for managing food intake and energy expenditure. Insulin, the hormone that guides glucose into cells, can be less efficient if we are overweight, because glucose once destined to make energy is shunted to fat stores. In short, the ‘stop-eating signals’ that are sent to the brain are no longer registering. Hunger and fatigue follow and we have to rely on willpower to resist over-eating and we all know how effective that is when surrounded by foods — or other things — that we want.

    In much the same way as one’s credit record is affected by repeated indulgence and penance, the body can become increasingly reluctant to access fat stores as it shores up reserves for the next famine. The best weight-loss advice is not to get fat, but like financial management, that’s not taught in schools.

    Unless we learn how to eat well, the best we can expect is for our metabolism to treat us like a high-risk borrower who has gone over his credit limit and missed the odd payment. If you need to lose weight, the most effective way is to do so gently, without causing alarm to in-built feast or famine responses. But slow and steady is dull and doesn’t fit in with our ‘now’ society. Weight-loss plans that promise fast results with little effort will become popular. Extracts will be published in newspapers and celebrities endorse them as we nutrition professionals warn of the dangers of fad diets.

    These will be ignored as long as the diet ‘works’. But what does ‘work’ mean? In terms of money, our young man could have borrowed money from Wonga, and he would have had the funds within hours. He needed cash, he borrowed it, and so it ‘worked’. Yet just like credit, the price to pay for rapid weight loss and subsequent weight gain isn’t immediately apparent, as it feels manageable. But the body isn’t built for that and can’t be fooled for long. Fad diets are the equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes, yet even the brightest people can be taken in, more than once.

    The uncomfortable truth is that slow, consistent weight loss, followed by a degree of vigilance and maintenance, is the only way to go. Expect to pay a high price should you choose not to accept this truth.