“WHAT’S THE BEST DIET?”
An honest question in the search for a greater understanding of the body. However, the answer to the question tends to be less concrete.
In order to truly answer this question, we have to dig deeper and begin by assessing how diets work in order to build a solid foundation. Throughout the years there have been plenty of dieting techniques that have grown in popularity amongst the masses. These diets include the keto diet, carbohydrate (carb) cycling, low carb diets, high protein diets, and intermittent fasting just to name some of the more well-known dieting trends. However, most of these seem to gain their attraction via clickbait titles or a promise for an immediate fix (don’t worry, I’ve been guilty of falling for this in the past). This misuse of information can cause an immense amount of confusion for the layperson who just wants to shed a few pounds or prepare for an event. So, let’s take a step back and look into how dieting works, on a physiological level, in order to take a step forward in understanding which diet is the “best” and how it can lead to successful weight loss.
WEIGHT LOSS IN A NUTSHELL
Each day, your body is performing a multitude of tasks beneath your skin without you ever having to move a muscle (or at least MOST muscle). These tasks can range in priority from keeping your heart beating and your lungs breathing to more minor things like your hair or nails growing. Nonetheless, each process functions to keep the machine, which is you, running smoothly and efficiently. With all these tasks performed comes a need for energy, but how do we know how much?
Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is essentially the total amount of calories your body burns throughout a single day; this includes all the calories you burn from moving around as well as the calories needed to maintain normal function of your internal organs and bodily systems. TDEE consists of the sum of your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR – calories utilized performing internal functions such as keeping your heart beating), the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF – the amount of calories the body burns while digesting food eaten), and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT – the calories burned performing activities such as walking up and down stairs or tapping your foot) for the average person. Thus, in its simplest form, to be able to maintain, lose, or gain weight we would have to consume as many, less, or more calories than we expend each day. If your goal is to lose weight and as your body adapts to a set number of calories, you will then have to decrease those calories (energy consumption), increase energy expenditure (through exercise), or a mix of both. So, step one in achieving our weight loss goals starts with knowing how many calories we should consume. Below you will see two simple, yet effective, ways to calculate this number.
How to calculate calories:
– Track how much you eat daily (which forms a good habit for once that number is found) for about a week and then use the average of those numbers
– Or, you can utilize a simple equation like multiplying your bodyweight (lb) by 14 (e.g. 200 x 14 = 2800). From here you can see whether your weight increases, decreases, or stays the same to confirm these are your true maintenance calories.
MACRONUTRIENTS: WHAT DO THEY DO AND HOW MUCH DO WE NEED?
As you can see, calories in versus calories out is the rate limiting step in regard to actual tissue loss but weight loss can occur from a variety of things (e.g. water, adipose tissue, muscular tissue). Thus, in order to achieve weight loss of mostly adipose tissue (fat), we have to not only eat in a caloric deficit but within proper macronutrient ranges. Protein, fats, and carbohydrates are macronutrients which are required in large (“macro-“) amounts within the body. Each nutrient brings with it properties that help facilitate a multitude of functions. These include (amongst others) metabolic processes that allow for fat gain, fat loss, muscle gain, and muscle loss. Since the main goal of dieting amongst the general population is to decrease body fat while maintaining (or in some cases gaining) muscle tissue, ensuring the correct amount of each macronutrient is important.
Starting with protein, making sure we get an efficient amount allows our body to limit muscle protein breakdown when in a caloric deficit. Protein is considered to be the “most important” macronutrient by many and essentially, proteins are the “bricks” that are used to build and repair muscle tissue. There is even evidence showing that protein rich diets elicit a higher TEF, per meal, which has the potential to add to your caloric expenditure for the day (1, 2, 3). You’ll rarely have to adjust this macronutrient compared to the other two. Next in importance, for me, comes carbohydrates (carbs); they allow for rapid recovery, muscle glycogen repletion, and increased performance. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for high-intensity exercise and are oxidized faster than fat by way of the glycolytic system. In comparison, the ketogenic diet touts strong claims for how well your body can utilize fats for energy. While your body does have a way to utilize fat cells for energy (through fat oxidation) especially when in a state of ketosis, fatty tissue takes longer to break down for energy during exercise than stored carbs in muscle (i.e., glycogen). Fat is more calorically dense than carbs (9 kcal/g to 4 kcal/g) and produces more total energy when oxidized which tends to take longer in comparison. Fats have gone from being demonized by the media to providing vast amounts of flavor to foods (mmmm, peanut butter anyone?). Fundamentally, fats help regulate hormone function and provide cushion for our joints, amongst other things.
Once a starting caloric total is determined, you have to distribute them to each macronutrient. Generally, protein is the first nutrient you’ll start with. The general consensus amongst the fitness community is that you should consume somewhere around .8g/lb of BW (bodyweight) in protein per day (4, 5). However, I tend to recommend around 1g/lb of BW as an easy to remember number and protein requirements have been shown to vary under circumstances outside of the scope of this article. Moving on, your fats should be around 20-25% with some recommendations (6) stating you should have 30-35% of your daily caloric intake consisting of fats. I prefer ~.6g-.8/kg as a good start. While fats do help regulate hormone function, they may have a greater risk to be stored as adipose tissue in the body compared to carbs (6, 7). Also, as stated, they are not as efficient as carbohydrates in regard to increasing performance (8, 10, 11). There is even some evidence showing that if you rinse your mouth with a carbohydrate filled drink (e.g. gatorade) and spit it out, that can also help improve performance (9). Lastly, once you’ve found what your protein and fat totals should be, you take the remaining calories and divide it by four (4 kcal/g carbs) to find your carbohydrate total. Thus, if you have a 200 lb man who consumes 2800 calories daily, you’d figure out his protein should be around 200g/day (which also total 4 kcal/g) and fats should be around 78g (25% of total calories). 2800 – 800 – 702 = ; once you get this number, you divide by 4 one more time. For this particular example, your answer should be 324.5 or 325g of carbohydrates per day. Below, you’ll be able to see this example simplified, step by step, for you to use for your own macronutrient calculations.
How to calculate macronutrients (2800 calories will be used for this example):
– First, after your caloric total is found, you need to focus on how much protein you should consume. As stated, for a 200 lb person you would need around 200g/day of protein and there are 4 calories per gram in protein. So, approximately 800 calories/day come from protein.
– Next, you figure out where your fats should be. Continuing the example from above, if this individual allotted 25% of their calories to fat it would equal 700 calories (or around 78g) of the total 2800 calories at 9 calories/g.
– Finally, you will take the caloric total of protein (800) and fats (702) and add them together to get a number (1502) that you will use to subtract from your total calories. For example, we would take the initial caloric total of 2800 that we found above (in the section “weight loss in a nutshell”) and subtract 1502 from that to get 1298. We know that each gram of carbohydrates contain 4 calories so we would then divide 1298 by 4 which equals 324.5 or 325g of total carbohydrates
– Thus, your final calorie and macronutrient total is around 2800 calories consisting of 200g Protein, 325g Carbs, and 78g Fats.
So, what does this have to do with being successful with dieting? By ensuring we are getting the correct amount of each macronutrient, we are enhancing our ability to lose fat while keeping as much lean mass as possible. Also, if your weight was to stall, you have accurate data to help you figure out why and decide what to do from there in order to continue losing weight. For example, let’s say you have already determined your calories and macronutrients, from this article, and you consume those set calories and macros for a week or two. You begin to notice your weight stays the same and, as such, you know the calorie total you’ve been consuming must be your maintenance level. Generally, we will tend to keep protein stagnant to provide amino acids for anabolism (muscle growth) and adjust either fats or carbs lower so we can increase our caloric deficit.
WHAT DIET SHOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHAT SHOULD YOUR MINDSET BE LIKE?
I’m going to keep this short and sweet; the diet you should choose (for this article, we are referring to body composition goals only) should be the one that you can enjoy/sustain the longest. As a species we tend to seek for an immediate satisfaction and if we aren’t sensing we have gotten something on our own time, we assume what we are doing doesn’t work, we get distracted, and we look for the next big craze. The most successful people I have come across, in regard to losing unwanted fat, has been the ones that stayed the course and built a solid foundation before automatically changing the entire structure. I encourage posting about it on social media or talking with friends and family about your fitness journey. However, you are an individual with individual goals; take away the idea of following trends and instead think of the long game, not just the immediate future. At the end of the day, talking about the diet you’re on does not confirm that you’re going to be successful with that particular one. In my opinion, this same mindset can be mirrored amongst all facets of life and will be the foundation you build on in order to be truly successful at dieting.
HABIT FORMATION AND HOW TO OVERCOME CRAVINGS
Once your calories and macros are set and you have the correct mindset, it tends to be helpful to develop habits for success and have methods to overcome potential cravings. For the most part, dieting can be seen and felt as very enjoyable. The changes that your body composition will go through will be extremely rewarding. However, there can be times that you feel the need to stray off track or binge. Let me be the first to tell you that this is a natural reaction to being in a caloric deficit, we all have experienced these feelings and they are okay to feel. One way you can combat these desires is by habit formation and psychological “tricks”. Below, you’ll see what I mean, as well as other proven methods that can help you stay on track.
- Plan ahead; planning meals ahead of time, such as the night before, alleviates the stress of counting calories on the spot and ensures you’re more accurate with your macros.
- Develop the habit of weighing all foods that don’t come in single prepackaged containers. One of the biggest issues when someone tries to diet is underestimating the amount of calories they consume throughout the day (interestingly enough, we as humans, also tend to OVERestimate the amount of calories we burn each day). Weighing your food allows for more accuracy and more confidence when adjusting macronutrients.
- Develop a routine; most diets tend to fail because people will come up with the excuse that they “don’t have time” to put in the effort to diet. Pick a healthy and satiating few meals that you can easily create for a busy day. Personally, I eat the same breakfast, lunch, and pre workout meal every day then switch up my post workout meal/dinner to add variety.
- If you feel yourself getting irritable and having intense cravings, try utilizing something known as a “diet break”. If you’ve been dieting for a considerable amount of time and have trouble keeping your cravings at bay, you can go on a diet break. This is essentially a week or two of where you just don’t count calories at all. You’re suggested to make healthy food choices but the purpose of a diet break is to allow you a psychological break from dieting and counting calories for a set period of time.
- Making sure you hit every macronutrient can be intimidating at first. Focus on protein alone. If we follow the same example as above, for a 200 lb male this would require 200g/day of protein spread evenly between all of our meals. This can have a positive effect on caloric consumption through something known as the protein leverage theory. Simply, protein leverage theory states that the body is able to monitor protein consumption as a way to make sure we are consuming an optimal amount for normal physiological function. Since there is not a storage mechanism to put excess protein (for later use) like we have for carbs (glycogen) and fats (adipose tissue) it seems as if your body will keep its appetite increased until a certain level of protein is met. According to an article by Menno Henselmans (10), he even suggests that there is a possibility that your body may be able to monitor protein intake (including through receptors in your mouth that can detect amino acids) and compare it to a specific protein “requirement” already embedded within your genome which can, in-turn, upregulate/downregulate appetite.
- TURN UP THE VOLUME! A simple, yet effective, psychological trick of increasing the amount of fibrous foods you consume with each meal, allows you to see more food on your plate without more calories. These foods (i.e. variety fruits and vegetables) allow for a lot of volume in your meals without compromising your caloric goal and, as a triple threat, provide vital micronutrients. For example, 170g of lettuce contain around 6g of carbohydrates and can take up a huge salad bowl.
- If you fall off of your diet one day, don’t give up. Your diet isn’t ruined. Continue on the same macros the following day while you allow muscle glycogen and water stores to normalize.
CONCLUSION AND PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS TO LIFE
Okay, all this information but what to do with it? We now know how to find our caloric and macronutrient totals, as well as, the mindset we should have when choosing and beginning a diet. So, where to go from here? Well, first, you have to set realistic timelines. In our current time, humans live in a fast paced world and, as mentioned, when we see something we want we want it immediately. When it comes to dieting properly however, I think we could all agree that not only losing the weight but keeping it off is the ultimate goal. This can only be achieved when you have a solid foundation of understanding which will allow you to make the most informed decision possible about which diet to utilize or whether you’d like to work with a coach to learn more. By not jumping from one trend to the next, you can work on perfecting the diet that works best for you and allow for the most success in reaching your goal. Remember, successful dieting is a marathon and not a sprint.
Next, I’d recommend getting in the habit of always moving at any opportunity. For example, taking the stairs instead of the escalator or going for a walk with your dog instead of just letting them out the back (am I the only one guilty of this?). This can instill healthy habits and also increase your NEAT score. Be consistent; the biggest and possibly the most important factor that will decide if you are to succeed or not at your attempt at dieting will be your ability to stay consistent. Regardless of the type of diet you choose, if you can’t stay consistent, it won’t work for you.
Finally, for the last practical application, I want you to understand that all diets work. This is, of course, as long as you’re in a caloric deficit. Certain diets can benefit a specific group of individuals more than it can for others. You are an individual and that means doing whatever diet works best for YOU and not based on what’s “in” right now. You should make sure you’re in the right mindset and prepared to have a successful dieting phase. There will be points where you are overcome with craving impulses but that is where you can utilize a diet break or another method mentioned above. The point here is not to point you in the direction of a certain diet, but give you the information that will allow you to rationally think about which one will work best for you in your individual situation and which one will be the foundation to your success in achieving that body composition you’ve truly wanted. It’s time to move past our fear of food and utilize science to enhance our understanding of nutrition one day at a time.