I am credited with having made the following statement on an internet newsgroup “Diet books tell you that you don’t have to reduce calories to lose weight, and then trick you into doing it anyway.” In this article, I want to look at some basic concepts related to dieting, the myriad weight-loss diets that exist, etc.
Arguably the simplest diet of all is a rather basic ‘just eat less’ approach to weight loss (or ‘just eat more’ approach to weight gain). By making a conscious effort to eat less food over the course of the day, folks reduce calories and lose weight. There’s no magic, it’s simply food proportioning. Such an approach to dieting isn’t fundamentally flawed and, when it works, it works fine.
At the next level of ‘complexity’ are what we might term good food/bad food types of diets. Most people seem to carry around the idea that some foods are good for them while others are bad (in terms of bodyweight or health or what have you) and diets in this category feed into that psychology. Generally, a good food/bad food dichotomy is emphasized over the actual quantity of food being consumed (many such diets will loudly exclaim that calories don’t matter, only the source of those calories).
Even the standard low-fat prescription is based around the idea that fat is ‘bad’, being the cause of obesity, and that by eating less of it, you’ll lose weight and be healthier. It’s been estimated, for example that for every 1% reduction in fat intake, a person will lose 1.6 g/day. So a 10% fat reduction would result in a 16 g/day loss, about 2.5 kg (~5 lbs) over a 2 month span. Yippee. Of course, going into that estimation is the huge assumption that the dieter won’t compensate by eating more of the non-proscribed foods.
A more frequently occuring idea revolves around carbohydrates. Diets such as SugarBusters and others paint refined sugar as the enemy, while more extreme diets such as The Atkins Diet, Protein Power and the South Beach Diet paint all carbohydrates (vegetables excluded) as the enemy. Since carbohydrates typically make up a rather large (50% or more) of total daily energy intake, restricting or removing them has the potential to cause rather large scale caloric reduction.
Typically such diets fixate on one individual aspect of humans physiology in terms of weight gain and use that to defend the argument of why a given food is ‘bad’. Anti-fat books will focus on the fact that dietary fat is stored as fat far more easily than other nutrients while anti-carb books usually focus on insulin levels.
What few of these books admit is that the ‘bad’ foods in question typically contain a lot of calories and are foods that people like to eat a lot of. Meaning that it’s easy to consume too many calories when you eat those foods. By decreasing intake of such foods, dieters generally end up eating less calories and losing weight. There’s no magic, it’s simply disguised caloric restriction.
Other diet books take the slightly opposite approach, advocating that you eat certain foods (usually vegetables or high-bulk, high-fiber starches) in large amounts. I remember a study done years ago where subjects were required to eat 2 lbs of potatoes per day and they could eat anything else as long as they ate the potatoes. Of course, since the potatotes filled them up, they didn’t eat much else so they ended up eating fewer calories and losing weight. Such diets require that you eat these foods first in a meal and then you can eat ‘anything you want’.
Fiber is frequently touted as a miracle weight loss food and diets forcing you to eat metric assloads of high-fiber, high-bulk (and hence filling) vegetables work a similar way: by forcing you to fill up on low-calorie foods, you eat less of the higher calorie foods and lose weight. One recent diet book tricks people into eating less (all this after telling them for pages that calorie counting doesn’t work) by switching out starches with fiber; automatically reducing their calories. Another best-selling diet book (no names) goes on for pages about how calories don’t count, and then puts everyone on a low-calorie diet with a complicated ‘block’ based system.
Then there are ‘simple’ diets that aren’t so simple. They typically revolve around complicated sets of rules (such as food combining) while still telling the dieter to ‘eat all they want’. Again this is just a trick, when you look at the rules you find that they actually are quite limiting. For example, diets that only let you eat fat with protein (a common food combining approach) means that you can only eat fat (with all of its calories) at roughly half of your meals. Compared to a diet where you can eat fat at all of your meals, this will generally cause you to eat less. As well, since most people don’t have a taste for pure fat per se, but rather the combination of sugar and fat (donuts anyone?), preventing people from combining carbs and fats makes them unable to eat stuff they’d otherwise over-consume.
Two different diets requires that you fast (or eat small amounts of lean protein and veggies) most of the day with one big ‘reward’ meal at the end of the day. But even that reward meal has a bunch of rules: start with veggies, then lean proteins, then starches (one diet limits the ‘reward’ meal to an hour as well). Over the course of 24 hours, you can’t help but eat less with such a diet: you’re eating only tiny amounts (or nothing at all) and you’re ‘eat all you want meal’ has a set of rules that prevents you from eating that much.
Now, many of these diets will occasionally make admissions that calorie counting may be necessary (usually when the diet stops working) but most focus predominantly on one food or another, based on the (sometimes valid) assumption that eating less of that food will make people eat less without thinking too much about it.
You might think that I have a problem with such simplistic dietary prescriptions but you’d be wrong. As I discuss in How Detail Oriented Do You Need to Be many people respond best to diets that make simple, rather non-intrusive demands on their food intake. If switching out one food for another, or cutting back/down/out on a certain food makes them eat less without thinking about it all the better. Obviously, up to a point, such diets work.
I’ve used this approach commonly with my personal training clients (non-athletic/bodybuilder types). I would look at their diet from a qualitative standpoint and make simple, non-obnoxious suggestions. One client, for example, was drinking three or four regular sodas per day. I suggested he switch to diet soda, automatically cutting many hundreds of calories out of his diet; he lost weight without doing anything else, having to count his food, or feeling deprived.
Other approaches, such as switching from full fat to lower fat milk, or reducing refined starch intakes can frequently work just as well. Now that protein has been shown to be the most filling of the nutrients, spontaneously causing people to eat less, I’m expecting a slew of new diet books based around that concept.
Now, I want to make it clear that I do have a big problem with diet books that tell people that calories don’t count becuase that’s obviously and quite simply not the case. Calories always count. It’s simply that, under certain dietary circumstances, people eat less (or more) calories and that affects weight gain. Simply put, if a given food makes you overeat (this goes for ‘healthy’ foods too), it’ll make you gain weight. If you eat less of that food, odds are you’ll lose weight. Tricky diet book authors hide what is, ultimately, simple caloric restriction in complicated rules and regulations. Eat this, don’t eat that, eat this with that but not with the other, don’t eat after 6pm, that kind of thing.
Admittedly, diets that trick people into eating less without making them aware of it can be actually very beneficial, which is why I’m not against them entirely. Psychologically, knowing that you have to eat less food tends to cause anxiety, hunger and problems with adherence. That is, frequently simply being aware that you’re eating less will make you hungry as a consequence. This is truly a case where ignorance is bliss. As long as such a simple diet ensured adequate protein intake and essential fatty acids, I’d have no real problem with it. Many simple diets do not.
Unfortunately, such approaches don’t always work, or they only work temporarily. There are many reasons for failures at this level (the topic of why diets fail is discussed in greater detail in an upcoming chapter). The usual culprits in my experience have to do with the craftiness of the human body and the human mind. Over time, the body will almost always compensate to reductions in caloric intake, whether the compensation is conscious or not.
In one classic study, for example, subjects were given a high-fat yogurt and either told it was low-fat or normal fat. The folks who thought it was low-fat ate more of it. This was, of course, during the time when people had heard the message that ‘fat was bad’ and nothing else mattered. Which is why the slew of ‘non-fat’ foods that came to market didn’t do what was expected: people simply compensated by eating more of them. The same appears to hold for all of the no-calorie sweeteners.
Psychologically, people figure that since they are eating no-calorie foods, they can eat more of the higher calorie stuff and they end up compensating. Folks on simple ‘eat less of X’ diets frequently end up eating more of the other foods allowed on the diet. Studies where fat is reduced with no attention paid to caloric intake generally find an initial weight loss followed by a gain when people invariably start eating more total calories from other sources. You’d expect the same on other diets and recent studies of low-carbohydrate dieting are finding similar results: initial weight loss followed by either a plateau or weight gain as people start eating more.
This is especially true when a given diet book entreats dieters to ‘eat all they wish’ as long as they avoid the forbidden foods. Even if the book only means ‘eat until you’re full and stop’, crafty humans will find a way to turn ‘eat as much as you wish’ into ‘eat as much as I can’; they’ll still end up eating too many calories and weight loss will stop. Alternately, they may not realize that, as weight is lost and caloric requirements go down, food intake has to decrease as well. The diet that was once calorically restricted is now a maintenance calorie diet.
There’s a potentially bigger problem that I see quite a bit. When these books have programmed such diet failures with a ‘calories don’t count’ message, it becomes impossible to make folks realize that the source of the stall is a simple calorie issue. They’ll find every reason under the sun why the weight isn’t coming off, anything to avoid facing up to the fact that they are going to have to start counting calories. They are not different.
There are other problems with such diets (and dieting in general) that I don’t have space to cover here. But, in summary, I’m all in favor of such simple diet changes as long as they are working. For many people they work, at least for some time period. And, as long as they are working, I have no real problem with them. But when such approaches stop working, it’s time to move into real dieting.
As appealing as simple diets are, there are times when they simply won’t suffice. It may be a situation where a simple diet has stopped producing results. Alternately, many people prefer (on a psychological level) more complex and/or controlled diets. Finally, there is that small percentage that has to acheive maximal results in a certain time period, for whom simple diets simply won’t do. Again, this is discussed in more detail in the article How Detail Oriented Do You Need to Be.
So what do I mean by ‘real dieting’? Real dieting consists of counting calories, weighing and measuring foods, and paying attention to macronutrient intakes. It’s more of a hassle (causing more anxiety) than simple dieting but, if you’re in one of the situations described above, you don’t have a choice. Actually, you do have a choice which is to stop getting results: stay fat or quit gaining muscle. I’ll assume that that’s no-choice meaning that you will have to move to real dieting.
I’ll be the first to admit that real dieting isn’t nearly as much fun as the simpler version. However, it does offer some benefits. One of these is control; by knowing how much and what you’re eating, you can develop some expectations as to what types of weight changes to expect. This allows for better manipulation of the different dieting variables. By comparing what you’d expect to what you’re actually getting, you can make the appropriate changes.
A second benefit of real dieting is that it makes you aware of your actual food intake. As I’ve mentioned other articles on the site, most people have a tremendous tendency to mis-estimate their true caloric intake. Dieters typically underestimate and folks trying to gain weight do the opposite.
By actually measuring it (meaning measuring food portions and using a food counter book), you develop food awareness. Over time, that type of awareness becomes more or less automatic, you can get a generally good idea of how many calories a given meal might have or how much you’re eating in a day’s span. Until you’ve spent some time directly measuring your food, odds are you’re going to mis-estimate.
A third, and perhaps the most important benefit has to do with troubleshooting. Now, there are a lot of factors can cause diets to fail, I’ll discuss some of them in detail in an upcoming chapter. At the very least, by tracking your actual intake, you can avoid some of the simpler fuckups.
For example, with a simple diet, there’s usually no guarantee that you’re eating sufficient amounts of protein, or getting your essential fatty acids every day. By tracking and being aware of your actual intakes of such things you can avoid those problems. Tracking things won’t solve all of the problems related to dieting, but you can avoid the really egregious ones
A very real problem with simple diets has to do with caloric intake. Sometimes, the reason a dieter isn’t losing weight is because they are simply eating too much. In more rare cases, eating too little (especially for extremely prolonged periods of time) can be the problem. But unless you know what you’re currently eating with some reasonable amount of accuracy, you can’t know if that amount should be adjusted upwards or downwards.
I guess the primary benefit of real dieting real dieting over more simple approaches can be summed up in the word ‘control’. You can control your nutrient intakes to ensure that no major problems occur, and you have control over what to do when other problems show up. By knowing your intake, you can make predictions as to what types of results should be occurring. If they don’t, you’ll be in a better place to make an informed decision over what to change.
- All Diets Work: The Importance of Calories
- Diet Percentages: Part 1
- Rigid and Flexible Dieting
- Energy Density
- Calories Not Matching Macros – Q&A