One of the key aspects to good health and wellbeing is our diet. This isn’t news for most people, after all ‘you are what you eat’ as the old saying goes. I tend to avoid writing too much about diet for several reasons, the main one being avoiding the cliched Personal Trainer writing about diet. However it is not as a PT I write this; as a PT I used to discuss diet with my clients as a tool for their training goals but it really is so much more than that. Your diet can be an influencing factor in almost any area of life you care to name; sometimes hugely so.
One question I am often asked is ‘Do diets work?’ The smart alec PT answer I trotted out for many years was ‘No, there’s a wealth of research that suggests….etc etc etc’. The truth is that, if by ‘works’ you mean ‘Will I lose weight?’ then the simple honest answer is ‘yes’. Keto, Vegan, Paleo, Dukan…if you’re signifigantly overweight then not only will these diets help you to lose fat but you’ll probably feel better and improve a ton of other health markers too (reduced risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke etc.)
So, case closed then? Well not quite. All of these diets work in terms of losing weight, and if you’re signifigantly overweight then losing weight is going to positively impact your well-being. However, they all work for the same reason and that is quite simply that the body is in a calorie defecit: that is you are using more calories than you are taking in. This imbalance leads to weight loss, the number on the scale goes down and quite often you will feel and look better – so far so good.
Unfortunately, this is not a state that the body can maintain indefinitely – the body has many ways of protecting itself against potentially dangerous states and prolonged weight loss is one of those states. Certain drugs like Clenbuterol can help to circumnavigate some of these mechanisms, but these come with their own inherent risks and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that route and besides, the first defence mechanism is your own brain. Go too deep for too long into a calorie defecit more often than not your brain gives on you before your body: cravings and irritability bring you out of your defecit long before your thyroid crashes in most cases. So whilst it is true that diets help you lose weight, a strict, regimented and inflexible diet is unlikely to bring long term success – and yes there is a ton of research to support this!
Another problem with this single-minded calorie defecit approach is that I am using the phrase ‘losing weight’. I have not mentioned once the whole host of other factors diet can and does influence, nor have I specifically said ‘losing fat’. You could be on a certain diet and lose 10lbs – if only 3 come from fat with the other 7 coming from muscle and water then that’s not a great return. The knock-on effect of this is of course that you won’t be feeling great, your energy levels will likely be rock bottom and it won’t improve your appearance greatly. If however you lose 10lbs and 9 of it is fat with the other 1 being made of muscle and water, you’ll feel better, look better and have more energy. And whilst this may seem a contradiction to what I said at the start about any weight loss improving wellbeing, please note I was talking about severely overweight individuals for whom any weight loss is a reduction in stress and pressure on their bodies. It’s worth noting here though that it would obviously be preferable if obese people lost fat over water and muscle too.
Besides most people dieting aren’t severely obese, and whilst some may have more to lose than others, extreme weight loss is still for a minority, although sadly growing, number of cases. When most of us diet, we want to look better and feel better and the diet industry is worth billions based on this promise. However, most of us end up disappinted that our ‘diet didn’t work.’ There’s a degree of truth to this I guess; if you’ve been ‘on a diet’ six months ago and you’re fatter now than you were then, despite losing 20lbs in the interim, I guess it’s hard to make a case for the diet working.
So, how to avoid this. Well these days, I tend to treat diets like politicians: the more fantastic the promise, the more suspicious I am. The reasons most diets fail in the long term is because of a lack of sustainability. Yes, you may well lose 20lbs in a month if you go on some weird apple cider vinegar, 600 calorie a day diet. You will also lose a shed load of muscle mass and the will to live…and possibly some teeth and hair if you stick with it long enough. But hey, if all that matters to you is that number on the scale, or fitting into those size 10s then have at it.
A more sensible approach is a dose of maths, biology and common sense. The maths state that we need to be in a calorie defecit of around 500 a day to lose a pound a week. This is both sustainable and if that pound is primarily fat (we’ll come to that in a minute) lead to much better aesthetics, much quicker than if we’re shedding as much muscle and water. So keep it simple: if you need 2500 with your current bodyweight and activity levels then eat 2000. If you’re going to be more active, then eat more. Last Tuesday I saw 6 Personal Training clients, 2 Coaching clients, left the house at 6am and got back at 7pm. I trained heavy and was more or less (bar the coaching sessions) on my feet all day. Last Wednesday was a rest day from training and I saw 3 clients. I was finished work by 11am. Would it make sense to eat identically on those two days? The more active you are, the more you need to eat – even if you’re dieting. Especially if you’re dieting in fact because if that calorie defecit gets too big for too long then your body will let you know about it in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. You are also going to be putting your hard earned muscle mass at risk as the body will happily turn to that to burn fuel. Keep the defecit sustainable and you will more likely lose fat because your body will still be able to function properly.
All well and good you might say, but of what should these calories consist? Again, this is where a single-minded calorie defecit approach can trip you up: if you’re eating a Mars bar for dinner rather than a steak with some veg because the Mars is lower in calories then perhaps you should rethink your approach. The truth is, as Dr Jade Teta so beautifully puts it, is that both the quality and quantity of your calories matter. This is why, despite 11 years in the industry, my sole surviving ideal of when I started out is that I totally discourage calorie counting. If you are in a defecit then the scales will tell you and if you are doing it the right way your energy levels and mirror will tell you. Aside from anything else, the calories you take in are only half the equation and the calories you expend can vary quite widely on a day to day basis as evidenced by my Tuesday and Wednesday last week.
So I’ve managed to write an entire blog on dieting without once mentioning the food you should eat – quite an achievement I feel! And that’s because you already know the food you should eat – it’s the same food that’s kept human beings lean and healthy since the dawn of time: high protein, high fibre, moderate fat and carbs to suit needs. Don’t eat too much crap that comes out of jars and packets and enjoy a little of what you fancy now and then. The only caveat I’d put in is to keep an honest food diary: if you’re trying to get leaner and it’s not happening then you need to know why – it’s surprising what people miss even when they’re being very conscious of what they eat.
So let’s hear it for common sense and remember these three very simple rules:
1 – Calories matter
2 – Food quality matters
3 – Use your noggin (scales, mirror, energy levels) to monitor your progress.