Cambridge diet: Everything you need to know + is it healthy? – Women’s Health UK

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So, you want to lose weight? Easy, says one diet – go on a ketogenic diet. Stick to the Mediterranean, says another. No, hang on, cabbage soup is surely the answer….

There are infinite weight loss diets out there. Just type in #weightloss on any social media platform and you’ll be met with everything from intermittent fasting diets, juice cleanses and detox teas to plant-based diets and anti-inflammatory diets.

You can pay, quite literally, thousands of pounds to attend luxury weight loss retreats in far-flung corners of the world – featuring super-healthy menus overseen by in-house nutritionists, 24-hour broth fasts and fat-cell-freezing CoolSculpting treatments. But one of the oldest – arguably, most restrictive (and unsustainable) – diets out there? The Cambridge Diet.

Not entirely sure what it is? This is what our expert nutritionists think of this meal-replacement programme…

Visit our ‘weight loss diets reviewed and debunked by experts’ page for more expert advice on weight loss, or read more about how many calories you should eat per day to hit your healthy weight goals and how this weight loss calculator can help to count your macros.

What is the Cambridge diet?

‘The Cambridge diet – which has been rebranded as the 1:1 diet – remains one of the most restrictive diets out there,’ says Hannah Alderson, registered nutritionist and hormone specialist.

‘Launched in the mid-80s in the UK – a catalyst era for the diet culture that followed into the 90s/00s – it gets its followers onto a very very low daily calorie intake primarily made up of ultra-processed shakes, soups, bars and meals,’ she explains.

Think: specifically designed cookies and cream bars, golden syrup flavour porridge, chicken flavour noodle soup (you just add water to a pre-made packet), cherry and strawberry flavour smoothies.

Simply put, it’s a very low-calorie meal replacement plan, designed for significant calorie reduction and rapid slimming, adds registered dietitian and BetterMe contributor, Amanda Pasko.

‘The Cambridge Diet was named after the University of Cambridge, where it was developed by Dr Alan Howard, who began exploring the concept of very-low-calorie diets for morbidly obese patients,’ she explains.

‘The popularity of this diet tends to be cyclical; many people turn to it in the spring and early summer when they want to quickly get in shape for the warm season.’

How does the Cambridge diet work?

The core concept of the diet is to replace most or all of a person’s daily food intake with 35 specially formulated meal replacement products, such as shakes, soups, bars, and porridge, explains Pasko. All of which are approximately 200 calories or under.

‘These products are designed to be low in calories, thus creating a significant calorie deficit, but still high in essential nutrients. On the Cambridge Diet, the body doesn’t get enough calories to meet its energy needs, so it starts burning fat stores to keep functioning and induces a state of “ketosis,” or the use of fat, rather than glucose, for energy.’

Alderson describes this extreme energy deficit as ‘a type of starvation tactic for the body’. Your weight will drop but so will your basal metabolic rate, she says, ‘and the understanding of how to navigate real life and real food when the diet is over. Hence why there can often be weight gain after the restriction has come to an end.’

The Cambridge Diet is generally split into short stages, each lasting roughly two weeks, Pasko continues. ‘It tends to begin with the most extreme calorie deficit and gradually increases in calorie content before concluding with a lower-calorie but less extreme maintenance plan with optional use of the Cambridge Diet’s meal replacement products.’

Are there any health benefits of the Cambridge diet?

‘I can not tell you how many clients have walked into my clinic having been let down by this diet,’ says Alderson. ‘As a nutritionist and hormone specialist, there is not one instance where I would recommend this diet to anyone – it’s one thing to drop your calories this low, but quite another to do it via pro-inflammatory ultra-processed food, for example “birthday cake” and “cookie and cream” bars. It’s not made up of real food and the sole focus is on calories alone.’

Alderson describes the Cambridge diet as a ‘short term solution, not a long term one’ to weight loss, adding that it’s outdated with ‘no real interest in your hormone health or nervous system, which is paramount to long term fat loss success.’

Victoria Repa, a certified Health Coach, CEO, and founder of the health & wellness platform BetterMe, agrees. ‘Everyone has unique dietary needs influenced by genetics, metabolism, and lifestyle. A one-size-fits-all approach, like the Cambridge diet, may not address these individual differences, potentially leading to adverse health outcomes.’

What are the problems with diets like these?

Well, there’s a long list. ‘The Cambridge diet does not teach any of the participants how to put food together themselves, or how to cook from scratch, it forgets the fundamentals of the endocrine and nervous system, the nutritional quality of food and the individual nutritional status of each client, insulin sensitivity, circadian rhythm, gut ecology and most worryingly of all it is being pushed out local consultants who have no nutritional qualifications,’ says Alderson.

‘Such low-calorie diets can have side effects, including fatigue, dizziness, hair loss, and muscle loss due to inadequate nutrition,’ adds Repa. ‘Since the diet restricts caloric intake to a range well below the average requirement for a healthy adult, it can be difficult to sustain, leading to a “yo-yo effect”, where a previously suppressed basal metabolism leads to rapid weight regain once normal eating patterns resume.’

Repa also points out that the Cambridge diet’s rapid weight loss can create unrealistic expectations, causing frustration and disappointment when the weight returns. ‘These diets can undermine long-term health and well-being without a sustainable approach to lifestyle and dietary habits.’

So, does the Cambridge diet work?

Will you lose weight on a scale fast? Yes, BUT most of it will be water and lean muscle, says Alderson.

‘Will you keep the weight off once you return to eating actual food? No. Will you learn how to create a positive relationship with real food and understand a framework of how to eat for the rest of your life in the real world? No. Could you keep this way of eating up? Honest truth is probably not.’

The Cambridge diet – and any type of crash diet like this – does not work as a long-term fat loss solution – it’s not a sustainable eating pattern. ‘Long-lasting change requires you to go beyond just food. The human body isn’t designed to lose weight, it’s designed to survive. Throughout human history, starvation has been its greatest threat. This is why dieting doesn’t work in the long run. Your body will eventually outsmart calorie restriction in order to make sure it doesn’t starve,’ she continues.

The bottom line: Given the extreme calorie deficit of the Cambridge diet, you are pretty likely to see quite quick weight loss if you try this diet. However, it’s not a sustainable or healthy approach.

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