Diet Plans: A Beginner's Guide to Choosing the Right Diet Plan
I’m sure you’ve seen the ‘transformations’ on social media – someone with miraculous weight loss results thanks to some wonderful new diet or supplement that works like none before. This is often accompanied with claims about boosting metabolism, accelerating fat loss, detoxifying or manipulating the body’s hormones to burn fat faster than you can say slim fast.
But here’s the cold hard truth. Despite these pseudo-scientific claims, these diets or supplements – without exception – work by creating a calorie deficit. This is when you use more energy than you consume and tap into your body’s energy reserves to make up the deficit. And with a bit of luck, this deficit will come from stored body fat.
If they all work through creating a calorie deficit, they’re all the same, right? Well, not quite. Although creating a calorie deficit is essential to weight loss, we also need to ensure we take into consideration three important factors. Firstly, does the diet provide all the essential nutrients we need to be health? Secondly, is it promoting fat loss – not muscle loss – by ensuring adequate protein? And finally, is this a diet strategy you can adhere to until you get the results you want?
With a little bit of planning and dedicated calorie counting, it’s not too hard to design your own weight loss plan and fulfil these three factors. We’ve covered this in more detail in a previous blog post. This ties in with a popular diet approach called ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM) or flexible dieting. This type of diet requires a bit of patience, as you need some time to figure out how many calories your body needs and how much of each macronutrient (protein, fats and carbohydrates) you need per day.
This may seem quite daunting, but you can use apps like My Fitness Pal to help set your daily targets and conveniently log your food. By doing this it’s pretty easy to keep track of your daily calorie and macronutrient intake. One criticism of IIFYM is although it will ensure adequate protein, its focus on calories and ‘macros’ means that it doesn’t encourage eating foods rich in nutrients and fibre. However, proponents on the diet do promote an 80-10-10 approach; 80% of calories from whole nutrient dense foods, 10% of calories from semi-processed foods and 10% maximum from what we would consider junk.
POINTS COUNTING DIETS
In essence, IIFYM is a more individualised and accurate form of ‘points counting diets’ popularised by ‘Slimming World’ and ‘Weight Watchers’. For many, these are a more simplified version of IIFYM, which can be effective. However, they don’t focus on – or are adjusted to – an individual’s needs. Other criticisms of points counting diets is they contain lists of ‘free’ foods, that you can eat as much as you like. This often leads to confusion that somehow calories from these foods don’t count.
Points counting does allow some food freedom by allocating points to treats like chocolate, biscuits etc. But again, what one person can get away with in this regard is very different to another depending on their body size, how much exercise they do and how active they are.
If counting points or calories isn’t your thing, we have other options to choose from. Sugar free, gluten free, dairy free, Paleo (eating a diet that is supposed to be inline with our Palaeolithic ancestors), low carb, low fat and ketogenic diets are all options where by restricting or eliminating certain foods or food groups reduces our calorie intake and causes weight loss.
Many of these diets often claim the food they eliminate to be damaging to the body, often pointing to pseudo-scientific claims about ‘toxins’ of ‘hormones’ in order to sell the idea of these diets being the ‘key’ to weight loss and health. The only thing that tends to be ‘bad’ about foods that contain sugar, gluten, carbohydrate, fat or dairy in real terms is that they are often combined in processed foods that are easy to over consume. If we blindly applied the entire spectrum of negative claims about foods, and applied them all to our food choices, we’d end up never eating anything!
You also need to be careful about nutrient deficiencies, which can happen once you eliminate certain food groups. For example, if you go ‘low carb’ and reduce your fruit, whole grain and vegetable intake, then you’re likely to be missing out on sufficient dietary fibre and certain micronutrients.
You can also look to restrict calorie intake – without eliminating foods or counting calories – through intermittent fasting (IF), which can be done in a number of different ways. You can perform IF on a daily basis using a 16:8 approach, where you fast for 16 hours and have an 8 hour eating window. You can also use a 5:2 approach, where you eat normally for 5 days and have 2 days on low calories (typically less than 500 per day). Or you can employ alternate day fasting, fasting (or very low calories) one day and eating normally the next.
For some people IF can be very effective but for others the hunger can be a struggle, so they might want to think about how IF fits in with their lifestyle and exercise habits. The other criticism, much like IIFYM, is that there is the potential for it to not encourage healthy eating and consume junk in the eating windows, so if you use IF you still need to pay attention to eating under the same ‘healthy eating rule’ – enough protein and a variety of nutrient dense foods, fruits and vegetables.
One potential issue with IF or elimination diets, is for some people no matter how ‘clean’ they eat, it is still entirely possible to overeat calories even if we restrict foods or eating opportunities. Although it might be more difficult in these circumstances, it’s entirely possible so you still have to be fairly mindful of how much you’re eating.
LOOKING AT THE LONG TERM
It’s also important to note whatever strategy you use, if you’re looking to maintain your new look, you have a suitable strategy in place so you can sustain this in the long term. Some of these diets are built for a more long term approach and allow flexibility to adjust targets and intake accordingly. But for those which don’t offer a long term approach, then you need to think about how you are going to maintain your weight loss in the long term.
This might be sticking rigidly to an eating framework if you are ok with restricting certain foods (e.g. paleo or low carb), or it could be to switch to a calorie counting approach (flexible dieting) or if you still want some food freedom but hate counting calories than you can employ an intermittent fasting strategy reasonably for the long term. Ultimately, to lose weight you need to be in a calorie deficit, no matter how you achieve it. But it’s important to make weight loss as easy and healthy as possible – you do this be ensuring you eat enough protein and nutrient dense foods that will keep you feeling full and healthy along the way.