In Defense of Diets

Posted by Maureen Harris on

Please Proceed to Baggage Claim

The word “diet” carries some pretty intense baggage.

Many people love diets and proudly hashtag away their diet of choice on their #foodstagram posts or yell from the rooftops how a given diet has changed their lives.

Others flatly declare that diets don’t work. End of story.

Some of us may wear the word “diet” like a cloak of comfort, not because diets are comfortable, of course, but because diets may be familiar. Or because the notion of going “off” a diet carries with it the fear of 30 lbs of overnight weight gain. For someone’s who’s been dieting since middle school, a diet may feel like a well-worn pair of slippers. Being a dieter has become part of that person’s self-identity. The diet becomes all-consuming, and it’s no longer an intentional, strategic, short-term activity.

For others, being perpetually on a diet is the channel through which they focus their feelings of inadequacy. For one of any number of reasons, a person may feel flawed and in need of fixing. Diets may seem like the solution. It’s unfortunately extraordinarily common for people to believe that they will only be pretty/likeable/lovable if, and only if, they lose 5 (or 10 or 50) lbs, and chasing diets seems like the appropriate means to go about working on that perceived obstacle to being whole or enough.

For some, the notion of a diet stirs up nauseating feelings of being imprisoned by “shoulds” and “can’ts”.

Others may have had dangerous dips into disordered eating or eating disorders, and the idea of any kind of regimented eating invokes terror of relapse into self-harming patterns.

Some people have a visceral rejection of anything that involves an imposition of rule or restriction.

Maybe you can relate to some of these feelings?

Definition vs. Connotation: Semantics Matter

Adding to that baggage, the word “diet”—and the topic of food choice more generally—has become extraordinarily inflammatory. Talking about diets can easily spark an argument or make people defensive and uncomfortable. Some people lambaste a given diet as stupid, while others dogmatically declare that another diet is the best and only diet for everyone.

It’s interesting because, really, a diet in the purest sense of the word is simply a description of how a person eats. It’s an objective description, like talking about the weather. It should, theoretically, be the same to describe a person’s diet as to describe the climate in Spain.

But discussing the weather is not the same as talking about a diet, is it? Food is extremely personal, and any inkling that our way of eating is being evaluated or assessed or, worse, attacked, is interpreted as an attack on us as individuals.

And, really, despite what the dictionary definition may be, when we talk about diets, we’re usually talking about food rules and restrictions to achieve a specific desired outcome such as fat loss.

We hate rules and restrictions.

So, yeah. Diets can ignite incredibly strong emotions, and they can carry pretty significant drawbacks and risks. But are diets all bad? And are all diets bad?

Of course not. Diets have a ton of benefits including, but certainly not limited to, fat loss. People may choose to try a diet for any number of reasons. And beyond their initial motivation to diet, they may find some unexpected benefits from experimenting and paying a little more attention to their intake and/or eating habits.

What are some benefits of diets? There are many! Not everyone will experience all of these, but any of the following are possible outcomes from following a diet:

  • Fat loss
  • Muscle gain
  • Body recomposition (simultaneous fat loss+muscle gain)
  • Reduction in fatigue and elevated energy throughout the day
  • Reduction of symptoms (gastrointestinal, immunological, and/or dermatological)
  • Greater enjoyment of food, less anxiety around food, improved relationship with food
  • Greater awareness of food habits and more mindfulness in relation to eating
  • Greater familiarity with appetite and increased comfort with being hungry
  • Increased athletic performance
  • Increased cognitive performance
  • Development of food planning and prep skills
  • Refinement of cooking skills and greater creativity in the kitchen
  • Improved mood
  • Practice with portion control and growth of intuitive eating skills
  • Greater understanding of which fuels work best for YOUR body (higher fat/lower carb vs. lower fat/higher carb, etc.)

That’s a pretty compelling list, right? Before you jump head first into a diet, however, first assess whether doing a diet (any diet) is right for you right now. Are you prepared to make some sacrifices? Are you able to follow the diet as designed at this point in time? Diets involve significant change to your routine. Change is hard, right? Accordingly, it’s best to do some introspection and set appropriate expectations.

Is a Diet Right for Me?

Not everyone should embark on a specific diet immediately (maybe ever). Use the following flow chart to sort yourself into a category.

If you’re in the “no” category, that’s OK! It’s better to be honest and avoid counterproductive efforts that may harm you physically and/or emotionally. Avoid diets for now and, instead, work on repairing your relationship with food and/or your body. A big part of this is reducing your attention to diet and eating what you want in the quantities that you want, freely, without worrying about weight you may gain in the process. Re-evaluate where you are in a few months!

I’m Readdddddyyyy!

OK! You’ve decided you’re ready to give a diet a try. You have something specific you want to work on, whether it be something to move towards (more muscle) or something to leave behind (bloat after ever meal). Awesome! So what now?

There are a million diets out there, all promising miraculous results. How can you separate the wheat from the chaff and decide where to begin?

You sure as heck don’t want to go through tons of effort for zero results, and you sure as heck don’t want to do anything that will damage your health or hurt your performance or ability to work/take care of your kids/be a good partner/etc..

If you haven’t already, get very clear on what you’re trying to accomplish. That will dictate which kind of diet to try.

Next up, evaluate potential diets by whether or not it has scientific backing. Who developed it? What does the developer(s) stand to profit from you doing their diet? Generally speaking, diets that sell you supplements or special shakes or pills are suspect and, likely, not a promising avenue. Look for diets that are created by sports scientists, nutritional scientits, or medical doctors. This isn’t a foolproof strategy, but it’s a good, high-level filter.

Testimonials are good, too. Have others done the diet with success?   Do the testimonials seem credible? Or are results too good to be true (e.g., dramatic progress in an extremely short period of time, no effort required, etc.)? Are all of the success stories young males in their 20s?

What does your gut tell you? You probably have a good, intuitive sense of whether the grapefruit diet or the potato diet or a juice cleanse is a good idea or not. If a diet sounds a little crazy, it probably is.

A Cheat Sheet to Get Started

There is a wide variety of diets out there, many of which I have tested for myself. So I’ll give you a peek into my personal experience and perspective with several popular diets. Keep in mind, of course, that your mileage may vary.

 

Diet

Description

Primary Goal

Level

Duration

Whole30

Elimination diet

Identify food intolerances/allergies and/or poor food habits (NOT fat loss)

Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

30 days + several weeks of re-introduction

Renaissance Periodization

Whole foods-based diet providing target macros and nutrient timing guidelines

Fat loss, muscle gain, sports performance

Intermediate, Advanced

Cut/Mass: 12 weeks or less; Maintenance: Indefinite

Precision Nutrition

Habit-based eating strategy

Health, weight management

Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

Indefinite

Paleo

Elimination diet

Health

Intermediate, Advanced

Indefinite

Intermittent Fasting

Not eating for a set period of time (12, 24, or 24+ hours every day, every few days, or once per week)

Weight management, mental clarity, health

Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

Indefinite

Low Carb

Limiting carbohydrates from all sources including vegetables to some value (as much as <30g per day)

Fat loss, mental performance, health

Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

Short term (if fat loss), Indefinite (otherwise)

Ketogenic

High fat/ultra low carb/low-to-moderate protein

Fat loss, mental performance, health

Intermediate, Advanced

Short term (if fat loss), Indefinite (otherwise)

 

Whole30

 

Pros:

  • Identify food intolerances or allergies (more accurately than blood tests)
  • Discover the relationship between diet and energy levels and mood
  • Examine your relationship with food and eating habits
  • Gain awareness of which habits serve you
  • Increase mindfulness around eating and appetite (Do you mindlessly snack? Do you always reach for a soda or a chocolate after meals, regardless of appetite?)

Cons:

  • Very restrictive
  • In order to see the benefits, you need to do it right and be 100% adherent
  • No alcohol or chocolate or pancakes (including protein pancakes) for 30 days
  • It’s not easy
  • This is NOT a fat loss diet, although you may lose some fat as a side effect eliminating problem foods and/or trigger foods that promote overeating

Renaissance Periodization

Pros:

  • Simple (not easy) to follow
  • Effective
  • Involves slow weight change, which minimizes muscle loss (during a cut) and fat gain (during a mass)
  • Adapts macro targets as you lose/gain weight
  • Healthy and balanced, no food or macronutrient is eliminated
  • Flexible (no meal plans, you choose the foods you want to eat)
  • Fuels athletic performance and allows you to continue to get stronger even when losing fat (to a point; a hypocaloric diet is not optimal for strength gains, so more experienced athletes should expect to maintain strength while cutting calories)

Cons:

  • Requires work (food prep, weighing, measuring, packing up lots of meals for the day)
  • Requires being hungry (cut) or uncomfortably full (mass)
  • Can make social outings involving food or alcohol difficult (but certainly not impossible)
  • With any hypocaloric diet, physical and mental fatigue will accumulate; this compounds fatigue from training as well as life stress

Precision Nutrition

Pros:

  • Smart, sustainable, and flexible
  • Centers around habit development and practice
  • Focuses on the “big rocks” of nutrition to boost health and manage weight
  • Designed to be realistic and doable for anyone over the long-term
  • Does not require precise weighing, measuring, or tracking
  • Respects what people are ready, willing, and able to do, and meets people where they are
  • May result in effortless fat loss simply by following a few basic strategies
  • Promotes slow and steady changes in weight, which are far easier to maintain than extreme strategies

Cons:

  • May not result in significant fat loss for people who already eat reasonably well
  • May be difficult for people who have trouble listening to their bodies and/or appetite
  • May feel a bit “loosey goosey” for people who enjoy structure
  • May not be precise enough for people with extreme performance or aesthetic goals

Paleo

Pros:

  • Healthy, sustainable way of eating
  • May resolve GI issues that you did not even realize were diet-related
  • Can help manage health conditions
  • Emphasizes vegetables and unprocessed foods

Cons:

  • May be overly restrictive (removes grains, dairy, some vegetables that may be completely fine for YOU)
  • May be higher fat/lower carb that YOU do well with (based on your genetics, body type, preferences, and training style)
  • Is difficult to follow if you are vegan/vegetarian (but not impossible)

Intermittent Fasting

Pros:

  • Learn to differentiate true hunger from cravings or boredom
  • Teaches you that you will not die from being hungry or going without food for an extended period of time
  • Relatively easy way to cut your total caloric intake without trimming portions
  • Good for “all-or-none” people
  • May give you a mild stimulant effect (by virtue of fasting being a mild stressor)
  • May give you a sharp mental focus (once you adapt to fasting)
  • Can help you be less obsessive about food
  • Skipping breakfast can make mornings easier/less stressful

Cons:

  • Not optimal for muscle gain
  • May make you feel weak or shaky
  • May make you more obsessive about food
  • May cause you to overeat the rest of the day in anticipation of not being “allowed” to eat outside your eating window

Low Carb/Ketogenic

Pros:

  • Works very well for some people as far as fat loss
  • May reduce cravings
  • May increase energy

Cons:

  • Not optimal for muscle gain
  • Not optimal for most sports
  • May create cravings
  • May decrease energy
  • May create nutrient deficiencies by removing nutrient dense food items (i.e., if you remove fruits and vegetables like Brussels sprouts because they have too many carbs!)
  • May create GI issues (due to reduction in fiber intake)

Lessons Learned

Know yourself. Some diets are better for all-or-none people while others are better for those who prefer a moderate approach. Experimentation with new eating styles is good, and you may find you actually do really well with a more or less extreme way of eating than you originally thought, but respect that some diets will fit your personality and lifestyle better than others. You’re not broken if a given diet worked for your friend but doesn’t do it for you.

Approach a new diet as a learning opportunity. It may or may not effectively bring you to your goals, but you can always learn something from each diet.

Recruit friends and family to let you know if you are becoming moody or neurotic after a few weeks on a diet. Recognize that diets can become emotional, and it’s useful to have an objective observer let you know if you’re beginning to harm your health or becoming a bit too obsessive. Be open to cutting the diet short.

Find supporters who have your back, and tell them that you are embarking on a diet. Committing publicly will make it much more likely that you stay consistent. If you find a friend or two to do the diet with, even better! Camaraderie makes everything a little easier and more palatable when times get tough (and times will undoubtedly get tough with short-term fat loss diets).

Some diets are intended to be used as lifestyles (like Paleo or Intermittent Fasting), while others are meant to be short-term. Do not confuse the two.

Long-term, lifestyle diets are not fat loss diets (although you may lose some fat when you first start). A long-term diet should be sustainable and something that you feel comfortable being 80%+ consistent with for the foreseeable future.

Fat loss diets are, by definition, unsustainable. You should never find yourself in a situation where you’ve been on a fat loss diet for more than a few months at a time, let alone 10 years straight.

If you’ve chosen a short-term diet, make sure to keep it short-term. Have an exit strategy! Always go into a new diet with a plan for how you’ll get out of it. That might be the opposite of everything you’ve ever heard. But most diets are meant to be a short-term, targeted thing. Taking breaks to reset mentally and physically from a diet are incredibly important.   I don’t care how strong-willed and disciplined you are. You must take breaks from deprivation diets if you want to optimize your health and see long-term positive results.

Failure to limit your deprivation/elimination-diets may result in damage to your sanity, relationship with food (and humans, for that matter), metabolism, and long-term health. I don’t say that hyperbolically. Use the diet the way it was meant to be used. Pushing it does not prove how dedicated and hardcore you are; it shows how short-sighted and foolhardy you are.

Be patient.

Be objective as possible.

Remember the goal. And keep the goal the goal.

In Conclusion

If you’ve had a bad experience with dieting in the past, you may not want to follow a structured diet right now. That is OK! While diets have many pros, they are absolutely not required and can be counterproductive.

That said, even if you’ve sworn off food tracking, there may be aspects of some diets, like Whole30 or Precision Nutrition or Intermittent Fasting that you find incredibly useful. Trying them out, with an open mind, can improve your habits, mindfulness, and awareness related to food.

Diets are not for everyone, but they DO work when used appropriately in the right context by people who are ready, willing, and able to complete the diet as designed.

Fuel

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