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Is your Diet Working for You?

Jeremy Hendon | October 17

Despite the web being full of nutritional advice, 99% of people who try to lose weight fail to do so.  In fact, even our kids are getting fatter, despite major advances in nutritional and medical research.  Obviously, there’s something missing from most weight loss and nutritional advice – otherwise more people would more easily be able to stay lean and healthy. 

Diet or Die - tonto--kiddI’ve put a lot of time and effort into helping people figure out the missing piece of the puzzle, and you probably know from other posts here on Simple Health that I believe the biggest obstacle for most individuals is the lack of a coherent system to enable them to consistently adhere to a planned course of action.   

Generally, when I talk about lack of a system, I’m not usually referring to a particular diet, since there are many possible ways to skin that particular cat.  Moreover, most people are already too focused on finding the best or perfect diet.  They’re convinced that if they learn enough, that they’ll be able to lose weight easily.  Unfortunately, in a world where junk foods and other temptations are often over-abundant, it’s not enough just to KNOW what eating healthy means

You can read books until you’re blue in the face, but if you fail to take consistent action, no book will make you any healthier.  I, you, and everyone else generally know when we’re eating something unhealthy.  Unfortunately, we can’t often help ourselves.

Surely, then, I’m not going to try to give you more ACTUAL DIET ADVICE, then?

Ironically, I am…and here’s why:

A lot of diets are AWFUL, and even mediocre diets can make staying healthy much harder.  If you stick to a bad diet, it will often be just as useless as failing to stick to a good diet.  The combination is key.

Let’s start with an example of a theoretical diet that is, well, less than sufficient:

TwinkieThe Twinkie diet.  If you’ve read about the Twinkie diet, then you probably know that it is not an actual, prescribed diet.  A researcher wanted to prove that calories matter (they do), so he ate just 1800 calories of Twinkies a day and lost a bunch of weight over a 10 week period (technically he also ate other snacks, cookies, and chips, as well as a protein shake, green beans, and celery each day).  Sounds like a great diet, right?

Let’s suppose that you have a friend (assume your friend is a guy for general calorie purposes) who hears about this experiment and decides, due to his undying childhood love of Twinkies, that there is no more appealing way to lose weight than by eating 1800 calories per day of only Twinkies.  How might your friend fare?

Given his love of Twinkies, the first day would be pretty AWESOME – I mean he gets to eat 12 Twinkies PER DAY (at 150 calories a piece)!  Assuming he manages to spread them out and hopefully avoid Twinkie-induced nausea, he might even feel relatively OK at the end of the first day.  Furthermore, if he actually sticks to the diet and eats only 1,800 calories per day (a deficit for most guys), he’s going to lose some weight.  And all’s well that ends well, right?

Unfortunately, no, and your friend’s diet is quite likely to end much sooner than he intends.  In order to lose weight and maintain weight loss, a diet must generally meet 4 requirements, and the Twinkie diet (like many other diets) achieves only one of these 4 requirements:

  1. Caloric deficiency or equilibrium:  if you want to lose weight, your body must use more calories than it absorbs (likewise, if you want to maintain weight, your body must use and absorb an equal amount of calories).  There is currently no way around this, but there are ways to make it easier to both absorb fewer calories and expend more.  Twinkie Diet Score: 1 for 1 (your friend is, after all, being diligent and eating only 1,800 calories per day).
  2. Adequate Nutrients:  Your body needs certain macro- and micro-nutrients (obvious examples include protein, fat, B vitamins, and magnesium).  The full consequences of particular deficiencies are well beyond the scope of this article (as well as my knowledge), but at a minimum, your body will tell you to eat more in order to get enough nutrients, thereby making a caloric deficiency much harder.  Twinkie Diet Score: 1 for 2 (orange sponge cake and cream sadly don’t fulfill your friend’s nutrient needs).
  3. Satiety and Energy:  If a diet makes you continually hungry, or if a diet causes you to lose energy and adopt sloth-like behavior, then you’re either going to eat too much and absorb too many calories or else your metabolism will slow down and burn fewer calories.  Twinkie Diet Score: 1 for 3 (by the end of day 2, your friend is almost certain both hungry and generally tired).
  4. Sustainability:  If you can maintain a diet only for 3 or 4 weeks, it will do you very little good, as you’ll likely gain back any weight you’ve lost after 3-4 weeks.  This is not unrelated to adequate nutrients and satiety, although it’s a bigger point than just that.  Twinkie Diet Score: 1 for 4 (check back on your friend in a week and see if he still remembers the diet).

If your diet fails any of these criteria, you’re going to have a problem. You may be able to lose some weight on a deficient diet, but in all likelihood, you will eventually fail and regain any weight you lost.  Many of you have been in this situation many times, as I have, so you need to think before you start your next diet, how does my diet stack up on these criteria.  Let’s get a bit more into the details:

Calories?!?  I haven’t counted calories since 1973…

Time to come clean…SShhhh…Calories matter (although counting them may not be necessary)…

Fact #1: If you eat/drink more calories than you use, you’ll gain weight.

Fact #2: What you eat/drink can actually affect both how many calories you eat/drink and how many calories you use.

Believe what you will, but ignoring either of these fact will not make them go away.  If a diet works, then you changed your energy balance, one way or another.  Somehow, you absorbed fewer calories than you used, although you may not be fully aware of how you accomplished such a feat. 

counting calories - iclimber1The question you should be asking now is, "How big should my caloric deficit be?"  There’s no universal answer to this question.  There are benefits to a 10% deficit (e.g., it’s easier to stick to) and benefits to a 35% deficit (e.g., you’ll lose weight faster).  In general, I find that people have the most success with deficits between 20-25% below their maintenance calories.  If you need to calculate your maintenance calories, the easiest way (although not necessarily the most accurate) is simply to multiply your weight by 15.  For example, if you weight 200 pounds, your maintenance would be around 3,000 calories per day.  If you’re a woman, or if you’re very overweight, your number may be lower than 15 (14 or even 13).

Fortunately for your friend, if he’s able to eat only 1800 calories of Twinkies per day while still maintaining the same physical activity level (both unlikely, but still), he’ll lose weight (just for this example, I’m assuming your friend is a guy who weighs about 170, which would put his maintenance calories at about 2,550).  Unfortunately for your friend, there are various reasons why (a) he’s unlikely to be able to eat just 1,800 calories per day of Twinkies – he’s going to get pretty hungry and (b) his body is going to quickly decide that it doesn’t have enough calories and is going to make your friend seem pretty tired and un-energetic.  But I’m getting ahead of myself – nutrients first.

We don’t need no Nutrients around here!

Nutrients are a touchy subject, and not in the "touchy-feely" way.  People get pretty angry in some internet discussions, which confuses me, since the goal is generally better overall health for everyone.  On one hand, some folks think every health problem in the world can be solved if people just got enough of a certain vitamin or mineral.  On the other hand, there are a bunch of people who believe that there is some magic amount of each nutrient that our bodies need, and if you go over that amount, your body is going to self-destruct.

It seems to me that we’ve lost all sense of practicality.  No one knew what nutrients were before about 100 years ago, and for most of the 2 million or so years of human evolution, all that really mattered was actually getting enough to eat.  At the same time, nutrients matter, but there are no magic amounts that everyone needs.  Here’s a general guide of what’s really important when it comes to nut

  • Protein:  Most people in the US generally get enough protein in their diet, but it’s nonetheless the most important thing to get right.  Much of your body (including your muscles) is built from the amino acids that make up protein.  If you don’t get enough, your body can’t build or maintain muscle or other lean (non-fat) tissue.  
  • Fat:  Fortunately, there’s been enough written over the past 10 or 15 years that most people now acknowledge that fat is both necessary and good for them.  Without going through each possible type and sub-type of fat, modern humans generally get enough saturated and monounsaturated fats, too much Omega-6 fats and Trans-fats (in the case of Trans-fats, 0 is appropriate), and too few Omega-3 fats.  Again, generally.
  • Vitamins and Minerals:  Yes, I’m actually grouping together ALL vitamins and minerals.  Ideally (whatever that means), we all need certain amounts of different vitamins and minerals.  Practically, if you eat fresh meats and vegetables, you’re going to get most of what you need.  Twinkies, probably not.

I’m not going to go into vitamins and minerals at all here.  If you’re worried about it, take a multi-vitamin.  If you’re eating whole foods (vegetables and meat), then you’re going to get most of what you need, and absent some specific conundrum, I wouldn’t worry too much about it if you’re just trying to lose weight.

On the other hand, you gotta be sure that you get enough protein, otherwise you’re going to be hungry and you’re going to lose a lot more muscle than fat.  People differ considerably on how much protein they recommend, but unless you have pre-existing kidney problems, you’ll probably never consistently eat enough protein to do any harm.  I personally recommend aiming for 0.8 grams per pound of body weight (or less if you’re extremely overweight).  I’ll go into this in more detail in another post, but 0.8 grams per pound of body weight should get pretty close for most people, unless you’re doing a lot of weight-lifting or similar activities.

Finally, you need some fat.  It’s necessary, and it makes dieting easier.  I like to go a little higher (around 30-35% of daily calories), but most people do just fine with about 20% of daily calories coming from fat.  This article is going to get out of control if I go into details about different fats, and really, for the purposes of general weight loss, it’s not that important.  Just make sure you get some.

The point here is not to get bogged down with ensuring that your diet perfectly meets any protein or fat requirements.  If you’re in the ballpark, things will work out just fine, even if there’s room for improvement.  On the other hand, if you’re only getting 10 grams of protein per day, your diet needs some serious revamping.  Your friend on the Twinkie diet?  He’s pretty protein deficient, hungry, and losing all sorts of muscle that he’d rather not lose. 

Calories and Nutrients are widely discussed, but the real key to success for any diet is…

Satiety and Energy

If you went to a dinner party and there was no food, you would hopefully think twice about going to the next dinner party at that person’s house.  Likewise, if you went to their party and they made you feel like crap all night by making fun of you, I’d hope that you would avoid going back.

Diets are no differentIf a diet makes you continuously hungry or makes you feel constantly tired and crappy, you’re not going to stick with itNor should you.  It’s your body’s way of telling you that the diet isn’t really clicking with your body’s needs. 

One day, I’ll go through diets one-by-one and tell you how they make you feel.  Wait…actually, no I won’t.  Neither will the people trying to sell you their diets.  Here’s the easy solution:

If you get enough protein and fat (discussed above), and you’re not too far below your caloric maintenance level (also discussed above), then you’re probably going to be OK.  

Notice that I didn’t say that you’ll feel great, because you won’t necessarily always feel great.  No one said this is easy, but it can be manageable.  Some people react better to particular diets than others, although most people (both clinically and anecdotally) feel better on a low-carb or paleo type diet than on many other diets, mostly because low-carb and paleo diets tend to achieve what I noted above, particularly getting enough protein and fat.  This is not always true, but it generally is.

Which brings me to my last point…

How long can you take it?!?

You ABSOLUTELY MUST ANSWER THIS QUESTION FOR YOURSELF.  Again, some diets are just easier for most people, but there’s no universal solution.  Generally, if you’re getting a lot of protein and fat in your diet, as well as a fair amount of fiber along with any carbohydrates you’re eating, then you’re going to be less hungry and less miserable.  Likewise, the more whole foods you eat, the more sustainable a diet will generally be.

There is no diet that can erase the need for systems to help you stick to your plans, but some diets will definitely work better than others.  Later this week, I’ll publish a slightly more brief post with a sample diet that I find works most effectively for most people.

As a final parting note, this (along with my next post) will be the most unpopular post I ever write.  (I’m already sure of it, since it’s almost impossible to write specifically about what people should eat without getting 1,000 comments about why you have no idea what you’re talking about and how you haven’t read X, Y, or Z study…).  Have at it!