Get Past Diet Dogma and Pick What's Right For You
Every year, half of Americans who are overweight or obese attempt to lose weight. Training is a key part of this process when it comes to looking good, performing well, and being fit and healthy at your target weight, but research and coaching experience is clear: what we eat has more effect on our weight than what we do.
For many, though, the search for a diet that works is mind-boggling. There are so many options to choose from. Nutrition coaches seem fit into one of two camps: “Follow my diet because it will work,” and “It depends; just do whatever works for you.” The problem for the new dieter is that they have no idea whether the first group is right or not, and the second group seems to provide no answer at all. After all, if they knew what worked for them, or could just eat healthier, they likely wouldn’t be trying to change weight in the first place.
What a Diet Should Do
As complicated as it may seem, diet isn’t necessarily complicated if you don’t have a medical condition (in which case, I highly recommend seeing a dietician). At its most basic, a good diet will:
- Meet biological minimums required for health
- Correctly direct calorie balance
- Improve performance and subjective well-being
- Be sustainable for as long as necessary
In short, a good diet covers the basics, is scale/waistline friendly, feels good, and you can actually do it. These general rules are a lot more useful than some of the common catchphrases like “eat less, move more,” and “eat clean,” and when you look at them carefully, you come to realize that there is a wide range of possible effective diets.
When selecting the diet that works for you, then, you don’t just have to do “whatever works for you.” You can look at how diets are structured and pick from among the four major diet types to get to the diet that will work best for you.
The Four Diet Types
There are a million diets with a million names, and when faced with a vast array of choices, we are less likely to make a choice. Lucky for us, the overwhelming variety of the diet universe, like the brand variety in your local grocery store, is mostly an illusion. By understanding the greater categories and their pros and cons, it becomes much easier to pick one you can actually use.
Examples: Avatar Nutrition, Renaissance Periodization (book).
“If It Fits Your Macros,” also called "flexible dieting" and "macro tracking, is the practice of recording and counting your daily intake of carbohydrate, protein, fat, and by extension calories, with the intention of meeting a set numeric goal. The ratios of these macros are determined by the athlete’s goals, the total caloric intake needed to gain, lose, or maintain weight as desired, and likelihood of personal compliance.
Flexible dieting allows you to precisely control the rate of weight gain or loss, which is very useful for weight-class athletes, and they are easy to adjust for peri-workout nutrition or other meal timing strategies. By consistently recording food intake, dieters grow an awareness of what they eat, and can better identify what works and doesn’t work for performance.
In their most basic form, flexible diets are just that: flexible. If you take in too many carbs in one meal, you can likely still cut carbs in a later meal without breaking the diet.
These diets can greatly encourage personal autonomy. There are no clean foods or dirty foods, just intelligent choices. Sure, you can have those Pop Tarts, but if you only have 200 grams of carbs in your day’s allotment, that will mean you’ve blown half them in one barely palatable, non-satiating snack.
Cons (and some workarounds):
Although it becomes easier with experience, it still takes work, and even the more experienced IIFYMers put in extra time and effort to make it happen.
For greatest accuracy and consistency, it helps to stick to a diet of staple foods and prepare food in advance. This can be made relatively simple by making staple shopping a habit, or going to the same stable of restaurants. Technically, it’s possible to eat a wide variety of foods at whim, but most people find the staple approach to be a big key to success, and a staple diet can get boring.
The macro selection is a ‘running guess’ that is adjusted up and down based on the results of the diet at regular check-ins. A week off-plan not only sets the diet back directly, but it can make it difficult to effectively select the right adjustment for the following week. There’s no workaround for this, as consistency is the key to any diet, but if you find yourself taking off weeks once a month, you may need to switch to an approach that is easier to start.
The freedom of flexible dieting can be abused. It is theoretically possible to get your macros from donuts, lard, and protein powder, and eventually, the lack of micronutrients and healthy fats will break good diet rules #1 and #3. This is incredibly rare, but if you listen to the haters, you’d think this is how all IIFYM diets are done. This can be prevented by common sense, an intelligent staple food selection, or by adding one more target to try and meet: “fiber from real food.” This tends to self-correct a diet as it requires adding whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.
Also, a weird virus seems to infect flexible dieters that requires them to post daily shirtless photos and cheat-meal shots on Instagram. Scientists are hard at work looking for a cure.
Proxy Macro Plan
Examples: Precision Nutrition, Renaissance Periodization (templates), Zone, USDA MyPlate.
In a proxy macro plan, meals are planned using guideline measures to meet a particular goal. Precision Nutrition, for instance, breaks the diet into fist, palm, and finger-sized portions of vegetables, starches, lean meats, fats, etc. to hit the target goal.
Proxy plans are essentially relaxed macro-counting plans. A fist of starch, or two carb blocks on Zone, approximates a certain amount of carbohydrates (with some fluff for possible inherent protein and fat). As such, rate of weight gain or loss can still be somewhat controlled, especially if food selection is consistent.
The initial barrier to entry is lower than macro plans, as it is much easier to guesstimate two "palms" of steak than 40g of protein.
Food quality is usually addressed in the prescription. Vegetables, fruits, and high-fiber starches are usually encouraged at every meal or in regular portions and quality is usually described and encouraged in the instructions for the diet, reducing the possibility of overdoing the #donutsfitmymacros approach.
Cons (and some workarounds):
No macro-tracking or proxy plan will be perfectly accurate: they just have to be consistent over time and increase or decrease intake appropriately, relative to where you’re at. That being said, proxy macro guidelines are hard to follow at restaurants, where even seemingly ‘healthy’ restaurants habitually sneak in gobs of extra fat and carbohydrates (mostly sugar) in dressings, oils, and sauces. On a proxy plan, you can either restrict restaurant outings, knowing their inaccuracy, or use their nutrition facts with a conversion chart to stay close to plan.
Heuristic (Mental Shortcut) Plans
Examples: Paleo, Atkins, ketogenic, intermittent fasting, kosher/halal, vegan/vegetarian.
A heuristic plan establishes a rule or set of rules and mental shortcuts for dietary decision-making. “If your Paleolithic answers didn’t eat it, don’t eat it.” “If it has carbs, minimize or eliminate it.” “If it came from an animal, don’t eat it.” Even if the heuristic itself is on shaky scientific grounds, the diet may itself be incredibly effective for reaching your goals by indirectly addressing the four key diet concerns. For some people, these diets certainly get the job done.
Some people claim rules-based plans are too hard to follow, but for many, they’re quite easy. Although the diet may require preparation and advanced planning or a narrower restaurant selection, the rule solves the challenge of making decisions. It doesn’t fit the rule? Don’t eat it. Very few dieters will be effective in this ‘mindless’ phase forever, but it’s often an easy way to get started if paralysis by analysis is your problem.
Many of these diets have a near-rabid following and a support infrastructure to tap into. Looking for a paleo recipe? There’s a blog for that. Dealing with carb-restricted hunger? There’s a Facebook group.
For non-specific weight loss, virtually every decent rules-based diet that’s not an outright crock (and even some that are—I’m looking at you, “alkaline diet”) will almost certainly be better than the standard Western diet.
Cons (and some workarounds):
Removing whole food groups and broad swaths of options can leave you open to nutrient deficiencies if you’re not smart about it. The more exclusive the restriction here, the greater the risk, and the more attention will be required.
Dieters whose weight loss has stalled or who have high-end athletic goals will eventually have to learn the fundamentals of calorie control to progress. Your Paleolithic ancestor wasn’t a world-class powerlifter, so if that’s your goal, following their diet may require a few adjustments.
As is the case with anything seen as being highly restrictive, there is a natural tendency to make a religion out of the practice to mentally justify the sacrifice that goes into it. Not only does this make for militant and obnoxious dinner companions, but it can lead to terrible results when the diet itself becomes the end, and the original intent of the diet (health, appearance, or performance) is forgotten in the quest for righteous compliance.
Many of these diets can be made to work for a variety of goals, but you need to keep track of objective measures that matter to you to identify whether your version of that diet is working for you. If you assume the diet must be working because you’re following it to a T but the scale isn’t moving, gym performance is suffering, and you’re getting sick all the time, you need to take a step back and re-evaluate.
Examples: Mindful eating, slow eating, eat-this-not-that, see-food, “What I’ve always ate”
For many people with smaller goals or starting with a long way to go, huge initial improvements can be made by simple adjustments. Habit-based approaches are essentially informed bets: “I bet that if I change these few behaviors, I’ll get to my goal.” Within this sphere of diets are regional/cultural diets (Mediterranean, etc.) and people who practice no formal diet. Your friend who doesn’t seem to think about their diet at all but is lean, fit, healthy, and killing it on the WOD, is able to do so because their life habits have made a good diet their normal.
These diets help cut through to the real challenge of most behavior change: execution. Knowing the perfect diet is irrelevant if it involves 30 different rules, four different tracking systems, and you can’t follow it. When I was in high school, a friend of mine managed to lose over 20 pounds by dramatically reducing his daily soda intake and adding in a 2-mile walk every day. Was his new diet ideal? Of course not, but by mapping the critical moves and not getting caught up in the minutiae, he reached his goal.
Diet is more than just how much, what, and when. Oftentimes, we eat badly because of the why, how, and with whom. Habit-based diets can indirectly address the four diet rules by addressing the behaviors we build around food, teaching us awareness of ourselves in the process.
Cons (and some workarounds):
You have to monitor progress. Just like heuristic diets, there’s a tendency here to fall in love with the plan, and you may find yourself hitting your sodium numbers on MyFitnessPal like a champ, without losing any weight.
Habit-based approaches tend to make for great ‘starter’ diets, but are rarely enough to drive higher-level athletic goals.
Pick Your Poison
If your diet isn’t working for you, it’s probably not because you’re a hard gainer, or just can’t lose weight. Certain medications and medical conditions may indeed make weight loss difficult, but for 99.999% of dieters (approximately), the issue isn’t your physiology, but your psychology. Ask yourself:
- Have you prioritized the diet enough to comply with it?
- Have you chosen a diet that you can follow with the time, knowledge, and energy that you have?
- Have you chosen a diet that is right for your goals?
If what you’re doing isn’t working, you don’t have to give up. You are not doomed to fail. There are options, and there is almost certainly an option that is right for you.