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A common misconception about weight loss is that it can only be achieved through the exclusion of certain foods or nutrients. For example, the ketogenic supposedly works by eliminating carbohydrates from your diet, which turns you into a FAT BURNING MACHINE. The same dishonest and fundamentally physiologically incorrect logical structure can be identified across many other diets. First, you pin the blame for people’s inability to lose weight on a certain food group, nutrient or habit. Secondly, you offer a miracle solution (which you usually sell). Finally, you rake in on the cash. It’s a really solid business model – you take an issue people have (inability to lose weight/being overweight) and offer a simple, easy solution, and the people give you their money. All good so far, right? Yeah, but the only issue is.. those diets often don’t work – at least not the way they’re purported to work. Fad diets are exciting and promise loads of health benefits, but they’re not the best way to lose weight. Here’s why.
“Carbs/Fats/These 7 Foods” don’t stop you from losing weight. Too many calories do.
All foods contain calories; they are the energy contained within your food, and provide you with the fuel you need to survive and function. The amount of calories foods contain vary greatly, with many vegetables having only 0-100 kcal per 100 grams, while foods like peanut butter can have up to over 700 kcal per 100 grams.
This previous example entails that, if you find yourself hungry, some foods will reduce your hunger more than others – on a calorie for calorie basis. I could eat 200 grams of peanut butter (~1300 kcal) and be wanting more.. but if I tried to eat 1300 kcal of broccoli (3.7KG of broccoli), I would die before getting halfway and would be much more satiated.
If all you’re concerned with is losing weight, irrespective of whether that weight is Lean Body Mass (Muscle) or Fat, then one aspect of weight loss ALONE will make you lose weight: YOUR CALORIC BALANCE.
What is the caloric balance? Simply put, the term caloric balance refers to the difference between how many calories you’re consuming and how many calories you’re burning.
Caloric Balance = Caloric Intake – Caloric Expenditure
Basically, if you eat more calories than you burn, you have a POSITIVE caloric balance and are in a HYPERCALORIC state. You’re in a caloric surplus – you eat more energy than you use. Most likely, this means your body will store those extra calories that aren’t used somehow – meaning you will GAIN weight. This weight could be fat, muscle mass, or several other things.
On the other hand, if you expend more calories than you consume, you have a NEGATIVE caloric balance and are in a HYPOCALORIC state. You’re in a caloric deficit – you eat less energy than you use. Most likely, this means your body will breakdown some of your tissues and use them as fuel – meaning you will LOSE weight. This fuel could come from many of your body’s tissues – ideally, however, for our purposes, it would come exclusively from adipose tissue – that is, fat.
Finally, if you’re eating just as many calories as you’re burning, you have a NEUTRAL caloric balance and are in a EUCALORIC state. Most likely, this means your body gets all the energy it needs from the food you’re consuming, but no more than that – meaning you’ll MAINTAIN your weight. You’re supplying your body with just as much energy as it needs to do everything you do on a daily basis, from sleeping to exercising!
For weight loss, what foods you eat, whether they contain carbohydrates, protein, fats or alcohol matters very little. You could be eating a diet consisting only of fat, yet still be losing weight provided you were in a caloric deficit. The same goes for both protein and carbohydrate.
This principle explains why some absurd diets still make you lose weight. You can lose weight eating Twinkies, but you can also lose weight eating only fat and protein and no carbohydrate. It all comes down to whether your diet and exercise create a caloric deficit or not.
“Why does [insert popular diet] work then?”
Every single successful diet designed to make you consistently lose weight does so with a single tool and mechanism – a caloric deficit. However, there are many, many ways to go about creating this caloric deficit.
Think about it in terms of walking. A caloric deficit, in this case, is walking. If walking was the way to get you to lose weight, specific diets are merely the environments in which you walk. The scenery, the shoes you’re wearing and who you’re walking with might make your journey (weight loss) more enjoyable and hence more sustainable and productive, but they all work through the same mechanism – you’re walking. Hell, you might even be wearing a Pedometer/Fitbit to monitor how much you’re walking (equivalent to a calorie tracking app such as MyFitnessPal/Cronometer for monitoring calorie intake/weight loss) – but that doesn’t actually change HOW you’re losing the weight or how MUCH weight you’re losing. A caloric deficit makes you lose weight. It’s as simple as that.
“Which diet is better? [Insert Diet X] or [Insert Diet Y]?”
The answer to these type of questions is almost always “It depends.”
As it turns out, different people thrive on different things – because they are different people, with different personalities, circumstances and even genetics. There’s no one diet that is best for everyone.
Rather, diets work BECAUSE they respect the fundamental physiological principles of weight loss – with the most fundamental of these principles being caloric restriction. This means we can straight up eliminate any diet whose main mechanism of action is purported to be anything BUT caloric restriction. That being said, the way in which they go about accomplishing the caloric deficit varies.
Some diets prioritize sustainability and life-style changes, while others prioritize rapid results.
Some accomplish this deficit by removing carbohydrates from the diet, while others eliminate fats.
IDEALLY, for health purposes, we wouldn’t need to eliminate any food group, macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, fats) or micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, etc.) from our diet to lose weight. It is possible to lose weight without doing so – however, that would perhaps require more careful planning than simply focusing on losing weight and doing so in a practical manner. A diet based on the complete exclusion of certain foods/nutrients creates a health risk, particularly when done consistently and mindlessly.
One thing to keep in mind… Diets aren’t meant to be sustainable. Hell, if they were meant to be, you would keep losing weight forever and vanish into oblivion at some point. Diets suck. Get over it. You’re going to be hungry. Your mood might take a hit now and again. Your training will be worse than usual.
However.. you only diet with a GOAL in mind. That is to lose weight until a CERTAIN POINT. You don’t just decide you’re going to diet until the end of your life. The time you will spend suffering and losing weight is limited – a diet is restricted in time by DESIGN. Set yourself a goal, reach it, then ensure you don’t go right back to the starting line by gaining the weight back. It might be wise to spend some time just focusing on maintaining your weight after a diet, so you can really gain an appreciation for what it’s like to maintain your weight and how much you’re eating. This will prevent excessive weight gain right when you come off your diet, which is awfully common and defeats the purpose of dieting in the first place – so don’t neglect the post-diet time period.
So, what does a GOOD diet do?
- It creates a caloric deficit, thereby making you lose weight
- It leaves you relatively satiated (enough to continue the diet without lasting psychological damage)
- It is a “healthy” diet, both physiologically (providing you with a wide range of nutrients) and psychologically (it is not based on the mindless exclusion of certain foods/nutrients and does not result in the developing of an averse relationship with food).
- It has a GOAL, and a fixed START and END point.
- It includes a POST-DIET strategy so you don’t just regain all the weight.
If a diet respects all of those principles, you can be pretty sure that’s a damn good diet! If it only respects some of them, it might work for some people under certain circumstances, but is likely rarely ideal. If it fails on all of these assessments….. Don’t do it.