Liquid Diet? Weight Loss, Benefits, How It Works, Meal Plan – Men's HealthWeight loss
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Jell-O, broth, and puree. Oh my!
If you’ve ever woken up from a surgery craving a snack only to be served a tray with Styrofoam cups of Jell-O and chicken broth, well, then you’ve experienced a liquid diet.
Your healthcare provider might put you on an easy-to-swallow, easy-to-digest liquid diet when you’re dealing with certain health issues, like preparing for or recovering from a medical procedure or having trouble chewing or swallowing food. These diets are designed to reduce risks associated with these circumstances, especially the risk of vomiting or choking, says Katherine Basbaum, M.S., R.D., a Clinical Dietitian for UVA Health.
So what can you eat on a liquid diet? There are two types of liquid diets: the very restrictive clear liquid diet and the less restrictive full liquid diet. On a clear liquid diet, you’re in for a boring rotation of broth, Jell-O, and maybe a bit of apple juice. On a full liquid diet, you have a lot more options. You can consume basically any food pureed thin and smooth enough to be slurped through a straw.
Healthcare providers prescribe these diets carefully based on patient needs. Maybe you’ve also heard of a friend (or a social media influencer) doing a DIY liquid-only diet to lose weight fast by taking their favorite foods off the menu.
“I do have a fair amount of patients that come to me and say, ‘Well, what about a liquid diet?’” says Basbaum. Many think it will be an easy way to lose weight, she says, but the truth is much more complicated. Here’s what you should know about liquid diets, when they’re recommended, and why they’re probably best left to the experts.
Remember in science class when you learned about the states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas? (And plasma, but we don’t eat that).
On a liquid diet, you consume only liquids, nothing solid or chunky that requires you to chew.
A clear liquid diet is very restrictive, limiting you to clear juices like apple juice, Jell-O, and clear broths like chicken broth. If the liquid is opaque, meaning you can’t see through it, it’s off the menu.
A full liquid diet, on the other hand, presents many more options.
“Full liquid is basically anything that is smooth and blenderized and pureed, so if you think about yogurt, as long as it doesn’t have any chunks, a creamy blend rice soup or an apple sauce or some other pureed fruit, ice cream, milkshakes, anything that’s just kind of smooth but you could almost drink through a large straw if you had to,” says Basbaum.
A full liquid diet allows patients to take in more significant nutrition than the clear version, says Basbaum.
“We have the ability to really get more key nutrients into a full liquid diet versus a clear, which is really just a little bit of calories and a little bit of sugar or carbohydrates,” she says
If a healthcare provider recommends a liquid diet, then yes, it’s for your benefit.
Liquid diets are common before surgery. Anesthesia can cause nausea, and your surgeon doesn’t want you vomiting on the table. There’s a risk you could choke on your own vomit while you’re knocked out. For certain procedures, especially in gastroenterology, the surgeon also needs your stomach to be empty to help them do your job.
After surgery, you can still have nausea, especially if your guts were the target of the operation.
“We want to give the body a chance to kind of get back to baseline,” says Basbaum. “They kind of ease and transition the person or the patient back into regular eating.”
“We have the ability to really get more key nutrients into a full liquid diet versus a clear, which is really just a little bit of calories and a little bit of sugar or carbohydrates.”
Usually, that means starting with a clear liquid diet, transitioning to a full liquid diet, and then moving back to regular foods.
Another common reason for a liquid diet is dysphagia, or trouble swallowing. Strokes and other conditions that affect the nervous system, certain cancers of the mouth and esophagus, or gastroesophageal reflux disease can cause dysphagia.
When you can’t swallow your food properly, you’re at increased risk of aspiration, or accidentally inhaling food into your lungs instead of swallowing it into your guts. Full liquid diets are usually recommended for people with swallowing problems because they allow for much more nutrition than clear liquid diets, which is especially important if someone needs to follow the diet long-term.
Sometimes dental problems are the reason for a liquid diet. A person who has lost their teeth, for example, might need a liquid diet because they can’t chew, says Basbaum.
Liquid diets for weight loss are more complicated. A doctor might recommend one in limited circumstances, such as for patients preparing for bariatric surgery. Researchers have conducted some studies where people on very specific short-term liquid diets, monitored by healthcare professionals throughout the journey, lose weight. But the help from pros is key to ensuring that the plan is safe and effective.
“They have this whole team that is weaning them off the liquid diet and moving them towards maintenance, regular food, and the appropriate amount of protein and calories to promote weight loss,” says Basbaum.
But trying it on your own, or following some “cleanse” or another fad diet? That’s probably not smart. “DIY is a big red flag for a liquid diet,” says Basbaum.
For one, it would be very difficult to obtain all the nutrients you’d need from a liquid diet and to transition safely back to regular food.
“Somebody might put themselves on a liquid juice diet or whatever for two or three weeks and lose 20 pounds, and the next thing you know they’re in the hospital for any number of reasons related to nutrient deficiencies,” she says.
“DIY is a big red flag for a liquid diet.”
The plan could also backfire altogether because eating a liquid-only diet just isn’t that satisfying.
“When you’re consuming your calories via liquid, like a shake or juice or something blenderized, your brain is not registering the fullness and the satiety as well as if you had actually eaten,” says Basbaum.
You miss out on the steps of chewing and swallowing, breaking down the food in your stomach, and other digestive processes.
“So, in turn, what can happen is that people on these liquid diets end up not feeling satisfied as much as they would if they had consumed the same amount of calories from actual real food, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whatever,” she says. You might feel so hungry that you take in more calories than you planned.
Plus, on a liquid diet, it’s hard to get enough fiber, an important nutrient for weight management, and a host of other things, like bowel regularity, she says.
The bottom line: If you want a safe, effective weight loss plan, talk with your primary care doctor and consider hiring a registered dietitian who can help you develop a personalized approach.
When liquid diets are prescribed around surgery, they’re usually only recommended for a matter of days. You’ll usually be allowed to resume your normal diet somewhere between one and three days after your procedure. By that point, you probably need to eat some protein and fat to help your body heal from surgery, says Basbaum.
For people with dysphagia, a full liquid diet can last much longer. Sometimes dysphagia can be improved with interventions such as speech therapy. In other cases, a patient with dysphagia might need to follow a liquid diet forever. The same could be true for a patient without teeth.
If you’re put on a liquid diet, check in with your healthcare provider to see how long to continue it.