Having revealed the Final Secrets of the Illuminatty last week, I want to switch gears and present an excerpt from a new book that I may or may not be in the process of writing. Yes, the reference list is tweaked numerically and this hasn’t been edited (it’s barely spell checked). Deal with it.
What’s the Best Diet?
One of the most common questions I see/get is “What is the best diet?” as if there could be any single dietary approach that can possibly be appropriate for all people, all situations, all contexts and all environments. It would be like asking “What’s the best car?” without the understanding that the answer depends on the situation. The best car for a family with kids is not the same best car for a male trying to impress women.
And the same is true of dieting. Best can only be defined relative to the specific context. What is best for an obese beginner is not the same best for a lean bodybuilder or athlete. And there are many other factors that go into what broad dietary approach might be best in a given context. I’ll take a look at some of the general approaches to dieting in the next chapter but for now I just want to address some of the general factors that go into picking the best diet.
But before I do that, let me sort of sum up the last five sections of this book and look at the specific goals of dieting.
The Goals of Dieting
Hopefully by this point in the book you may have realized that, among other reasons for dieting failures, a major one has to do with how people conceptualize the entire dieting process, often taking a mindset or approach that is almost destined to fail. I discussed many of these way back in Chapter 1 and will talk about more when I talk about adherence but, for now, let me just look at what the goals of a proper diet really should be, even if it’s not what most tend to think.
In a general sense a diet should cause weight loss but this is more accurately conceptualized as improving body composition. In the grand majority of cases, this means maximizing fat loss and either maintaining, or in some rare cases, increasing LBM. Yes, there is the case of losing inessential LBM for the very obese which is considered acceptable and such but, outside of that, the goal of a proper diet should not be simply weight loss but rather fat loss.
Of course a diet should not sacrifice health and this means ensuring sufficient or at least adequate amounts of all of the essential nutrients. In the context of what I discussed in previous chapters, this means sufficient amounts of dietary protein, essential fatty acids, and vitamins/minerals (usually obtained from fruits and/or vegetables). Everything else is, strictly speaking, optional in the sense of being nutritionally required. But any diet that fails to meet at least those three requirements (protein, EFA’s, micronutrients), is not a good diet.
In an ideal world, a good diet would blunt or at least help to control hunger. This is often easier said that done, especially in the latter stages of a diet but any decent fat loss diet should at least attempt to deal with the issue of hunger; and it’s clear that certain dietary patterns are better than others in this regard.
Similarly, a diet should at least match the dieter’s food preferences to one degree or another; obviously there has to be some restriction or it’s not a diet but expecting people to endlessly eat foods they don’t like is generally a recipe for failure. Related to this would be dealing with the inevitable cravings (or lapses) that so often occur on any diet. This topic will get an enormous section of this book when I talk about adherence but it is important for both short-term and long-term success.
For active individuals there is an additional concern with maintaining exercise performance during a diet. This is even more important for athletes whether they are performance or physique based. Being able to maintain high-quality training while leaning out is important for a number of reasons and diets can vary in how well or poorly they do this; the type of exercise being done also impacts on this. Finding a balance between effectively leaning out and maintaining exercise performance is not always easy and lean active dieters tend to have the most involved issues when it comes to optimizing a diet.
Finally, an ideal fat loss diet would provide at least some likelihood in allowing the dieter to move to maintenance and not regain all the lost weight and fat. Certainly this doesn’t come just down to the diet itself (there are a lot of reasons dieters fail their diets) but it is important. The fat loss diet itself doesn’t have to necessarily be identical to the maintenance approach but being able to move from active dieting into maintenance without enormous changes tends to be beneficial; the food habits established during the diet itself can act as a “base” for the maintenance approach.
I’ll wrap this up by saying that, even with the above discussion, the only truly fundamental requirements of a fat loss diet to me is that:
- It creates an imbalance between energy intake and output. If there is no energy deficit, no fat will be lost.
- It provides the essential nutrients: protein, essential fats and the micronutrients. I even based an entire diet around just those foods (my Rapid Fat Loss Handbook) to provide optimal nutrition on minimal calories for maximum fat loss.
Honestly, I’d almost simplify #2 to “Get sufficient protein”. Because if there is a recurring theme that ran through the previous section of this book, it’s that higher protein diets work better than lower protein diets; the rest of it is less clear and no diet shows absolute superiority. Even the much touted low-carbohydrate diets may be working primarily through ensuring sufficient dietary protein more than through the carbohydrate restriction per se (2) and, in addition to the other benefits I talked about, protein blunts hunger and increases energy expenditure (3), improve blood glucose regulation (4), spares LBM losses especially when combined with resistance training (5) and seems to help with long-term weight maintenance (6). Even when weight is regained, more of it is LBM which is also a benefit.
That said, getting sufficient essential fats and micronutrients is still important from the standpoint of optimal health and I mentioned that as one of the key goals of dieting: it can’t sacrifice health. But takes a truly dumb diet setup to not include vegetables and/or fruits. Many diets emphasize the EFA’s these days and that’s also a good thing.
But honestly, outside of the increased protein issue, there doesn’t seem to be any inherent or absolute benefit to diets with differing proportions of carbohydrates or fat in terms of successful weight loss or maintenance for most outside of the ability to stick to them in the long-term. In the short-term certainly you see differences but they disappear in the long-term (7). I should also mention that the combination of diet and exercise tends to be superior to diet alone (8). Exercise is still not required, plenty of people have lost weight/fat without it but it certainly can help in a variety of ways that I’ll talk about later.
That’s actually really it. Everything else, the other topics I’ll discuss in later chapters are technically optional. Meal frequency, meal patterning, all of the stuff that people get hung up on aren’t required even though they are frequently helpful, beneficial or more or less optimal. But that’s not the same as being required.
So What’s the The Best Diet?
In the next chapter, I’m going to look broadly at the different general types of dieting (mostly in terms of variations in carbohydrate and fat intake) since each type can have it’s pros and cons based on the specific situation and context. Certainly research on the topic hasn’t found much of a difference between different diets in terms of long-term weight loss but that doesn’t mean that one isn’t potentially better in a given situation although, to a great degree, the best diet is the one that someone will stick to. But beyond that, here are some factors to consider in picking a specific dietary approach.
I mentioned the fullness/hunger issue above and it’s clear that different diets control hunger to a better or lesser degree. Protein is the key factor in blunting hunger but there appears to be difference between lean and obese individuals in terms of what hormones are having the bigger impact; since different nutrients affect the hunger hormones differently, by extension this means that the obese may do better on different diets than the lean.
Given the typical leptin and insulin resistance in the obese, this isn’t surprising. But there is often a big individual difference in all of this. I have seen people who had hunger blunted on high-carb diets but easily overate on lowered carbohydrate diets and vice versa. It’s not always related to bodyfat levels although that tends to be a big player due to the next factor: insulin sensitivity.
I have mentioned insulin sensitivity earlier in this book and given that insulin plays a lot of roles in the body and that the body’s relative sensitivity to its functions impact on all of these aspects. Folks with low insulin sensitivity often over release insulin as well and it may be ideal to match the diet to this (9). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine this outside of the lab in the strictest sense.
Certainly insulin resistance/insulin oversecretion is pretty strongly related to obesity but this isn’t universal; lean individuals can be insulin resistant (genetically) and obese individuals can have normal insulin sensitivity. So there are no guarantees. As some general guidelines I suggest the following:
- If you find yourself getting drowsy or have major energy swings with high-carbohydrate intakes that tends to be indicative of poorer insulin sensitivity or excess insulin release and vice versa; individuals who feel energetic with stable energy levels on higher carbohydrates (or get a strong feeling of satiety) tend to be insulin (and probably leptin) sensitive.
- For people who are involved in weight training, if they get good muscular pumps and fullness from higher carbohydrate intakes they probably have good insulin sensitivity; folks who get puffy often have poorer insulin sensitivity.
Mind you, the above is in no way perfect, it’s just a rough way to guesstimate insulin sensitivity or resistance. Trial and error with different macronutrient combinations will tell the rest of the story. I have found that individuals with good insulin sensitivity seem to do better on higher carbohydrate diets and vice versa; individuals with poor insulin sensitivity do better with lowered/low-carbs and higher fats and better is across the board: better hunger suppression, more stable energy levels, easier adherence and often better fat loss for that reason.
Of course, starting bodyfat impacts on a lot of factors related to this as I’ve talked about before. One of them is insulin sensitivity as I mentioned above; generally insulin sensitivity gets worse with increasing bodyfat levels but this isn’t universal.
More importantly, individuals with higher bodyfat levels don’t lose as much LBM on a diet and don’t have to worry quite as much about total protein intake (they also require less); leaner individuals trying to get very lean have a huge problem with LBM loss and do. So Category 3 dieters can be less neurotic about this than Category 2 dieters and Category 1 have to worry the most.
There is also the issue of stubborn bodyfat and this is especially true of women’s lower bodyfat. The specific physiology of that fat often requires a specific dietary, training or supplement approach to effectively mobilize and burn it off. Men, by and large, don’t need quite as much variation although they too often benefit from slightly different approaches.
And finally there is exercise, what type and how much. A beginner just starting a low-level exercise program, or only doing low-intensity activities has far different requirements from a lean athlete performing some volume of high-intensity exercise and this impacts significantly on dietary choice (exercise also improves insulin sensitivity outside of bodyfat levels so there is an additional interaction there).
And the fun part is often the above considerations interact or flat-out contradict one another. An athlete involved in heavy training who is genetically insulin resistant may need to be on lowered carbohydrates due to their insulin resistance but also need to have higher carbohydrates to support training.
So What’s the Best Diet
It depends. Certainly for most, assuming a few basic requirements, the best diet is the one that they will stick to. But if I were going to stop there, this book would be kind of pointless. For specific contexts and situations, there are often better or worse choices that can be made in terms of diet and I’ll look at some of those in a fairly broad fashion in two chapters. First I need to take a quick detour and look at a method of setting up diets that I don’t recommend but that is necessary background to cover.
2. Martens, EA and Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Protein diets, body weight loss and weight maintenance. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2014 Jan;17(1):75-9.
3. Bendtsen, LQ et. al. Effect of dairy proteins on appetite, energy expenditure, body weight, and composition: a review of the evidence from controlled clinical trials. Adv Nutr. 2013 Jul 1;4(4):418-38.
4.Layman, DK and Baum JI. Dietary protein impact on glycemic control during weight loss. J Nutr. 2004 Apr;134(4):968S-73S.
5. Layman DK. Protein quantity and quality at levels above the RDA improves adult weight loss. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Dec;23(6 Suppl):631S-636S.
6. Westerterp-Plantenga MS et. al. High protein intake sustains weight maintenance after body weight loss in humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Jan;28(1):57-64.
7. 1. Johnston BC et. al. Comparison of weight loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysis. JAMA. 2014 Sep 3;312(9):923-33. doi: 10.1001/jama.2014.10397.
8. Johns, DJ. et. al. Diet or exercise interventions vs combined behavioral weight management programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis of direct comparisons. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Oct;114(10):1557-68.
9. Pittas AG, Roberts SB. Dietary composition and weight loss: can we individualize dietary prescriptions according to insulin sensitivity or secretion status? Nutr Rev. 2006 Oct;64(10 Pt 1):435-48.