I’m sure that most of you have wanted to lose weight at one time or another. So what do you do? You take a look at the newest weight loss program that has a ton of success stories and dive in, consequently throwing out half the items in your cupboard or fridge and preparing new things you haven’t eaten before. You follow a meal plan that you found in a book that leaves you hungry and grumpy, battling cravings, drinking shakes or eating stuff you don’t like.
In case you haven’t noticed, there are HUNDREDS of weight loss programs out there. Many are loosely based on some program or study, but some are just plain crazy. Who wants to drink lemon juice and cayenne pepper for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Heh, not me. So what does work? Which diet should you follow? How many have you tried only to lose weight and gain it all back?
I’ll tell you right now- calories are paramount to any successful diet.
Eating something special or only at certain times has no bearing whatsoever on whether you lose weight. Sure, drinking a concoction that has almost no calories will help you lose weight for a little while, but it’s not good for you and it isn’t sustainable. What do you do after the diet is over? How do you maintain that new weight?
It’s so easy to jump on a bandwagon after reading success stories, looking at progress pictures and hearing all about these new weight loss programs. But where is the research behind it? Why is this entity selling this diet? Because they truly believe it works? As I’ve progressed in my fitness journey, specifically reading more scientific articles and books about weight loss, I’ve started questioning many of these diets and compiled a list for you debunking many of the popular weight loss programs.
If you have any questions, feel free to comment or shoot me an email. There’s a lot of studies behind these diets that I won’t unpack here but can point you to if you want more information.
The premise behind a low carb diet, whether it be South Beach or Atkins, is that you can eat as much as you want of meat and fats and a small amount of carbs. The reason this diet “worked” in the beginning was because all people ate was meat, fats and vegetables (as specified). Meats and fats are incredibly satiating when eaten in large quantities. People saw quick progress because they consumed fewer calories by cutting out starchy carbohydrates and those calories were not fully replace by the allowed meats and fats.
When low carb diets began to become more popular, food and snack companies took advantage of this diet craze by manufacturing “low carb” foods. It was then that progress started to slow- people started eating these manufactured snack foods portrayed as low carb, erasing the calorie deficits they had before.
Low carb diets didn’t work because carbs “make you fat”. They worked because people ate fewer calories. There are quite a few scientific studies about optimal macronutrients, and with calories held equal, low carb diets didn’t statistically make the study participants lose more weight. Researches found that all participants lost equal amounts of weight no matter whether they were following a low carb or high carb diet.
You need carbohydrates so that your body can use all the protein you eat for bodily functions, like maintaining your muscles and supporting your brain and heart. If you don’t eat enough carbs, your body has to use the protein you eat for energy and pulls proteins from your muscles, thereby decreasing your lean mass.
You need muscle for definition, for a firm and attractive athletic physique. Your muscles also provide extra calorie burn and amino acids that can be a lifesaver during a severe illness. Therefore carbohydrates are actually beneficial not only because they supply you with energy, but because they preserve your much wanted lean muscle.
While low fat diets aren’t as popular as they once were, I still think it needs to be debunked as a potential advantageous way to lose weight. The premise behind a low fat diet is two-fold:
1) that your body stores the fats you eat much more easily than carbohydrates and protein
2) that fats contain twice as many calories per gram which make them twice as fattening.
This diet surfaced in the 80’s and as it became more popular, obesity rates started increasing. Not to say that it’s just because of this diet, but a certain study by Cornell showed that people ate 28% more M&Ms labeled as low fat than M&Ms labeled as regular. Low fat doesn’t equate to low calorie (or healthy), though people generally associate it as healthy.
Take peanut butter for example. The low fat labeled peanut butter contains 187 calories per serving, regular peanut butter contains 190. Sure the low fat version has a few grams less of fat but most manufacturers replace that with sugar to make it taste better.
Fat is very satiating and your body needs it for important brain functions as well as a host of other body processes. In fact, your body needs fat to absorb vitamins and minerals. Yes, fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, K, and E as well as other nutrients like lycopene and beta carotene need fats for your body to absorb them. There is evidence that it’s easier for your body to store dietary fat, but if you’re in a calorie deficit it doesn’t matter if you eat a diet relatively high in fat.
Fat is also a great energy source for most people these days. If you’re riding a desk job, fats are the perfect macronutrient to keep you full and energized until lunchtime.
As I mentioned earlier, there is no advantage that you can take by manipulating macronutrients. There is no good guy and no bad guy, your body needs them all in a balanced manner. Again, it’s calories that count with weight loss programs.
I’ve discussed the top two in detail and I’m skimming over many of these other diets. Why? Because these diets don’t make you lose weight. They aren’t superior to any other diet. Weight loss simply won’t happen unless there is a calorie deficit.
There might be benefits to these diets, but eating the foods they prescribe by themselves will not make you lose weight.
Paleo enthusiasts eat like our cavemen ancestors, abstaining from grains and most dairy, eating a large quantity of meats, animal fats, and vegetables. This way of eating has great things about it that I agree with, like eating whole foods and avoiding sugar, processed meats, and refined wheat. There’s a lot of debate about the health benefits behind it, but the fact is that unless you are following Paleo in a calorie deficit, you won’t lose weight.
Proponents of Ketogenic weight loss programs emphasize a diet containing 60% protein, 35% fat and 5% carbohydrates. The idea is that your body will enter ketosis, a state where your body burns fat for energy because you deplete your muscles of glycogen and eat essentially no carbohydrates for energy.
However even when you bring your body in to fat adaptation, this use of fat and ketones for energy only occurs at rest. Try exercising at a level beyond “easy” and your muscles will feel tired and heavy, you might even lose motivation and become tired and cranky. This is because your muscles always need glycogen (from carbohydrates) for exercise. Energy from fat cannot be processed quickly enough in our bodies to give you energy for higher intensity workouts.
Intermittent Fasting is a diet that instructs you to partially fast two days a week. You consume about 500 calories on fasting days and eat normally throughout the week. This weight loss program works because of the calorie intake. If you only consume 500 calories for two days a week and 2000 calories the other five days, you are creating a 3000 weekly calorie deficit which would be similar to eating 400 less calories each day.
There aren’t too many studies yet to prove its superiority, but I don’t believe that you can workout on 500 calories a day. And the hunger from those 500 calorie days would be a lot to handle. Luckily, it seems to be based on the foundational truth of weight loss programs that work but I don’t recommend it because it doesn’t seem sustainable.
Whether its the lemon juice and cayenne pepper cleanse or plain juicing- these diets don’t work for the long term. Your body is made to naturally flush out things you don’t need. There’s a lot of companies that stand to make a profit if you purchase their products – so don’t buy in to it. While home juicing does provide a lot of nutrients, like all those veggies you’d rather drink than eat, it’s not a sustainable strategy. You’ll waste muscle by not consuming protein and starve your body of nutrients it needs from fats and amino acids.
This weight loss program is designed around the Greek, Italian, Spanish and other Mediterranean cultures. Fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and polyunsaturated fats make up the foundation. It’s advertised as “heart healthy,” but don’t think that you can lose weight just by eating like a Greek. While it may improve heart health, lower risk of stroke and cholesterol, it’s not inherently a weight loss program.
If you enjoy this style of eating, it can indeed work for weight loss efforts as long as the proper calorie deficit is in order.
I know a few people who decided to become vegetarians or vegans because they believed it would make them skinny. However this lifestyle makes it hard to get good quality protein that preserves lean muscle mass that makes your body look good. Now if you go vegetarian or vegan for other personal reasons, thats perfectly fine, but it isn’t a superior weight loss program.
Weight Watchers created a “Points” program that assigns points per each hundred calories. People who join WW attend weekly meetings and weigh-ins, which I believe can be extremely helpful. It’s worked for a ton of people, but it is based on the overarching theme of this article: a calorie deficit.
One thing I wish that WW would emphasize is a higher protein intake. I’ve known people to eat less nutritious and satisfying choices because “it fits in my points.” Dieting is much easier if your full and satiated!
Jenny Craig is based on the same precept except that they provide packaged meals, until you reach your goal weight and no longer need to rely on their provided meals. While this is also based on the calorie deficit concept, it doesn’t teach people how to manage their food intake, cook and choose healthy dishes or how to sustain their weight once they go off the pre-made meals.
Calories Don’t Count
Hah, if you’ve been reading, you’ll know that this isn’t true though it’s sadly propagated by many diet creators. Although the quality of your food does indeed matter, calories are king.