In the following article, I’m going to go over what the term “diet” actually means, the basics of maintaining your diet, the popular different types of diets and also provide some personal and anecdotal tips and advice that I hope might help you.
So without further ado, what is a diet? Well, technically your diet is literally everything you eat or consume, regardless of your reasoning/goals. Of course, when people say they’re dieting or on a diet they’re more often than not referring to trying to lose weight, but you need to make adjustments in your diet depending on any goal, whether that is to lose, gain or maintain your weight.
So from here, I’m going to talk about what the science says when it comes to dieting and the overall scientific conclusions and consensus on weight loss, weight gain or maintenance. Moving on from what is essentially the underlying fundamentals of dieting I’ll be listing a few various examples of popular dieting strategies and comparing their practices to the basic scientific principles.
So what does the science say? How do I lose, gain or maintain weight?
Ultimately, calories are king. They dictate any form of significant and long-term weight manipulation we might try to achieve and in the simplest of terms if you eat less or take in less energy than you expend then you will lose weight, if you consume more energy than you expend you will gain weight and if the amount of energy you consume and expend is equal then you will maintain your weight. This is the basic principles behind calories in vs. calories out and the first law of thermodynamics in biological terms.
So the first and one of the most accurate ways of dieting is to use calorie counting. My personal preferred way of using calorie counting is to first find out your maintenance calories and either add or subtract 10% depending on your goal. Using this strategy to figure out your maintenance calories can be done by weighing and measuring all your food/calories daily over the week (aiming for the same number or very similar every day) and weighing yourself every day at the same time (preferably in the morning on an empty stomach for accuracy). If your weight remains more or less constant
(some minor fluctuations are acceptable) then you’re eating at maintenance. If you’ve gained or lost weight you’re eating in either a surplus or deficit, meaning that depending on your goals you may have to readjust how much you eat. Breaking this method down further you move into macronutrient tracking which just means you need to have a little understanding of energy density, but fear not if you don’t, for I’m about to explain it!
The macronutrients: carbs, proteins, and fats contain 4,4 and 9 calories per gram. So taking this into account
we know that 10 grams of carbs will contain 40 calories (the same with protein) and 10 grams of fat will contain 90 calories. So you can see that fats possess over double the amount of calories as both carbohydrates and protein. This is the basis of why “low fat” diets can work for weight loss. It isn’t to say fats make you fat (far from it), but clearly, we can see how by reducing your fat intake slightly can have a significant effect on reducing your overall calorie consumption. Similarly though, “low carb” diets work in exactly the same way, by reducing total calorie/energy intake. Choosing low fat or low carb options will depend on either individual preference and/or their type of activity.
So how do you set up your calories and macronutrients?
Well, let me use some random stats as an example. Let’s take a guy who weighs around 90kg or 200lbs whose maintenance calories are set at 2500 and his goal is to lose weight (fat) while maintaining strength and size. So what I’d do initially is drop his calories by 10% (250), so his new calorie target would be 2250 (2500 – 250).
What I would then do (and this can be heavily debated) is to set his protein around 1.5-2g protein per kg of bodyweight, so in this case, let’s use the high end of 180g (90 x 2). 180g of protein equates to 720 calories (180 x 4), so with that said we now have 1780 calories to fill with carbs and fats (2500 – 720). However you decide to allocate your calories from here is entirely up to you but I’m assuming this guy trains quite regularly and does some sort of athletic style of training, therefore I want to keep his carbs as high as possible (emphasis on “as possible”). For that reason, I’m going to use 2.5g carbs per kg bodyweight, which in this case will be 225g, which further equates to 900 calories (225 x 4). So now in total, he’s consuming 180g of protein, 225g carbs and a total of 1620 calories (720 + 900). This means he now has 630 calories left (2500 – 1620) to get from fats. To get his fat intake I’ll just divide 630 by 9 because as we learned before each gram of fat contains 9 calories. This ends up being 70g of fat. So his overall macronutrient and calorie breakdown would look like this:
- Calories: 2250
- Protein: 180g
- Carbohydrates: 225g
- Fats: 70g
I mentioned earlier that this is one of the best and most accurate ways of measuring and manipulating your energy intake, however, it isn’t perfect and does have its drawbacks. As a Coach, I’ve noticed this method really isn’t that viable for students, people who don’t do their own shopping and/or cooking or families. Sure all of these people can use calorie and macro tracking, but I’ve noticed they tend to have a lot more barriers. For example, I currently have a client who is a partner and a mother of 3 and who is also the main member of the family who prepares meals. So each day she’s got to make meals for 5 people, after working, so weighing and tracking everything then dividing each meal into 5 equal portions really doesn’t seem that realistic or sustainable., Similarly I’ve another client who is a student living at home, and while he could probably weigh and track some of his foods, his parents end up making the bulk of his meals so it seems like an impossible task to calculate his energy intake. For these types of people (and others), there are other, more suitable options.
The next method I’m going to cover will be food weighing or measuring, which is really just a form of portion control and is generally a lot easier than the previous method. While I don’t think this method is as accurate or reliable as calorie and macro tracking I feel it is still very much effective and could possibly be a lot more suitable for the populations I mentioned above. I think in general the majority of us eat the same or very similar meals week in week out, from what I gather we and especially those with families tend to rotate certain meals throughout the week, which if this applies to you will make this type of dieting slightly more accurate and easier to manipulate. So basically you can do this via two ways; by weighing your food or by using measuring cups. Let’s take an example and say you’re having some form of chicken and rice (and veggies, obviously!) for dinner. Using this method you could simply weigh out X amount of cooked rice (e.g. 100g) or take 1 cup of cooked rice. Write this down in a food log and if you aren’t losing weight then in future have say 75g or 3/4 cups. Simple and a lot less hassle! I feel like this method is a lot more sustainable for most people and takes away a lot of the apparent “hassle” that calorie/macro tracking encompasses.
Now, I’ve delved briefly into the science of calories in vs. calories out and I’ve given a couple of basic and reliable examples of how you can structure your diet, but now I’m going to cover some various different “popular” diets I often see cropping up.
So first let’s talk about intermittent fasting. It’s something I’ve briefly spoken about in the past and really isn’t a “diet” in the general sense, but more a form or way of scheduling when you eat. Personally, whenever I’m eating to lose weight (or dieting as some may say) I tend to think about the amount of food I have left to eat a lot more than in general, which consequently makes me more hungry. Intermittent fasting is a way of allocating certain times of when you can and cannot eat. A lot of people use a 6-8 hour “feeding window” which is a timeframe in which you consume all your calories. When you start your “feeding window” is entirely personal and up to you, but an example would be from 2 pm until 8 pm (a 6 hour window). So here you would start eating at 2 pm and have until 8 pm to get all your calories in, as once the clock reaches 8 pm you cease consuming any calories. As I’ve stated before the overall determining factor in whether you gain or lose weight is calorie consumption, however, I find intermittent fasting to have greater psychological benefits compared to “regular” dieting.
Since we’re on the topic of fasting I’m also going to go over the 5/2 fasting “diet”. Again this isn’t a “diet” but more a way of eating. What the 5/2 fast entails is eating regularly for 5 days combined with eating an extremely low amount of calories on 2 days. This method actually allows you to eat slightly more than usual on your feeding days. For example, taking the guy I first wrote about above on 2250 calories we can compare his average weekly intake vs a 5/2 weekly
- 7 days on 2250 calories would equal 15,750 calories
- 5 days on 2250 calories and 2 days on 500 calories (the fasting days) would equal 12,250
- even at 5 days on 2500 calories and 2 days on 500 calories his weekly total would still be less at 13,500
So from the example above you can see the merits of the 5/2 diet or 5/2 fast. Just to clarify though, I wouldn’t do two fast days consecutively, so Monday and Thursday would be a good option.
Moving further into calorie fluctuations I want to highlight what is known as “calorie cycling” which may also be called “calorie-carb cycling” as you more often than not manipulate your carbs. Using the same example guy as before let’s break his days down into low-carb and high-carb days (some diets even utilize medium-carb days) which we will base around his activity:
- Monday – Training – High Carb – 2500 calories
- Tuesday – Training – High Carb – 2500 calories
- Wednesday – Off – Low Carb – 1800 calories
- Thursday – Off – Low Carb – 1800 calories
- Friday – Training – High Carb – 2500 calories
- Saturday – Training – High Carb – 2500 calories
- Sunday – Off – Low Carb – 1800 calories
That gives him a weekly total of 15,400 which is slightly less than 15,750 based on 2250 calories per day. Now there are various ways to structure calorie-carb cycling diets and the aim of this article isn’t to teach you how to do that, it is simply to highlight various forms of dieting strategies that you might consider using.
To finish I just want to go over two very hyped and talked about (and one of them to a cult-like extent) diets; Keto and Paleo. Now the keto or ketogenic diet is essentially a high fat, moderate protein, and very low carbohydrate diet. The very low intake of carbs coupled with the high fat intake subsequently forces the body to utilize fats and convert them into ketone bodies which end up replacing glucose (carbs) as your main energy source. I think the keto diet has some medical merits in treating children with epilepsy, however as an actual weight loss diet I feel it works just about as well as any other calorie restricted diet and furthermore due to the extremely low amount of carbs I personally wouldn’t have any of my clients and/or athletes consider opting for a ketogenic based diet.
Paleo similarly ends up being a low carbohydrate diet (generally, anyway) but not to the extent of a keto diet, however I can see someone following both a keto based and paleo diet simultaneously. The Paleo diet is in itself a bit of nonsense, as in what it’s based on (paleolithic or caveman eating habits, which aren’t documented) doesn’t have much scientific backing. However, the basic principles of the “diet” (besides the low carb approach in my opinion) are generally sound. Paleo diets advocate high protein, moderate fat, and low carbs eating what they consider our ancient ancestors ate, which is really anything that can be hunted or gathered. All the foods within the diet are single ingredient nutrient dense foods like meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables etc and heavily avoid processed foods, which is generally a good idea but another topic entirely. Also, just to set things straight, a caveman, if they were here today, would club you for your pizza. Cavemen didn’t eat to be healthy in a sense, they ate to survive.
Now that’s all I really have to say on the concept of dieting, it really isn’t that complicated and doesn’t have to take over your life. Some things that have helped me when I’ve been trying to lose weight were things like consuming calorie-free sodas, eating a lot of yogurt, making loads of chicken breasts, drinking water before my meals and in later stages halving my starchy carbs while doubling my veggies. Zero-calorie sodas are becoming increasing more varied now, which is absolutely great! These drinks have no calories (well, possibly 1-5 but I don’t think 5-20 calories is going to ruin your diet) and won’t negatively impact your diet (no, sweeteners or aspartame are not making you fat) but may keep you sane when you’re on low calories. Additionally, I’ve found it’s very hard (even for me) to overeat natural yogurt or chicken breast. No matter how you have them those things get boring real quick and become a chore to eat, which means you probably won’t be tempted to over consume. If you are still struggling to lose weight then a pretty good strategy is to half your starchy carbs and double your veggies, this will lower your calories significantly while upping your fiber which should ensure you feel satiated and full.
To conclude I wanna say that no matter what kind of diet you follow, be it the Atkins diet, Keto, Paleo, low fat, low carb, fasting, slim fast, slimming world, weight watchers etc the only way you are going to lose weight is by consuming less energy than you expend or use, so if you aren’t losing weight it’s very likely you aren’t in a calorie deficit. Also, don’t rely on a certain “diet” to work for you, the best thing you can do which will be better than any diet is to educate yourself a little and develop healthy eating habits, doing this will set you up for life! Furthermore, I need all of you to understand that
dieting isn’t the end of the world and unless you are medically at risk (e.g being obese) it shouldn’t be a life-consuming
endeavour. Your food doesn’t have to be bland or boring and tasteless and you CAN enjoy your favorite foods; pizzas, chocolate, ice cream, even alcohol on occasion, but in moderation! These are the fundamental components of flexible dieting!
I really do hope that’s cleared some things up and not confused any of you even more. There are so many routes you can take and there really isn’t “one size fits all” when it comes to dieting, but in the end, it’s your overall calorie consumption that dictates everything! Rely on yourself, not a diet!
If you still aren’t 100% sure about dieting in any sense then I’d highly recommend you look up Eric Helms. Eric has a plethora of knowledge on this matter and gives out a lot of great (and free) advice!
Lift Strong And Conquer!