Making Sense of Diets
If you want to lose weight and drop fat, then you have to eat right - there's no way around it. However, with contradicting news headlines and new diet fads it can be difficult to make sense of it all.
Compounding this challenge is the sheer amount of choices we have. From the number of choices of food to the number of diets we can choose the options are numerous and overwhelming.
Each of us wants to make the right choice - to pick a diet that will help us feel better, look better, and enjoy our grandchildren when the time comes. With so many choices and so many diets each spewing their own claims the act of choosing can be overwhelming and impossible.
Diets need not be as confusing as they seem and in reality they aren't. In fact, all the diets you come across are all just different takes on the same 4 variables: Food quality, food quantity, macronutrient ratios, and food timing.
If you can learn how each of these variables affects you, then you'll be able to understand how diets work and how to customize them for you. That's just what we will do today.
Food quantity relates to how much you are eating - think calories and portion sizes. Food quantity has the biggest effect on your weight of the 4 variables.
Your body burns a certain amount of calories each day to keep you alive. How many you burn depends on several factors such as age, weight, muscle mass, and activity. You can find an online calculator on an app such as Myfitnesspal which you can use to approximate how many calories you burn a day.
To maintain your weight, you must eat as many calories as you burn.
To gain weight, you must eat more than you burn.
To lose weight, you must eat less than you burn.
Most diets that say you can eat whatever you want are focusing on this variable. You can eat ice cream, cake, and cookies and lose weight as long as your body is in a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you consume)
While eating whatever you like sounds nice, its downside is that many of the foods we love are also high in calories. To eat these foods and still lose weight requires eating small portions. Sometimes laughably small portions.
It's rare for most diets geared towards managing your food quantity to accurately depict portion size so buyer beware. The main drawback to small portion sizes is that they may leave you feeling hungry and undernourished.
If you struggle with hunger or limiting your temptations this diet may not work for you.
Any diet that is to be successful also needs to be sustainable.
A key point to understand about diets that target food quantity is that while they may work to improve your weight, it does not mean they will improve your body composition.
If the food you eat is of poor quality, you won’t have the nutrients needed to feel good, lose fat, and maintain muscle. These diets will make you a smaller version of yourself but not necessarily a leaner version.
Example diet - Nutrisystem, calories counters
Eat what you like
Counting calories may be tedious
Small portion sizes (if you eat high-calorie foods) may leave you hungry
Weight loss may not be exclusively fat. Muscle may be lost and health may not improve as desired if food quality is still bad.
Food quality has a big effect your body composition(how lean you are), and also how you feel.
Your body requires nutrients to help it perform at its best and getting those nutrients come from eating nutritiously dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that have lots of nutrients compared to their calories. These foods include lean meats, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Many diets that aim to improve body composition and health, focus on this variable.
Quality foods nourish your body with nutrients so it can operate efficiently. Foods like vegetables often are lower in calories than processed foods which allows you to fill your plate without gaining weight. Quality foods are higher in fiber which can help you remain full after a meal.
Many diets based on food quality will make the reverse statement of food quantity. Instead of saying you can eat whatever you like, they instead say you can eat as much as you like as long as you're eating certain foods.
Weight watchers is an example of this kind of diet. Weight watchers uses a point system to help simplify food choices. The better quality the food the fewer points they are. It gives each person a point budget and encourages them not to go over. Weight watchers has a category of zero point foods which includes lean meats and veggies which means you can eat as many of these foods as you’d like.
Eating too much of any food can make you gain weight, but weight watchers is betting that you won't eat a bushel of broccoli to do so.
Example diets - Weight Watchers, vegetarian diet or vegan diets, Paleo diet, Whole 30 Diet, Mediterranean Diet
Improved body composition (leanness)
Improved energy and health
Freedom to not count calories
Foods may taste bland when compared to junk food (proper cooking and seasoning can change this)
Foods may be more expensive
Foods may be less convenient to eat and prepare
Cutting out junk food may be an extreme step for some
It’s still possible to gain weight if you overeat.
Macronutrient ratios refers to the ratios of carbs, fats, and proteins within your diet. Macronutrients have a large influence on satiety (how full you feel). When balanced correctly you will feel full, satisfied, and your energy levels will be stable throughout the day. People who are full and satisfied are less inclined to overeat or snack throughout the day and will often lose weight because of that.
Macronutrients such as carbs, fat, and protein also provide valuable building blocks for your body. Proteins provide the building blocks for muscles, fats help manage your hormones, and carbs help provide energy. Each is important and removing anyone from a diet can have detrimental effects. However, in the right proportions macronutrients can help improve body composition and better support the work you do in the gym.
Beginners need not concern themselves with macronutrients besides making sure they get protein in with their meals and not eating too many processed grains and sugar.
Manipulation of macronutrients are best saved for the intermediate to advanced dieter looking to break a plateau or lose their last bits of body fat. It's during this time when low-carb diets carve out their niche in the diet world.
Ketogenic diet and south beach diet,
Improve body composition
Requires tracking which may be tedious
Certain macronutrient recommendations may be to extreme - such variations can be potentially harmful and unsustainable.
I think we’ve established that 'What' you eat matters, but when you eat it is also of importance. 'When' you eat a meal can affect how your body uses that meal. For example, the body is more receptive to carbs and nutrients following a workout than when you lounge on the couch.
Timing of foods, carb cycling, intermittent fasting and other protocols can be effective for losing weight and changing body composition. These protocols should be reserved for advanced dieters who are already lean and are looking to add the finishing touches.
While useful, most people should focus on the first 3 variables listed above. Those variables are easier to work with and are responsible for 90% of the results you see from dieting.
Example diet - intermittent fasting and carb cycling
Can improve body composition
Effective at breaking the final plateau
May requires long periods without eating
Least impactful of the above
Less impactful when compared with the other variables
More complex and requires greater discipline.
Diets may seem confusing and contradictory on the surface but when you look closer, they are really each just a variation of the 4 variables above. They either tell you how much to eat, what to eat, or when to eat it - that simple.
Most diets focus on just one or two variables at a time to simplify the eating process. Each of these variables comes with its own pros and cons. I am not a big fan of commercial diets because they neglect key variables.
Which diets do I think are best?
The best diet is one that manages all the variables listed above - food quantity, quality, macronutrient ratios and timing - according to the goals, lifestyle, and genetics of the individual.
This will be different for all of us. It may even change as our life and goals change. I encourage you though to look at the variables above and tailor them to your needs.
A comprehensive diet plan is necessary to look and feel your best over the long term. While it means more variables to manage, it does not mean it has to be difficult.
Heres a few prompts to help get you started.
Food Quantity - How much should you be eating?
If you want to lose weight - eat less
If you want to gain weight - eat more
If you want to maintain weight - eat the same
How much more or less - eat no more than 500 calories more or less than maintenance. This slight adjustment will allow you to gain or lose weight without having to uproot your lifestyle or make any drastic changes. It also isn’t to much as to send your body into a state of starvation or fat storage.
If you don’t know how many calories that is then I suggest you take 3 days to track your calories . This will help to give you an idea of how much your eating and what each food is worth.
At the least just aim to eat a little less and measure your weight on the scale each week. If it changes how you like, then you know you're on the right track.
We should all aim to eat healthier foods. The less processed the better.
A good diet will come from whole natural foods that includes Meat, fish, dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds , legumes, and whole grains.
Changing everything you eat can be difficult. To help you get started I encourage you to think of food not as good or bad but as better or worse. Write the foods you eat and come up with a better alternative for that food.
For example, you may start the morning off with lucky charms and fruit loops. Instead of trying to change your entire breakfast to kale smoothies instead aim to find a better alternative such as a natural, less processed cereal. It’s not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.
What ratios should you be eating your foods in? The perfect breakdown depends on your genetics and lifestyle.
A person who is more active will require more protein and carbs. Some people genetically handle carbs better than others. Without doing an assessment it can be difficult for me to tell you what is right for you. However, tailoring your macronutrients comes secondary to eating the right foods in the right portions.
The guideline I will give is to have protein at every meal. Protein will help keep you full and make sure the sugars in your meal don’t digest too quickly and cause insulin spikes.
The 2nd guideline that works for most people is to aim tog et most of your carbs from fruits and veggies instead of grains which pack more calories. Carbs aren't bad, they're just energy. Most of us however spend much of our time sitting which means we don’t need as many. So make the swap. If your active or find yourself hungry then try adding in a modest portion.
This only applies to more advanced trainees so I will leave it for a different article. The bright side is that as a beginner it’s one less variable to worry about.
There are 4 diet variables that will affect your fat loss - food quantity, food quality, ratios, and timing. Commercial diets are just the branding of these variables. Next time you look at a diet ask yourself which variables they are focusing on and then decide if that's a good fit for you.
My personal suggestion is that the best diet, though, is one that is individualized to you. It will account for each of the variables and then integrate itself into your lifestyle.
While I don't suggest commercial diets for people, I believe there is a place for them. Instead of considering a diet as the answer to your problems I suggest you instead take time to look it over. Figure out what it focuses on and find what techniques or approaches you feel may be useful to you. Discard the parts that are not useful.