Updated: Jan 8
Why different diets "work," and how to us that information to reach your goals.
*Necessary Disclaimer: I am not a Registered Dietician, and I am not a doctor. I’m not even that big, bro. Please, do not misinterpret anything on this site as medical advice. It’s not. Always consult a doctor before doing anything that might negatively impact your health, and always use caution when listening to an opera singing personal trainer.
*Another thought: it is my job (and I like my job) to help people attain their physique goals. This can be a fun, rewarding experience, and I've been thrilled to help many clients reach those goals.
That said, hyper-awareness of body image and body dissatisfaction are closely associated with disordered eating and a litany of mental health issues. If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or a stressful relationship with food, please reach out to a mental health professional. *
Onto the article . . .
“Just eat healthy.”
What does that mean? I know what foods I consider to be healthy, but I don’t know what foods whoever is saying “just eat healthy” considers to be healthy. If someone gave you this advice – and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that someone has – you probably wouldn’t know, either. I don’t think it's all that unreasonable that we'd wonder what this person’s idea of “healthy” is; given all the conflicting (and often bad) information in the health industry, how could we?
If this person were an avid follower of the “paleo diet,” he (in my mind, this is a man, because men are more likely to give useless advice than women are) might mean that we should cut grains and dairy from our diets, and that we should eat lots of meat and veggies. Bacon is THE healthiest thing we could eat!
If he were a vegan, however, he’d tell us that animal products are terrible for us, and that we don’t need as much protein as idiots who write articles on their fitness websites say we do; we can – and should – get all the protein we need from vegetables and legumes!
If this person were “gluten free,” he might cite the book “Wheat Belly” and tell us that the terribly evolved version of wheat that we as a society consume is clogging our intestinal tracts and leaving us terribly inflamed. He’d probably tell us how much better he feels now that he doesn’t eat gluten (except sometimes he does, but only if it looks really tasty, or if he’s drunk). I’m not sure if he would hate grains in general, or just the gluten in them – he also might not be sure – but I’d assume he means we should not eat wheat.
If he were my absolute favorite kind of health guru, he might tell us that processed foods – particularly processed carbs – are the devil. White bread turns to sugar, and sugar is just as addictive as crack, as evidenced by all the formerly healthy, successful people who turned to white bread and lost everything. Bagels are the gateway drug that leads to Oreos, and I’ll be damned if we haven’t all seen at least a dozen people turning tricks so they can get their next Oreo fix!
Ok, that’s enough making fun of Jeff (ugh - Jeff!). Many people who follow these diets – different though they may be – end up losing weight! If they work, why am I making fun of poor Jeff for trying to help us out?
That’s the (very lengthy) point of this article: Jeff has no idea WHY whatever diet he’s touting worked for him, and why it very well may not work for you. Furthermore, while it may have worked for Jeff for a time, there’s a good chance that because he doesn’t understand the aforementioned “why,” it’s only a matter of time before he gets tired of arbitrarily avoiding entire food groups, and when he decides he wants to eat bagels, meat, or whatever it is he was avoiding, he won’t know how to do so in the context of a varied, nutritious diet. Because of that lack of understanding, Jeff will gain weight again, which will further reinforce his mildly orthorexic notion that whatever food he has been avoiding inevitably leads to weight gain.
I’d like to propose an alternative route to “just eating healthy:” just eating for your goals. How do we do that? Well, first, we’ll have to accept one very serious truth: calories count. You don’t have to count them, but they matter. Calorie balance has been shown, time and again, to be the ONLY (read: literally, the only one) determining factor of your long term bodyweight (sources: scientific consensus, “Understanding Healthy Eating" by Renaissance Periodization, and guys like this).
Once we recognize that calories are our priority, we have a more objective tool for measuring whether a food is conducive to reaching our goals. At its simplest, “healthy eating” looks something like this:
Considering most people reading this article (and most people who are following a diet in general) are probably in the “lose fat” camp, let’s address how different popular diets might lead some people to lose weight, and how we can take those lessons and create a plan that works for us.
The paleo diet has various interpretations, but it generally includes vegetables, whole fruits (not juiced), nuts, roots, and meat, while excluding dairy, grains, legumes, processed oils, salt, alcohol, and coffee (I know lots of paleo dieters are also into Bulletproof coffee - a ridiculous thing in its own right - but as I understand it, paleo in its most commonly accepted form does not allow for coffee consumption.
While it’s silly to assume that everyone who lived in the Paleolithic era ate the same way, regardless of their geographic location, many people find that the paleo diet helps them to lose weight. Why is that? Well, we know that meaningful weight loss (more on the “meaningful” later on) comes from a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than needed by the body to maintain its current weight). So, the paleo diet must create a caloric deficit! Let’s look at each element of it and see how it does that.
1) Elimination of alcohol - Alcohol reduction is an easy way to cut calories. How many of us have had one drink, which led to three, which led to an entire bottle of Jack and an evening of poor food choices? If I were a betting man, I’d wager a hefty sum that you’ve been either there, or a neighboring county. By eliminating alcohol, not only are we cutting the non-filling (and mostly worthless, from a physiological perspective) calories of the alcohol itself; we are also removing a behavioral trigger for poor food choices.
2) Elimination of liquid calories in general – Popular though juices and smoothies are, liquid calories tend to fill us less than solid foods. Why? Well, chewing food helps us recognize that we’re eating, and makes us feel full faster. Because we don’t chew liquids, we don’t get that very strong satiety cue. Also, eating slowly helps us to recognize we’re full, and it’s very easy to down a glass of juice in a matter of seconds.
3) Focus on whole foods – This, in my opinion, is the best thing about the paleo diet. Do I think that there’s something evil and sinister about black beans (or legumes in general) that makes people fat? Of course, not! But, with the elimination of grains and processed oils, it takes super tasty, calorie dense foods off the menu. The focus on meat and vegetables helps a lot of people to lose weight.
4) Elimination of major food groups – There’s something to be said for a restrictive diet simply making it hard to find something to eat! If you’ve ever eliminated a major food group from your diet, you know how hard it can be to find meals that meet your needs. By simply making it hard to find something to eat, there’s a good chance you’ll eat less often, which could help create a calorie deficit.
5) Extra, non-relevant weight loss – Remember how I mentioned “meaningful” weight loss? I have clients track progress by weighing themselves daily at the same time and taking a weekly average. I do this because our weights can fluctuate as much as 10 lbs throughout the day. Are we really getting meaningfully bigger or smaller day to day? Absolutely not! So, what is this extra weight? Water. 1g of carbohydrates brings about 3-4g water with it. Also, salt causes an increase in water retention, which can result in weight fluctuations. By following a low carb diet (the paleo diet is low carb), and coupling it with low sodium intake, people often lose tremendous amounts of weight absurdly quickly. Unfortunately, as soon as these people eat some carbs, their weight goes back up. Not knowing what’s wrong, their belief that potatoes are the devil’s food and that paleo is the only way to be is validated. You, however, are smarter than this, and you recognize that meaningful weight loss – particularly fat loss – is what you want. You don’t fear potatoes.
A vegan diet consists of anything that didn’t come from an animal. Things that are prohibited are meat, dairy, eggs, and honey (although some vegans are cool with honey, strict vegans are not). While many vegans struggle with their weights in the same way that carnivores do, many people swear that a vegan diet helped them to shed some pounds. How might this have happened?
1) Elimination of major food groups – See above, under “paleo”
2) Focus on vegetables – Veggies are both filling and low calorie, which helps people to feel fuller while losing weight.
3) Elimination of certain meat and dairy products can help with weight loss – If you aren’t already aware, you’ll probably learn that I’m more than a little pro-meat. It tastes awesome, and in general, it’s good for you (and your sick gainz). Chicken and bacon, however, aren’t the same thing nutritionally. The same is true of low fat greek yogurt and brie: they aren’t the same. By eliminating all meats, vegans may be throwing the baby out with the bath water (for health purposes – ethics are a whole different story), but that doesn’t change the fact that they are removing several foods from their diets that might not be conducive to weight loss.
4) Personality type – There’s a difference between “causation” and “correlation.” Many people who follow a vegan diet are very health-conscious. For that reason, they might make more of an effort to avoid calorie dense foods than the rest of society. Is that the result of their veganism? No, but I think it’s largely why so many of us associate veganism with good health, even though it’s technically a nutrient-deficient diet, and even though vegan cookies are not necessarily better for you than non-vegan cookies.
The gluten free diet is a bit of a fad. There is a lot of pseudoscience around it, and an ever-increasing number of people are labeling themselves as “gluten intolerant.” Not only is this annoying to anyone in the restaurant industry; it’s also a bit insulting to those who suffer from Celiac disease, and who genuinely can’t consume gluten without experiencing severe symptoms. If there’s nothing wrong with gluten, though, why do those who drop gluten also (sometimes) drop weight?
1) Elimination of major food groups – See above.
2) Extra, non-meaningful weight loss – Gluten free diets usually involve a reduction in carbohydrate intake, leading to less water weight and a sudden drop in scale weight. This weight loss is just as meaningless as the initial drop in water weight when following the paleo diet (see above).
3) No beer – See “elimination of alcohol” in the paleo section. Beer has gluten!
4) Reduction of convenient junk food – You may have also heard this sort of anecdotal, “gluten is the devil” story from a friend: “I was gluten free for 2 months, and I lost weight and felt AMAZING! Then, one day, I was in a rush, so I grabbed a Dunkin’ Donuts [insert terribly unhealthy and generally awesome/disgusting sounding item], and I felt terrible the rest of the day. It’s that gluten, man – it’s poison!” Was it the gluten, though? I suspect not. I don’t doubt that our rebounding dieter felt awful after eating whatever it was he/she ate, but blaming gluten is a bit of a stretch. By removing gluten from our diets, we eliminate a lot of the crap that we normally eat when we’re in a pinch. This might help people feel better, which makes them believe that gluten has been causing their gastrointestinal distress all these years, as opposed to the fact that their diet was just bad, which leads us to our last diet to discuss . . .
Elimination of Processed Foods
The definition of processed foods can vary widely, but “processed” isn’t quite as black and white as most make it out to be. Some people might consider foods that have been genetically modified to be “processed,” even though there is no evidence that GMOs have any effect on our health. Generally, people who recommend removing “processed foods” will encourage you to eat “real foods,” which makes sense as it leaves their mouths and enters your ears, but might leave you scratching your head as you walk around the grocery store and wonder what is or isn’t “real” (walking the cereal section of your local Kroger is the closest you’ll ever be to Keanu Reaves in The Matrix). Because of the wide variability of what’s considered OK and not-OK by those who say “processed foods are bad,” it’s hard to pin down what exactly this diet is. For that reason, we’ll deviate from our “reasons this might work” structure and instead go over a few possible elements of this form of eating and how they may or may not help you to lose weight.
1) Focus on whole foods – If you’re looking to remove processed foods from your diet, the easiest way to do it is to look for things in the supermarket that have one ingredient. If you look at broccoli, and it says “broccoli,” you’re on the right track (it’s even OK if it says “broccoli florets”). If, however, you look at an ingredient list and if has twenty words you don’t recognize, that food falls under the “processed foods” umbrella. We’ve talked at length about how awesome whole foods are, as they’re very filling per-calorie and are usually nutrient-dense. We’ll talk about this more later, too! For now, just know that this is at the heart of what Jeff meant when he told you not to eat processed foods, and while he was pretty annoying when he told you what you should and shouldn’t eat, he did have a point (although he also spouted a bunch of pseudoscience, and he probably didn’t know why, and he hasn’t had a girlfriend in like 7 years, and seriously, if he quotes Borat one more time – fucking Jeff!).
2) Don’t eat “low fat” variations of foods – How does this look in practice? If you were at the store, you might go for whole milk, as opposed to skim or 2%. The same would be true of other dairy products: butter and cheese would be considered nutritionally superior to low fat Greek yogurt and low fat cottage cheese. The reasoning behind this is that full fat foods will keep you fuller, longer, and prevent snacking later in the day. While I like that this teaches people not to fear dietary fat, I’m not quite on board with the idea that full fat is always better; as with most things in fitness (and in life), it depends on the context.
3) Avoid vegetable oils – Canola, cottonseed, corn, and other commons oils are “no no’s” in the minds of those who eliminate processed foods. Olive oil, virgin coconut oil, and nuts oils are OK. Given two people who have a similar BMI and body composition, this difference might matter (healthy fats in olive oil are good for your heart), but I think any fat loss that stems from this rule is purely behavioral. Vegetable oils are easy to cook with, particularly when it comes to baked goods. By eliminating the consumption of vegetable oils, you’re also keeping someone away from most cookies, muffins, cakes, and other tasty, unhealthy treats. Is olive oil a better choice for your health than cottonseed oil? Probably. Will an over-consumption of fats, be it from olive oil, avocados, or pure lard (which is also OK by the no-refined-foods crowd) affect your body composition almost exactly the same way other vegetable oils would? Absolutely.
4) Avoid refined sugars and artificial sweeteners – I’m confident I’ll get a lot of kickback on this, but it needs to be said: aspartame is fine, and diet coke doesn’t make you fat or give you cancer. As for refined sugars, we might be onto something: while I’m not on board with the idea that sugar is as addictive as crack (I have never actually heard of someone whoring himself out for an Oreo), sugar is very tasty, and it does make it easier to consume a lot of calories; when stuff tastes really good, we eat more of it. I am skeptical of the idea that honey or maple syrup are any "better" than refined sugar, but I think from a behavioral standpoint, eliminating refined sugar helps people to lose weight because it eliminates some of the previously mentioned tasty calorie bombs from the menu (are you noticing a pattern here?).
5) No grains – Because grains can’t be consumed as they are harvested (there’s no bread tree, or even a whole-wheat bread tree), they're a “no-no” when you’re avoiding processed foods. Why might this cause you to lose weight? See the sections above on “removal of major food groups,” and “extra, non-meaningful weight loss”. Bread is less filling per-calorie than some other foods, but grains consumed in moderation are generally considered to be good for your health.
6) No Alcohol – Because there is no actual whiskey river, and grapes don’t just naturally become wine, alcohol is a refined food. See above (paleo section) for the inconvenient truth about why avoiding alcohol might help you to lose weight.
What Do We Make of All This?
You may have noticed that these four seemingly very different diets have one thing in common: they eliminate major food groups from your menu. This is both why these diets work, and why they often fail. How many times has someone told you, “I lost so much weight when I was paleo; it’s a really awesome diet,” only to leave you wondering (but probably not saying), “then, why aren’t you in good shape right now?”
It may seem like I’m making fun of people who follow these diets, but that's not my intention; I’m pointing out that, though effective for a short period of time, these diets are more restrictive than they need to be. For that reason, they are often short-lived (of these four diets, I’d say vegans have the most success being consistent, but I think this is a result of the ethical implications of being a vegan, and has less to do with the diet’s nutritional merit).
Because of the short-term effects (non-meaningful weight loss) of their diet, and the ensuing weight gain when it ends, dieters are left believing that they have found the “right” way to eat, but that they simply can’t adhere to it because they lack willpower/aren’t dedicated enough/have the wrong social circle/are too busy/whatever self-blaming thing they can think of. I disagree.
Now, most people will at this point say, “yeah, you’re right! It’s not their fault; diets just don’t work!” I won’t agree with those people, either. Diets do work, but they need to be grounded in reality (both reality as a whole, as well as an individual’s circumstances). How do we do that? Well, let’s learn from the diets we looked at from above. What worked, and why did it work? How can we take what worked, but leave behind the more restrictive elements of the diet? Remember, if a diet resulted in meaningful weight loss, it did so ONLY because it helped someone to create a calorie deficit. Let’s brainstorm on what we’ve learned:
1) Whole foods are great – Most of the diets have a focus on whole foods. All of the diets we mentioned encourage the consumption of meats and vegetables, except for the vegan diet, which does at least usually include a lot of vegetables. Meat and veggies are a powerful combination for weight loss, as they’re both very filling per calorie (particularly leaner varieties of meat, such as poultry, lean beef, fish, and leaner cuts of pork). The combination of protein in meat and fiber in vegetables helps you to stay fuller, longer, decreasing your chances of raiding the fridge an hour after your meal. How might you go about getting more meats or vegetables into your diet? Make your hands into fists and look at them: each one of those is a serving of vegetables. Try to increase your veggie intake to 6 of those per day (you can work your way up slowly; 2 is better than 0), and you’ll find that you feel fuller, faster. You'll also probably consume fewer calories, resulting in weight loss! You can play this same game with lean protein: look at your palm (just your palm, not your fingers or your wrists) and recognize that it’s about the size of one serving of lean protein. Try to have 3-5 of these per day. Neither of these strategies directly reduces calorie consumption (eating more of something actually means more calories), but finding a reliable way to make sure you’re eating more protein and vegetables will probably help you to consume fewer calories throughout the day.
2) Seriously, more whole foods – We’ll deviate from the paleo diet for a second and look at a major part of the vegan diet: fruit! Fruits gets demonized by a lot of carbophobes, but eating WHOLE (not juiced) fruit is a great way to cut down on calorie consumption. Apples, oranges, berries, bananas, and pretty much any other whole fruit you can think of is very filling per calorie, and also packed with vitamins and nutrients that might help you feel better, resulting in improved performance at the gym (and more calories burned). Other whole foods that are good for you: potatoes, lentils, rice, beans (legumes in general, actually – sorry cavemen!), and nuts (though don’t go nuts with nuts and nut butters, as they’re pretty calorie dense, so you may want to avoid them on a fat loss diet). This is not an all-inclusive list. If there’s a food you’ve been told not to eat, and yet it’s picked from the ground or cut from an animal looking about the same as it does when you find it, be skeptical of the source that told you it was bad.
This may sound like "avoid processed foods," and it is similar. How can you focus on whole foods without fearing pizza and bagels like they’re Satan’s playthings? I like the 80/20 rule. Try to eat whole foods about 80% of the time, and let 20% of your intake be something else. That should be enough adherence to see a difference in your weight, but give you enough wiggle room that you can have a slice or two of pizza with your friends every once in a while. Another good method is to eat mostly foods that you cook and take from home (giving you control over your diet), and to eat out only once or twice a week. During those times out, don’t go nuts (you should still order protein and vegetables), but also don’t stress out if you are served things that aren’t perfectly in line with the way you’re eating; you shouldn’t be in this situation often enough that it makes a huge difference to your health.
3) Reduce sugar intake – OK, I’ll bite on the sugar thing. Is sugar evil? No, it’s not. Should you probably be consuming less of it than you are? Yeah. Not only is chronically high sugar intake bad for your insulin sensitivity (#diabetes), sugar is really damn tasty, and it doesn’t fill you up at all. If you’re trying to find a way to reduce your sugar intake, but you don’t want to count how much sugar you’re consuming, here’s an easy way: take note of the sweet things (juice, ice cream, baked goods, sugary cereals, candy bars, etc.) you consume throughout the week. If you notice there’s one of these things that keeps popping up throughout the week, try tracking how many of that thing you consume in a week. For example, if you notice you’re drinking a lot of juice, make a note on your phone’s notepad (or whatever it’s called on your phone) that says “juice” at the top. Every time you have a juice, put a little mark on that tab (for example: +). Don’t judge whatever number of marks you get, but use it as a baseline to change your diet. For instance, if you’re consuming 10 juices per week, see if you can drop that down to 7. Keep a notepad going for every week, and allow yourself 7 marks for the week. Once you’ve reached 7, that’s your limit for the week. Most people find that simply being conscious of their consumption of foods or drinks that aren’t helping them makes it easy to change course, and that they rarely exceed the number they’ve allotted themselves. Giving yourself a small reduction as a goal, however, helps you to actually reach that goal, giving you not only a sense of accomplishment and some momentum towards a healthier life, but also some wiggle room for those days that you really want the thing you’ve been consuming (after all, if you drink a lot of juice, you probably do so because you like juice). Another method for reducing your quantity for the week might be portion control; if you have a big glass of juice with breakfast every morning, try using a smaller glass, and still only having one.
4) Reduce alcohol consumption – Beer has gluten, and most alcohol comes from grains, so 3 of the 4 diets we discussed keep people away from alcohol. We chatted at length above (see the paleo section) about alcohol’s negative impact on your health and weight loss goals, but we never talked about a way to balance those goals with your life. If you and your friends like getting together and drinking beer, that’s great! It’s not the healthiest thing you can do for your body, but it’s a part of your life that you enjoy. I personally like scotch, bourbon, and interesting beers, but I don’t drink as often as most people I know because, to me, they’re not worth the negative health consequences.
How can you find a balance? Check the strategy above regarding juice (under “reduce sugar intake); this has been one of my best strategies with helping people reach their goals while still enjoying their social lives. Maybe you’re drinking 10 drinks per week. Do all 10 of those drinks bring you happiness? Probably not. Shoot for 7, and strategize. If you mostly drink socially on the weekends, but you have a couple beers randomly throughout the week, maybe skip out on the weekday beers and save all 7 for the weekend. Or, maybe you love coming home and having a couple of drinks with your significant other in the evenings! Ask for his/her support, and split two beers instead of having 2 each (so you can try two different kinds). Or, just down it to 1. If you find yourself drinking alone at night, think, “is this making me happier, or is it just a habit?” If it’s something that really makes you happy, enjoy your drink that way, but see if you can have a little less; this is usually the easiest alcohol intake to reduce.
5) Count your calories – I feel like this has been the elephant in the article this whole time. I can hear all the objections right now: it’s not sustainable, it’s not natural, it’s hard, it’s unrealistic, etc. I get it. Counting calories isn’t fun. But, you know what? It really works. Why does it work? Well, have you noticed how we’ve been finding ways to quantify things (X fists of veggies, Y number of drinks, etc.)? Counting calories is the ultimate way of doing that! If you want shockingly reliable results, eat mostly at home, and weigh your foods with a food scale when you start counting calories. Soon, you’ll be able to eyeball portion sizes (I can spot 8oz chicken breast a mile away!), and you can guesstimate portions. Also, unlike the popular diets listed above, calorie counting really can teach you what healthy, sustainable eating looks like. If I’m dieting to be obnoxiously lean (I am right now so I can get pics of myself looking sexy as advertisement for this site), I’ll count calories so I can reliably lose weight. When I first lost weight, I also counted calories! Most of the time, though, I know what is going to help me feel full within my caloric allotment without counting. How? I spent enough time with My Fitness Pal (an awesome calorie counting app) that I’m keenly aware of what is and isn’t going to help me reach my goals (if I’m gaining weight on purpose, as I was in the winter, I look for easy-to-consume calories, and if I’m maintaining, I focus on numbers 1-4 listed above). Not all my clients count calories, but the ones who do (they also count macronutrients) get reliably good results; if things aren’t going well, I can see why, and I can make a quantifiable change to get them on the right track.
With these tools, pretty much anyone looking to lose weight can get a start on the process. Want to start small? Good move! Try eating more protein and vegetables. Or, maybe you want to focus on whole foods in general. Great! Get good at cooking, and eat most of your meals at home.
In my experience, alcohol is your easiest place to start. If you like drinking, don’t eliminate alcohol from your life; just find out how much you’re drinking now, and see if you can reduce that amount without putting a huge damper on your social life.
The most important thing you can take away from this article, though, is that when it comes to your health and fitness, there’s one thing that matters more than all: calories. You can try a million different ways to avoid this truth, but in the end, accepting it is your best way to reach your goals in the most efficient, least restrictive way possible.
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