Right or wrong, the fact is that January is when people tend to kick off their attempts to diet, get fit, etc. Many gripe about this, we can quibble about the relative merit’s of using what is fundamentally an arbitrary date as a starting point but that doesn’t change the reality: the holidays are over and January is when dieting starts (as well, Fat Loss Happens on Monday). For that reason, among others, I’m going to republish a version of something I originally published in 2015.
This is actually an excerpt from the Women’s Book which I’d note has now been split into two volumes (Volume I is one nutrition, fat loss, etc. and Volume 2 will be about training) of which the first is nearing completion (I promise). However, it’s undergone enormous rewriting since I originally published it, including the addition of a completely new section. So I’ve unpublished the original to republish the updated version in two parts over the next two weeks.
Chapter 15: Introduction to Dieting
Having addressed a number of fixes to the issues that women face when attempting to change body composition I want to move into the practical aspects of setting up what I consider to be an optimal diet or nutrition program for women. This will include a number of topics including daily calorie intake, the nutrient composition (both in terms of amounts and food choices) of the diet, around workout nutrition, meal frequency and patterning and others.
These recommendations certainly differ from some fairly official recommendations but most of those recommendations are either many years out of date with the research or were never meant to apply to dieters or athletes in the first place. They will also likely run counter to what many women believe is a proper way to eat/diet or have seen recommended to them. The reality is that much of what women choose to do or have recommended to them is either ineffective or outright damaging. It may cause menstrual cycle dysfunction or problems with bone health, iron or thyroid status. That’s on top of the amount of information that comes out of approaches geared for or towards men; as I’ve reiterated, women have issues that men will simply never face.
Before looking into those issues I want to examine some basic concepts first. Since it is the more common goal, it applies mostly to general eating or dieting per se although much of it also applies to other goals such as athletes seeking to gain muscle or improve athletic performance.
Different Needs for Different Goals
The information I will be presenting in the next chapter swill be fairly detailed and many of the chapters will present calculations that require body weight or body composition (both an estimate of body fat percentage and lean body mass) to perform. Not only will all readers of this book not want to go to that level of detail in their diet, many simply won’t need that level of detail in the first place. This interacts heavily with a woman’s overall goals which is why I discussed them in some detail in Chapter 12. As a general statement, as someone’s overall goals become more extreme, so does their need to pay attention to more and more details and vice versa.
A female seeking nothing more than general health and fitness simply needn’t worry about many details;. For those women, so long as a few general factors are in place, especially in terms of food and nutrient choices (discussed in Chapter XXX), they will be more than fine. Most of the results here will come from engaging in a proper exercise program in any case although proper nutrient intake is still important. Serious recreational exercisers looking to improve body composition (whether through increasing muscle mass or losing body fat) or performance in the gym will need to be proportionally more attentive to their diet in terms of the details in order to see the best results. This becomes more true as they move out of the beginner and even intermediate stages of body composition changes.
Competitive athletes will almost always need to be very detail oriented in terms of their overall diet and nutrient intake as they often have multiple (and often contradictory) factors to take into account. Adequate fuelling and recovery from training is it’s own issue and this is compounded if they need to alter body composition, especially when trying to lose fat. As I mentioned early in the book, female athletes often find themselves in the situation where the requirements to lose fat make adequately fuelling their training impossible; they don’t have the caloric intake to work with in the first place. To this add issues with avoiding menstrual cycle dysfunction (if the cycle is present) along with ensuring optimal overall health in the long-term and it can be quite the balancing act at times (raising calories to maintenance along with other strategies I will discuss go a long way towards solving this problem). Even when the goal is strength, muscle or performance gain, it’s a good idea for this population to pay attention to their overall diet, especially how many excess calories they are eating as too many will cause disproportionate fat gain.
Finishing with fat loss, the same dynamics hold with more extreme situations requiring far more attention to detail. The Category 1 female attempting to reach low/the lowest levels of body fat will need to be meticulous in their attention to the details of their overall diet to have a chance of reaching their target. This is especially true if there is a time frame involved: a physique competitor targeting a specific competition has to reach their goal by that time (a performance athlete is usually competing across a longer series of competitions). As dieters move into Category 2 or 3 the need for such extreme detail to attention becomes less and less as the changed that are needed to generate fat loss themselves tend to lessen. It’s fairly common for overall lifestyle patterns, both diet and activity, to be fairly poor in this situation and even fairly small changes can generate significant results. At the same time, many in this group may still want to follow some type of specific, but simpler, diet plan. Generally this would entail one of the endlessly available popular diet approaches and I want to discuss some of them briefly.
The Pros and Cons of Popular Diets
Although it’s common to criticize or dismiss all commercial approaches to dieting, the reality is that they have their pros and cons. On the one hand, diets with relatively simple rules about food intake often generate better adherence and work as well as more complicated approaches, especially in the early stages of behavior change. The relatively simple rules (typically in terms of what can or cannot be eaten) remove the need to make constant food choices which can ultimately cause a great degree of psychological stress.
This assumes that the dietary approach itself meets certain nutritional requirements. Many commonly made nutritional recommendations that are made, both in terms of overall diet structure and food choices can drastically impact on a woman’s overall health along with her menstrual cycle (if it’s present). Any dietary approach should at least meet the guidelines I’m going to present in the next chapters in at least a general sense and especially in terms of overall nutrient intake and food choices. Many diets that are often held up as healthy frequently are not; in the worst case they may be actively detrimental to a woman’s health. Recall for example that vegetarian dietary patterns may be associated with menstrual cycle dysfunction in their own right under certain conditions.
Perhaps a bigger issue is that many dietary approaches that exist are nothing more than short-term diets that do little more than cycle water weight off the body with no attention to actually changing body composition or making any sort of long-term behavior change that can possibly be maintained in the long-term. These are the classic “fad” diets and there are endless versions of them. Juice fasts, all soup diets, only eating a single food every day, a popular fad diet decades ago was based around grapefruit and coffee. There are no shortages of this and any minor finding in obesity research that might be beneficial will rapidly be turned into a quick-fix diet of one sort or another.
Endless versions of these can be found in the types of magazines found at the grocery store checkout counter. Claims that eating some specific food will ramp up thyroid hormone metabolism and melt the fat off, anyone reading this book has seen it before. They all make absurd promises that never work and have no chance of generating results or being sustainable in the long-term. The same types of media frequently provide equally poor advice about exercise. The types of dietary or health advice given by celebrity trainers and television shows is usually just as awful. With no exception I’ve ever found, this advice should be ignored on every level. It hasn’t ever worked, it can’t work, it won’t work.
Which isn’t to say that all commercial or popular diet and exercise advice is inherently terrible. Just most of it. Other approaches and sources of information do exist that, at least sometimes, provides a decent approach to weight and fat loss and I want to look at a few of them. Once again I’d primarily suggest that any reader considering one of the following approaches compare it at least generally to my recommendations in the next chapters; so long as it is close to my recommendations, it should be sufficient.
For decades now, there have been speciality fitness magazines that provide information on both exercise and diet/fat loss. With the growth of the Internet there are even more that exist only digitally. Certainly some of the information presented in this type of media can be quite good but an equal amount of it is often terrible. Just as much fad information can be found in those sources and many fitness magazines double as outlets to sell endless dietary supplements, most of which are garbage (I discuss Supplements in a later chapter). I can’t comment specifically on any individual magazine or source and once again will recommend readers compare any advice or program being given against the information in this book. So long as it is close to my recommendations, it will be sufficient.
Commercial Diet Programs
For decades, there have been numerous commercial diet programs available with their quality varying enormously. Many of these are terrible. Quick weight loss clinics are often some of the worst. They typically use extremely low calorie diets (which is not a problem in and of itself) which are based around nothing but liquid shakes (which is a problem). Many of these actually advocate against exercise and this seems to be geared towards generating faster total weight loss (recall that exercise may reduce weight loss while increasing fat loss). Some use other approaches, either injections of ineffective drugs (i.e. the HCG diet) or require the purchase of expensive supplements. Other commercial diet programs are similar if not as extreme. One popular program in the US (which I will not name) uses a low-calorie diet that is solely built around their own pre-packaged (and often expensive) foods. While this may be excellent for control and convenience, it does nothing to retrain long-term eating habits. As soon as the person abandons the program or doesn’t want to pay for the foods, they have no way to sustain the dietary changes.
In contrast, there are programs that are quite good and avoid many of the pitfalls listed above. In the US, Weight Watchers is one of the better programs in my opinion. They seem to keep up with changing research and improve their overall program with new developments. They provide generally good dietary advice including at least semi-individualized dietary approaches as well. As importantly, weekly meetings provide a community for social support, accountability with weekly weigh ins (though recall the issues women run into with their menstrual cycle) along with other factors that have been found to improve both short- and long-term results (the community aspect of the program is also likely to tie into many women’s psychological needs as well). Perhaps most importantly, while they offer prepackaged foods for convenience, the system works with whole foods as well and this gives the potential for dieters to make long-term changes to their actual dietary intake.
In the most general sense, any commercial weight loss program should be based around primarily whole foods rather than meal replacements or pre-packaged foods. Certainly some types of meal-replacement products can be beneficial if used in moderation (this is discussed in chapter XXX) but they must be combined with a change in long-term eating habits. If they are used, it should be in addition to rather than in place of other dietary changes. There should be an exercise component included and approaches to long-term behavior change must be part and parcel of the program. Any commercial program lacking those components should be avoided.
Popular Diet Books
Finally there are popular diet books. Thousands have been published over the decades and while some of them are good, the grand majority of them are patently absurd (perhaps my favorite was one arguing that cold drinks were the cause of obesity). Historically, most have ignored any distinction between body weight and body fat (or even addressed body composition at all) although this is changing in recent years. In many cases, this is probably deliberate as rapid water weight losses in the first few days of many types of diets (especially carbohydrate restricted diets) make it look as if the diet has some (often claimed) metabolic advantage or is working more effectively than it is.
These types of books, even the good ones, are generally written in the same fashion and some of the messages they give can lead dieters down a dangerous path. They all start out by saying that calories don’t matter, that calorie restricted diets don’t work in the long term before proceeding to demonize some single nutrient as the cause of obesity (in rarer cases the lack of a certain nutrient may be blamed). This could be dietary fat, sugar or carbohydrates in general. In recent years, High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has been blamed as the cause of obesity. The book will argue that by removing the nutrient, weight/fat loss will occur easily without hunger or calorie restriction. A hundred of more pages will sell this, interspersed with endless success stories (failure are never mentioned). Food lists and recipes round out the book.
What books like this cleverly leave out is that the nutrient they are demonizing invariably contributes a large number of calories to the body in the first place. And that by removing that food, calorie intake is always decreased. Dietary fat is very calorie dense (9 calories per gram) and when people reduce their fat intake, they generally eat less calories. Sugar is similar, providing a large number of calories without being terribly filling. Since carbohydrates typically make up 60% of the day’s calories, any diet that removes them makes it nearly impossible not to eat less. Other dietary approaches such as clean eating or paleo type dietary patterns revolve around removing highly processed foods; since those foods invariably contain a lot of calories, people end up eating less. A current trend with these types of diets is to increase protein or fiber in general and this is an approach I wholeheartedly endorse.
What all of these diets basically do is convince the reader that restricting calories doesn’t work/isn’t necessary before tricking them into restricting their calories automatically. Make no mistake, it’s an effective trick and getting people to eat less without feeling as if they are dieting is in no way a bad thing. As noted above, it tends to remove a lot of the inherent psychological stress inherent to dieting and that’s hard to argue against. As well, by providing what are called “bright line boundaries” (a term from addiction research) where certain foods simply aren’t allowed, it removes the need for dieters to have to make a choice in the first place. If a specific food is off-limits completely, adherence may be better.
But while the above may be enormously beneficial in the short-term, there are a number of long-term problems that eventually occur. While many of these types of diets promote themselves as long-term approaches (although few address the issue of long-term maintenance), invariably people start to crave the foods that have been eliminated outright. People start to miss the foods that are off-limits and, as frequently as not, making a food off limits makes people want it that more. And this may make long-term adherence more difficult as the desire to eat those foods continues to increase. Women have the added potential issue of cravings during the luteal phase which may cause problems if the craved foods are off-limits on the current diet. I will discuss this more below and provide specific strategies in Chapter XXX (Flexible Eating Strategies).
But there is an even bigger problem that crops up. While diets of these sort almost invariably cause people to eat less initially, this doesn’t last forever for a number of reasons. The first reason has to do with the metabolic adaptations to dieting I discussed in such detail in Chapter 8. As weight and fat is lost, energy expenditure starts to decrease as hunger and appetite start to increase. People will often start eating more of the allowed foods without necessarily realizing it.
Compounding this is the fact that, any time a given diet becomes popular, companies will rush concentrated, high-calorie versions of the diet approved foods to market. In the 80’s, when low-fat diets were the craze, there were endless low- or non-fat foods that had just as many calories as the foods people had been eating before (low-fat peanut butter somehow had slightly more calories than the full-fat version). Currently there are low-carbohydrate approved diet bars and snacks (at one point there were low-carb jelly beans and cookies) that have just as many calories, and often more fat, than normal versions of the food. The same is true of paleo foods and highly processed paleo food bars are available which provide a tremendous number of calories in a small package. As often as not, these products are actually nutritionally inferior to other foods that don’t fit the structure of the diet in the first place. They may be as high if not higher in calories while having poorer macronutrient ratios.
Having been told that calories don’t count, people fall into the trap of thinking that these foods can be eaten without limit. Quite in fact, people frequently justify eating more of the diet approved foods. In the 80’s, for example, it was found that dieters allowed themselves to eat more of a yogurt that they thought was non-fat compared to the higher-fat version. Low-carb dieters now will use enormous amounts of fat on their foods and paleo dieters eat handful after handful of high-calorie nuts. And these three factors end up derailing the diet and the results it was generating. Calorie intake is increasing as energy expenditure is decreasing and eventually the person comes back into energy balance and hits a plateau.
And this is where the single largest problem with these types of dietary approaches shows up. Having been sold from the outset that calories don’t matter or don’t have to be controlled or restricted so long as the diet’s simple rules are followed, dieters refuse to accept that their calorie intake is now too high. Or that it will have to be reduced or even monitored. You can go to any online diet support forum and find people casting about for every possible reason that they are no longer losing weight while refusing to accept the only one that matters: their calories are no longer low enough to generate fat loss and a plateau occurs.
Which is a long way of saying that these types of popular diets are very much a mixed bag. They absolutely have benefits and can be extremely beneficial in the early stages of weight loss, especially for Category 2 and 3 dieters. But their limitations have to be accepted from the outset. As well, it has to be accepted that, at some point, usually when a major plateau occurs, that more attention to the overall diet will have to occur if further progress is to be made. That generally means moving into a more well-tracked and calculated type of diet which will be the topic of the next several chapters. Before examining that, I want to look generally at perhaps one of the most damaging approaches that dieters take.