Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition

How to fix a broken diet?

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Are you not getting the results you wanted or your diet plan stopped working? Every diet and exercise system is going to stop working at some point. No matter how great it seems initially, that diet will break. And when it does, your next step is crucial. In this newsletter we’ll be discussing the main strategies to fix a “broken diet” and start eating better.


In my many years as a dietitian, I came well aware that we humans generally suck at realising what we’re eating. For one, we typically tend to remember the “good things” we do – how we turned down the rusks as they were going round the office last Friday, or how we managed to go a whole week without alcohol. And when we do something “bad” we’re really good at justifying it. “It was so-and-so’s birthday, “or “Yes, I did have that slice of cake, but my friend had 2 slices, so I’m not as bad as her,“  are common reasons I hear for making poor dietary choices.

In fact, we’re so bad, that a study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that obese subjects underreported their food intake by an average of 47%, and overestimated the amount of calories burned from exercise by 51%.

What does this mean? It means that we think we are eating a lot less than we are, and that we think the exercise we are doing is burning far more calories than it really is. End result – we make little progress and become disheartened with the results.


I am a huge fan of food logs. For a start, it gets a person thinking about exactly what they’re eating. Mindless eating is a big problem for many. Writing down everything one eat and drink, over a 2-week period, gets you off to a great start in identifying possible problem areas and underlying nutritional deficiencies.


Most people think they need a complete diet and exercise make-over. “I have to cut out sugar… and dairy… and carbs… and saturated fat. Plus I have to eat more protein… more healthy fats… and more vegetables. I have to start drinking lots of water too. And exercise… maybe a 6 am boot camp… yeah.” I don’t know about you, but I get exhausted just thinking about changing all this, all at once and often people set themselves up for failure. Let’s call it the “Mission Impossible” approach.

Often, people struggle with how they look and feel because their physiology doesn’t work the way it should. This can be hormonal imbalances, but it’s more often dietary deficiency: not getting the right nutrients, in the right amounts, to feel your best and get the best results.

Dietary deficiencies are more common than you think

A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that it’s really hard to get all the essential vitamins and minerals from food alone. Of the individual diets that were studied – every single diet was deficient in at least three nutrients. Some diets were missing up to fifteen nutrients! The most common deficiencies included vitamin D, zinc, calcium and some of the B-vitamins.

The most common deficiencies I see at Paarl Dietitians are water (low-level dehydration), vitamins and minerals, protein (particularly in women and in men with low appetites), essential fats e.g. omega-3 fatty acids (95% of the population is deficient here), vitamin D, iron and B-vitamins.

Bottom line: Dietary deficiencies are very common. Chances are you’ve got one, no matter how good you think your diet is. That’s a problem because when you’re deficient in key nutrients, your physiology doesn’t work properly. And when your body doesn’t work as it should, you feel rotten. Energy levels, appetite, strength, endurance, and mood all rely on getting enough of these essential nutrients. When you don’t get them, things break down.

Correcting deficiencies

Analysing a food log and blood testing can uncover specific nutrient deficiencies that can be corrected by means of dietary adaptations and nutritional supplementation. As soon as we get the nutrients we need, we thrive.

Once we’re getting all the essential nutrients necessary for proper functioning we can move on to bigger issues. These include adjusting food amount (what some call calorie intake) and food type (which includes diet composition or the distribution of protein, carbohydrates and fats).


For our body to function normally, it needs a constant supply of energy and a variety of nutrients. The amount of energy or number of caloriesyour body uses to carry out these basic functions is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR) — what you might call metabolism. Thus the metabolic rate is the rate at which the body burns calories.

So how much should one eat?

The problem comes in when energy is taken in excessive amounts. Too much energy and the body will store the excess as fat and you will gain weight. In other words, if your body uses 1500 kcal to maintain weight, you need to take in at least 500 – 1000 kcal less to lose ½ kg – 1kg per week, therefore a 1000 kcal diet plan.

Our practice assess metabolic rate and an individual’s eating plan are devised according to the person’s metabolic rate. By knowing your metabolic rate, we are able to provide correct food amounts and portion sizes to ensure long term weight loss. The secret lies in calorie and portion control. Remember the success of weight loss is an individual approach.

Don’t count calories, Be Calorie-Conscious

Calorie counting can be very exhausting, time-consuming, confusing and incorrect! Plus this approach just doesn’t suit everyone’s’ lifestyle. Being ‘calorie-conscious’ is a much better approach. The term ‘calorie-conscious’ is a great one, and can often be a real eye-opener. I like to go over an individual’s food diary and pick out a few foods that I think might surprise them. These are the foods they eat every day without even thinking about, yet can be real calorie bombs. For example a latte (135 calories or 567 kilojoules), 45g of trail mix (194 calories or 815 kilojoules) or a small glass of orange juice (90 calories or 378 kilojoules).

The average person sees the above as healthy options — or in the case of the latte and OJ, they probably don’t even think these contain calories — but these small things can really add up. None of these foods or drinks should be banned, or if you really enjoy them, they’re fine to consume them with no negative effects, but you do need to be aware that perhaps you consuming more calories than you should be by not being calorie-conscious.


Practice portion control

You probably don’t want to hear this, BUT you will have to control portions if you want to get slim and stay slim. By practising portion control and using kitchen utensils and a person’s own hand as measurement tools, you can control your calorie intake without counting calories. For example, women might begin by eating 1 palm of protein with her lunch and dinner.

Your individual metabolic rate together with your genetic make-up (DNA testing) further serves as an indicator of the number of portions (from the different food groups) you are allowed to eat in a day.

Meal frequency 

For years dietitians (myself included) thought that the best approach to splitting up your daily food intake was to eat small meals frequently throughout the day. From early research we assumed that this would speed up the metabolism and help better manage the appetite. However, I prefer a more personal approach these days. As long as we eat the right foods in the right amounts, meal frequency is a matter of personal preference. You can eat lots of small meals each day (i.e. every few hours). Or you can eat a few big meals each day (i.e. with bigger time gaps between them).


If you feel like your nutrition’s off track, but aren’t sure what to do about it, hopefully this newsletter has given you something new to consider and try. When fixing a broken diet we first have to address and correct nutrient deficiencies, control your calorie intake, consider your individual DNA, body type, lifestyle and activity level.

Paarl Dietitians recognise that everyone is different and what is suitable for one person may not be suitable for the next. Also there is no ‘blueprint’ diet that will work for everyone since we react differently to the manipulation of our diets. Nutrition is in fact one of the cornerstones of good health for all. Let us help you by providing you with continuous assistance, giving step-by-step guidelines that incorporate sound, scientifically proven dietary advice. Make an appointment today.

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