Sophie Walsh, Accredited Practising Dietitian
For a two week period I tried the Optifast Diet – a Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD) where I had three meal replacement products (Optifast shakes, bars, soups or desserts) a day. My colleague Zoe brought up the idea, as she is doing her PHD and as a part of the trial her participants would be doing a meal replacement diet, so she wanted to try it in order to be as supportive as possible. When she told me what she was planning, it struck a chord with me – shouldn’t I be doing something similar? I work as a dietitian in six clinics all around Brisbane, and am frequently seeing clients for weight loss. Many of these clients are required to undergo a VLCD for a period prior to having weight loss surgery. These people get sent to me for support through this process, and I try to guide them as best I can, while knowing nothing about the taste, consistency, or general palatability of these products.
Another reason for trying this was a fairly obvious one. Like many women, I’ve had periods where I’ve been generally unhappy with my appearance, and I succumbed to the ideal of the quick-fix, thinking – if I lose weight during this particular experiment, then hooray for me.
Straight away I experienced resistance – some family members didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. Some people remarked that I would be unbearable to be around, offering my partner short-term accommodation to escape my fortnight-long hunger. As a dietitian I often feel a certain amount of pressure regarding what foods I eat – if it’s too healthy, then I get told I’m showing off or being typical. If I eat some of what I call sometimes foods then I get judged as well. Not only my eating habits get judged – I’ve been told by multiple clients that I’m just the right size for a dietitian. As if I couldn’t be trusted if I was leaner, or carrying more weight. So I was a little apprehensive about getting started on this experiment, but also somewhat excited.
Zoe had learned a few different ideas about how to make the meals taste better from her research, so I felt a little like a mad scientist experimenting with diet jellies, shots of coffee, various essences extracts, and teas in my attempts to improve the palatability of the products.
My first few days were remarkably tolerable. Armed with celery sticks, low –carb-and-calorie packet miso soups, and various teas, I marvelled at the fact that I was hungry but not too hungry. Mostly, I felt a bit fatigued. I was constantly assessing my feelings, anxiously awaiting some of the tell-tale signs and symptoms of ketosis, including bad breath, suppressed appetite, and some initial digestive issues. I started first thing on a Monday morning, but by Tuesday lunchtime I was patting myself on the back for my progress, my lack of appetite, and frequently checking in on my breath.
I was still pretty happy on Wednesday until I hit my first major roadblock – a doctor’s lunch. I walked into the back room at one of my clinics and was hit with the sensory overload of giant trays of pasta, fried rice and chocolate cake. Pasta doesn’t feature too heavily in my diet, but suddenly I decided it was the greatest thing in the world and I must have it now. Needless to say, I scurried out of there with my tail between my legs, and tries to console myself by sipping on a boring herbal tea.
On Saturday night I learned I wasn’t invincible. I attended a party to celebrate the homecoming of a friend who’d been living overseas. Alcohol is definitely not recommended during the Optifast period, but I decided I would enjoy a couple of scotch and sodas with this friend I hadn’t seen in years. It was the middle of winter in a garden pub – so needless to say I got cold, and when my partner decided he wanted fish and chips on the drive home, I caved and ordered a big salmon fillet. This was enough to satisfy me and prevent me from going further off track i.e. devouring chips, without breaking out of ketosis.
I tried to plan my two week trial when I had as few social engagements as possible, in order to avoid temptation and make the whole process easier. This lasted about two minutes – somehow my relatively boring social calendar turned into me being more popular than I had been all year. I had birthday dinners, a christening, movie dates and a business lunch where previously I had nothing. This required some major planning! A huge barrier to success that I now always bring up with my patients – you can’t predict everything.
All in all, it was a good experience, and I’m glad I did it. I have had several new weight loss surgery patients since finishing the trial and I felt a lot more confident about being able to guide them through the process and helping them improve the products. It’s a process that I wouldn’t be in a rush to do again, but that is definitely tolerable with a few tips and tweaks.
My Biggest Tips for the diet
- Shakes, soups and desserts all taste better when blended rather than shaken
- The Optifast bars are a saving grace for when you are in desperate need of a texture other than liquid
- Chai tea (brewed then chilled) and sugarfree hot chocolate mix were my two favourite things to improve the tastes of the chocolate, chai, and vanilla shakes
- I was most at risk of straying from the diet when I was out with people that I never told about what I was doing. For various reasons, including my own anxieties about being judged – I didn’t tell friends while going out to dinner. This made me try to appear as normal as possible and ended in my eating more than I should have. I therefore recommend always being open and honest and having those difficult conversations about what you’re doing.
- If you have to go out – check the menu before you do so and have a solid plan in your head of what you’re going to order. Call the restaurant ahead of time if you have to.
- Don’t expect to be running marathons, but do try to keep up exercise habits. I found lower intensity steady state exercise the easiest to do while on the diet – walking, cycling, using the rowing machine and a few basic weights was perfectly manageable.
- Get your two week trial on the Optifast website to get an idea of how the program works, and recipes ideas for the allowed veggies.
- Sadly, despite my desperate love of caffeine, I could not rescue the coffee flavoured shake. I’d love to hear if anyone out there figured out how to.