In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the roles macronutrients and calories play when it comes to fat loss, and more importantly, how knowing how much you should consume on a daily basis will help accelerate your fat loss efforts.
In this article, we are going to discuss the second pillar of an effect fat loss program:
We already talked about the roles that calories and macros play in your body. Now, we are going to expand on that by talking about them in the context of your diet.
Ultimately, this is the question that people want to know when the start a fat loss program. Diet after all, is not only extremely important when it comes to weight loss, but is also the area people struggle with the most.
While there are many different types of diets out there, the telling characteristic of whether or not a diet will be successful is how restrictive it is. Diets that are more restrictive, and have a more rigid set of rules, usually are easier for people to follow…but usually only for a short time.
See, people generally like rules. It makes things easier. Do this, not that. It seems simple. And that’s why in the short-term, restrictive diets work. But, at some point willpower runs out and we start craving the foods we can’t have. And because they are “forbidden” we just want them more. This wears on us mentally, makes us miserable, and is ultimately the reason these diets fail.
Diets that are less restrictive however, are shown to have a better adherence rate. These diets generally provide better results because you can stick with them longer. Diets that give you the freedom to eat a larger variety of foods are often less stressful as well.
Regardless of the diet approach, the ultimate goal is long-term adherence. A diet is not something you can expect to go on and then go off once you reach your goal. This is what leads to rebounds and yo-yo dieting. Not only is this unhealthy, but it wears on you mentally. Remember, temporary changes only lead to temporary results.
Which brings me to the reason for this article. Choosing the diet that’s right for you can be confusing. There’s a lot of information out there and what worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you.
But don’t worry, I gotcha covered!
Over the course of this article I am going to outline and discuss some of the more popular diets out there. My goal is to give you an objectionable look at each one and provide you with the pros and cons of each approach. By the end you will have enough information to help determine, not only which approach is right for you, but why.
These aren’t so much diets as they are all-out assaults on your body, but I include them here anyway because they are ridiculously popular.
Basically, these “diets” require you to not eat anything for anywhere from a few days to upwards of a week. The only thing you can consume during this time is some liquefied combination of fruits and vegetables or some sort of powder (which you usually have to buy from whomever is promoting the program…shocker!).
Pros: There really aren’t many positives to a cleanse or detox. The only good thing is you may temporarily increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables, depending on what the program requires you to drink.
You may also lose some weight, maybe even up to 10lbs in a week! But notice I said weight, not fat. Remember, there’s a difference. The weight you do lose is probably water weight, due to the decrease in your sodium and carb intake from not eating solid foods. This decrease is only temporary however and most of it will come back once you start eating regular food again.
Cons: The food we eat plays a role in how our body functions. When you stop eating food and replace it with low-calorie shakes and drinks, your body is going to react accordingly. You’re going to be miserable, tired, cranky, hungry and just not pleasant to be around.
Detoxing is also unnecessary. Our bodies are way ahead of us when it comes to this. Think about it, if our bodies weren’t able to “detox” themselves, we wouldn’t be able to function, or even survive. Our digestive tract, colon, kidneys, liver and even skin all play a role in expelling unwanted waste from our body.
If you really want to “detox” naturally, without having to purchase expensive drinks and put yourself through hell, try increasing your consumption of lean protein and colorful fruits and vegetables, while decreasing your consumption of highly processed foods. Whole, organic foods like animal protein, fruits and vegetables help rid the body of toxins, so cutting these out of your diet doesn’t make sense.
While low-fat diets aren’t as popular as they use to be, unfortunately, there still are a large number of health professionals that recommend them to their patients, even though no long-term studies have shown any benefits of a low-fat diet.
Pros: The one positive about a low-fat diet is that it promotes caloric restriction. Fat is the most energy-dense of all the macronutrients at 9 calories/gram, so by removing a majority of the fat from your diet you are cutting a lot of calories. But given all the benefits that fat provides, it just makes more sense to cut a few calories from every macronutrient rather than eliminating one completely.
Cons: There are several. First, by its nature, a low-fat diet discourages the consumption of some perfectly healthy foods, namely animal proteins. Because many animal proteins are naturally high in saturated fat and cholesterol, the low-fat crowd demonized them because cholesterol and saturated fat were supposedly bad for our health.
But in reality there is nothing to fear from these. It has been shown that cholesterol in our diets has minimal effect on the cholesterol levels in our blood. In fact, the cholesterol in eggs and other animal proteins has been shown to have a positive effect on HDL or “good” cholesterol levels. Same with saturated fat.
The second problem with a low-fat diet is that it encourages the consumption of unhealthy foods. When the low-fat craze started, food companies jumped at the chance to market low-fat foods to consumers. But the problem is when you take all the fat out of something it winds up tasting terrible. So companies replaces the fat with lots of refined and highly processed sugars. Not exactly a good trade.
Lastly, low-fat diets are closely associated with low testosterone levels. And while testosterone is mainly though of as the male sex hormone, it is also important for women. Fat is needed to produce testosterone. Low testosterone levels are associated with decreased muscle mass, depression, decreased libido, and an increase in body fat.
As you can see, there are many negatives to a low-fat diet, while very few, if any positives. And while the low-fat craze isn’t as popular as it once was, the amount of “low-fat” products you still see on store shelves shows that not everyone gets it; proving the low-fat fad isn’t over quite yet.
Now things are about to get interesting. Low-carb diets are still extremely popular. And for good reason. They do help a lot of people lose weight. But this isn’t necessarily the magic of not eating any carbs at work, but rather simple caloric restriction. Much like low-fat, low-carb diets lead to weight loss because you are effectively eliminating an entire macronutrient group from your diet. See, nothing magic. And while I personally find low-carb diets to be unnecessary, they do work for a lot of people for many different reasons.
Pros: Like I said, the main reason low-carb leads to weight loss is simple caloric restriction. Cut out a whole macronutrient group from your diet leads to a drastic cut in calories as well, maybe even up to half in some people. Considering the typical American diet, high in fat, carbohydrates and low in protein, its no wonder the low-carb fad has had some good results.
Another reason for the success of low-carb fad is that these diets are typically high in protein. High protein diets have shown to be the most effective diets when it comes to fat loss for two reasons. One, protein provides you with a high level of satiety. It takes the body longer to digest protein so consuming more protein will leave you feeling fuller, longer. Second, protein has a high thermic cost, meaning it takes the body more calories to digest it than any other macronutrient. Therefore, the more protein you eat, the more calories your body will expend digesting it.
Cons: While low-carb does have some positives, the negatives far out-weigh them. I’ll start with the obvious…carbs are delicious! Seriously, why would you want to live your life without carbs? Carbohydrates make up some of the best foods out there, so if you can include them in your diet while still losing fat, why wouldn’t you?
In complete seriousness though, the main reason people fail at diets is they are either too restrictive or don’t provide enough variety. Low-carb does both. As I’ll explain later, you don’t have to eliminate your favorite foods from your diet in order to lose weight.
The second problem with low-carb is that people often do not take calories into account. Many popular low-carb books and programs boast about how by eliminating carbs from your diet, you can eat as much protein and fat as you want and not have to worry about counting calories.
The thought process behind it is this: carbohydrates have the greatest effect on insulin levels. High levels of insulin prevents the body from burning fat. Therefore by eliminating carbs from your diet, you keep insulin low and will burn fat all the time.
The truth however, is much different. First, carbs aren’t the only macronutrient that has an effect on insulin; protein will raise insulin levels too. Secondly, low insulin levels is not the driving force behind fat loss, caloric balance is. So it doesn’t matter whether you are low-carb, high-carb or medium-carb, if you are not in a negative caloric balance, you will not lose fat.
Third and probably most important, carbs provide the fuel you need for good workouts and help keep your body’s hormones functioning properly. Like we discussed in Part 1, carbs provide the body with fuel to perform and recover from high intensity workouts.
Carbs are converted to glycogen in the body and are stored in the muscles to fuel workouts. The more energy you have during a workout, the better your performance, meaning the harder you can work and the more calories you’ll burn. Carbs also prevent the body from trying to convert amino acids into energy (which leads to muscle breakdown) by providing the body with an energy source by which to draw from during recovery.
Carbs have an effect on your thyroid and various hormone levels in your body too. Low-carb intake can lead to a decrease in T3, which is an important hormone in the regulation of your metabolism. Basically, low levels of T3 can cause your metabolism to slow.
Low-carb can also cause testosterone to drop, while increasing your stress hormone cortisol. This is a recipe for disaster, as high levels of cortisol combine with low testosterone will lead to greater fat storage. This article over at Precision Nutrition provides a lot more detail on the subject of low-carb and the negative effects it has on your body.
The bottom line is, while low-carb has shown to be effective when it comes to fat loss, it can be difficult to sustain and could negatively effect the way your body functions. Certainly there are instances where low-carb is appropriate. People with wheat and gluten allergies would benefit from reducing their carb intake, as well as more sedentary people, as their body’s need for fuel isn’t as great as people who exercise regularly.
But don’t think that low-carb is any sort of magic. If you like carbs, you don’t need eliminate them from your diet just to lose fat. There are plenty of better ways to about it that don’t involve suffering or extreme deprivation.
The paleo, or caveman diet, has become extremely popular in recent year.
If you’ve never heard of the paleo diet, the basic idea is to have your diet emulate that of our Paleolithic ancestors. To be true to the paleo diet, if it wasn’t available to our ancestors, we shouldn’t eat it either. That means that since things like dairy and grains weren’t around then, we shouldn’t consume them either. The basis for this is that this is the way our bodies were genetically designed to eat. There are several things wrong with this assumption but we’ll talk about that in a minute. First let’s talk about some of the good aspects of paleo.
Pros: The basic concept of paleo is fantastic. In order to eat paleo, you can only consume foods that were around when our Paleolithic ancestors roamed the earth. This includes things like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and animal protein. All of these are foods you should be consuming anyway and are very healthy.
The consumption of these foods also increases satiety, which is another positive. One thing that paleo has going for it, compared to other fad diets is you are less likely to be hungry while eating paleo because of the quality of food you eat. One reason many diets fail is because people are constantly feeling hungry. Any diet that staves off feelings of hunger is likely going to be more successful.
This is where my praise of the paleo diet ends however.
Cons: The biggest problem with the paleo diet is the notion that if our ancestors didn’t eat it, we shouldn’t either.
This is crap.
First of all, this is like saying that that we shouldn’t brush our teeth just because toothpaste and toothbrushes weren’t around in the Paleolithic era. The logic that just because something was or wasn’t available should dictate whether it is “good” or “bad” is flawed. So things like dairy and grains, which are full of vitamins and nutrients, are bad but processed foods like paleo bread, paleo cookies, paleo bars and paleo protein powder are okay?
Second, there wasn’t one specific paleo diet. Our ancestors diets varied based on the region they were in, what food was available and what time of year it was. Plus, food today doesn’t even closely resemble what it did thousands of years ago, due to genetic modification and manipulation.
Third, just like low-fat and low-carb diets, paleo requires you to omit entire food groups on the unproven notion that they are “bad” or “unhealthy”. Any diet that puts a ban on certain foods and requires you to deprive yourself of foods you may love isn’t going to work in the long run.
Like I said, the concept of paleo is great. Where the diet falls short however is its use of flawed science to perpetuate a style of eating that is outdated and really can’t be replicated. And any that forbids perfectly healthy foods while tries to sell you highly processed “diet friendly” versions should raise some eyebrows.
This is another very popular diet, especially among fitness enthusiasts. Clean eating can mean different things to different people, but the general rules of clean eating are that “clean” foods should be: 1). Minimally processed and, 2). Have a high nutrient density. To take it a step further, foods like lean meats, healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains should be prioritized while highly processed foods should be minimized or eliminated all together.
Pros: A diet consisting of whole, nutrient-dense foods is going to have positive effects on your body and your health in general, including increased satiety, more energy and less inflammation. The amount of processed foods in the typical diet have been linked to a number of diseases and health issues. By minimizing these foods, you will help improve cell function, fight disease and just feel better in general.
Cons: Clean eating, like paleo, is good in theory. But clean eating also suffers from some of the same pitfalls as paleo does.
First off, what exactly does “clean” mean? This will mean different things to different people and is impossible to define. The bigger issue with this however, is regardless of how you define “clean”, it will ultimately come down to labeling foods as “good” or “bad”, “clean” and “dirty”.
The truth is, no one food is going to cause you to store more fat, just like no one food will help you lose more fat. Like we discussed in Part 1, fat loss is about calories in vs. calories out.
This leads into the second pitfall of clean eating. People who are eating “clean” often don’t concern themselves with caloric intake, falsely believe that if they only eat “clean” foods that they cannot get fat.
However, if your daily caloric maintenance level is 2,500 calories, and you’re eating 3,000 calories each day, it doesn’t matter if those calories are coming from chicken and broccoli or McDonalds, you will gain weight.
Now all of the diets I’ve discussed so far contain aspects that can help you lose fat. The problem however, it that they all posses the same qualities that cause most diets to fail; that being either deprivation or requiring you to think of foods as either “good” or “bad”.
But what if there was a diet approach that blended all the good qualities of these diets while eliminating any negative aspects…
Good thing there is! It’s called, Flexible Dieting.
Flexible dieting, or If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) as its commonly called, is a style of eating where calories and macronutrient ratio are prioritized first, over where your food comes from. Much like clean eaters, flexible dieters will try and get a majority of their calories from whole, minimally processed foods. The difference is however, is that eating clean is not a hard-and-fast rule for flexible dieters.
Like we discussed in Part 1, flexible dieters also know that their caloric and macronutrient intake is more important than the food sources they get it from. Because of this, flexible dieters sometimes can be seen eating ice cream, burgers, pop tarts, mac & cheese, and other “forbidden” foods while still losing fat. This flies in the face of conventional diet wisdom. But you know what, it works!
Pros: The positives of flexible dieting are numerous. First, it prioritizes calories and macros. Calories, and more importantly macros, have the greatest effect on body composition when it comes to dieting. If you want to go from pudgy and soft, to lean and ripped, you will need to have your macronutrient ratio dialed in.
Second, while flexible dieting allows you the freedom to indulge in certain foods, it still prioritizes the consumption of high amounts of protein and fiber. This means that you still are going to need to eat adequate amounts of lean protein and fibrous veggies in order to hit your macro targets. Good luck trying to get enough protein from pop tarts and ice cream. It just won’t happen.
Third, while you do need to consume adequate amounts of high quality, minimally processed foods, flexible dieting allows you the freedom to eat your favorite foods while still losing fat, as long as you stay within your target macros. Craving a burger and fries? No problem! Let the bun and fries account for your carb and fat macros for the day, and just focus on eating lean protein, low-carb shakes and veggies at the rest of your meals. Same thing if you want some ice cream, or anything else! Once you know your macronutrient targets, you can use those numbers to have your cake, and eat it too! (pun intended)
Lastly, and probably the biggest benefit of flexible dieting, is the freedom it allows. People falsely believe that diets need to be rigid and extreme to work. And it’s not their fault. This is what has been preached to us for years! It’s also what sells books, products, and programs.
But the truth is, extremism doesn’t work. Not in the long run at least. Giving up your favorite foods may work for a time, but eventually your willpower is going to run out. So why make it harder than it needs to be. Flexible dieting allows you eat your favorite foods why still losing fat. Counting calories and macros may seem hard, but its really not (I show you how to do that here). And once you have that figured out, the rest is cake! (again, pun)
There are two thing to remember when it comes to flexible dieting and IIFYM. 1). It’s it’s not a license to eat as much as you want. Moderation is key. There’s a reason this saying has stood the test of time. It’s true. It’s not sexy, but its true. And it’s easy to follow.
2). Food quality still matters. Eating a majority of your calories from whole foods is going to keep you full and stave off hunger. But that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge either. Get 80-90% of your calories from whole, minimally processed foods, and use that last 10-20% to eat foods you enjoy. As long as it fits into your macros, you can diet, lose fat and still eat the foods you love. And I guarantee you’ll love the results as well.
We talked about a lot of different diet approaches in this article. And I hope you were able see the differences between diets that work long-term and diets that don’t.
Diets that don’t work all have one thing in common. On some level, they all require a degree of extreme deprivation. They all claim, for one unproven reason or another, that cutting out a certain food group is the key to health and weight loss.
But instead of helping people, these diets are actually hurting them. When a diet causes people to label foods as “bad” or “good” in creates an unhealthy relationship with food; one that can lead to diet failure or even eating disorders.
See, eating should not be complex…and it certainly shouldn’t be stressful. The reason these diets fail a majority of the time is that they create too many rigid rules, that create more problems than solutions.
No matter what anyone tells you, you CAN indulge in your favorite foods and still successfully lose fat. It’s all about finding the right balance. Your diet should be something that increases the quality of your life, not decreases it. So, its important when choosing a diet that you know it will have a positive impact on your life, not a negative one. Hopefully, the information I’ve provided in these first two articles can help you do just that!
In Part 3 of this series, we’re going to move away from the diet and nutrition aspect of fat loss and talk about how to create a training program that will work best for your fat loss goals.
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