If you give too much credence to mainstream diet trends, you’re pretty much doomed.
Maybe you’ll identify with the Paleo culture and become convinced that eating like a caveman is the way of the future. Or maybe you’ll go for scapegoating the carbohydrate as the source of all your weight loss woes and subject yourself to trial by ketogenic dieting. Or, heaven forbid, maybe you’ll mire yourself in the swamps of outright quackery: “cleanses,” “unclogging hormones,” “biohacking,” and the like.
You can fritter away months like this, jumping from one form of dietary dogma to another, with little-to-nothing to show for it in the gym and mirror. And, if you’re like many people, you’ll just suck it up and soldier on, continuing your quest to find the One True Diet that will give you the body you’ve always desired.
Here’s the problem: there is no One True Diet. There is no “shortcut to shred.” There are no “weight loss foods” or “muscle-building hacks.”
The “truth about dieting” is rather boring, actually. It doesn’t have the sizzle to sell millions of books and millions in supplements. But it has this: it works. Efficiently. Unquestioningly. Invariably.
What is this truth?
Well, it has several parts, or tiers, and can be envisioned as a pyramid of descending importance that looks like this:
Let’s look at each of the layers in detail.
Energy balance is at the bottom because it’s the overarching principle of dieting. This is the one that dictates your weight gain and loss more than anything else.
What is energy balance, though?
Energy balance is the relationship between the energy you feed your body and the energy it expends. As you probably know, this is often measured in kilocalories.
The bottom line, scientifically validated, unexciting reality…the one that book publishers and TV producers yawn at…is that meaningful weight loss requires you to expend more energy than you consume, and meaningful weight gain (both fat and muscle) requires the opposite: more consumption than expenditure.
If you’re shaking your head, thinking I’m drinking decade-old Kool-Aid , answer me this:
Why has every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last 100 years…including countless meta-analyses and systematic reviews…concluded that meaningful weight loss requires energy expenditure to exceed energy intake?
Why have bodybuilders dating back just as far…from Sandow to Reeves and all the way up the line…been using, and continue to use, this knowledge to systematically and routinely reduce and increase body fat levels?
And why do new brands of “calorie denying” come and go every year, failing to gain acceptance in the weight loss literature?
The bottom line is a century of metabolic research has proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that energy balance, operating according to the first law of thermodynamics, is the basic mechanism that regulates fat storage and reduction.
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Next on the diet pyramid is macronutrient balance, and this is second in importance to energy balance.
In case you’re not familiar with the term, the dictionary defines macronutrient as “any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.”
You’ve probably heard that “a calorie is a calorie,” and while that’s true for matters relating purely to energy balance and weight loss and gain, a calorie is not a calorie when we’re talking body composition.
Don’t believe me?
Well, Professor Mark Haub lost 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks, and you could do exactly the same if you wanted to (not that you should though–more on this soon).
We don’t want to just gain and lose weight, though. Our goal is more specific: we want to gain more muscle than fat and we want to lose fat, not muscle. And with those goals, we have to watch more than just calories. We have to watch our macronutrient intake too.
If you want to go beyond “weight loss” and learn to optimize your body composition, the macronutrient you have to watch most closely is protein. Your carbohydrate and dietary fat intakes can be all over the place without derailing you, but eating too little protein is the cardinal sin of dieting for us fitness folk.
- Eat too little protein while restricting your calories for fat loss and you’ll lose a significant amount of muscle as well.
This is why “weight loss” isn’t enough–lose muscle and you lose weight, but you’re going backward in your quest to build an impressive physique.
- Eat too little protein while eating a surplus of calories to maximize muscle growth and you’ll build less muscle.
This is one of the reasons “bulking” has a bad rap. When done improperly, it packs on way more fat than muscle and is just counter-productive in the long run.
What is too little protein, you ask? Here’s what it boils down to for people that exercise regularly:
If you’re relatively lean and aren’t dieting for fat loss, you should set your protein intake at 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
If you’re relatively lean and are dieting for fat loss, you should increase your intake slightly to 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. (Research shows the leaner you are, the more protein your body will need to preserve muscle while in a calorie deficit for fat loss.)
If you’re overweight or obese, your first priority should be fat loss, and your protein intake should be set at 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of lean mass per day.
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “aren’t high-protein diets unhealthy?”
The mainstream media has been buzzing with anti-protein propaganda over the last few years with claims like a high-protein diet can cause damage to the kidneys and increase the risk of cancer and osteoporosis, but these claims simply aren’t supported by sound scientific research.
Another rather disturbing claim that has recently made the rounds is that a high-protein diet increases the risk of cancer and eating meat and cheese regularly is as unhealthy as smoking.
Well, while such sensationalism works wonders for website hits, it’s misleading and scientifically bankrupt. To quote Dr. Spencer Nadolsky from Examine.com:
“To even suggest that eating protein is as bad as smoking is pure sensationalism…
“A more accurate headline for this study would have been ‘High protein for those between 50 years to 65 years old who have poor diet and lifestyle habits may be associated with increased cancer risk.’”
The bottom line is if you’re physically active, a high-protein diet is, without question, going to help you improve your health, body composition, and performance (this applies to endurance athletes as well).
And while sedentary people don’t need as much protein as those that exercise regularly, research shows that the current RDI of 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight simply isn’t enough to maintain lean mass and bone health as they age.
Before we move on, I’d like to take a minute to discuss low-carbohydrate dieting because it’s all the weight loss rage these days.
Like most diet fads that come and go, low-carb dieting simply can’t live up to its reputation.
There are about 20 studies that low-carb proponents bandy about as definitive proof of the superiority of low-carb dieting for weight loss. If you read the abstracts of these studies, low-carb dieting definitely seems more effective, and this type of glib “research” is what most low-carbers base their beliefs on.
But there’s a big problem with many of these studies, and it has to do with protein intake.
The problem is the low-carb diets in these studies invariably contained more protein than the low-fat diets. Yes, one for one…without fail.
What we’re actually looking at in these studies is a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet vs. low-protein, high-fat diet, and the former wins every time. But we can’t ignore the high-protein part and say it’s more effective because of the low-carb element.
In fact, better designed and executed studies prove the opposite: that when protein intake is high, low-carb dieting offers no especial weight loss benefits.
Why is protein intake so important, exactly? Because, as you now know, adequate protein intake while dieting for fat loss is vital for preserving lean mass, both with sedentary people and especially with athletes.
If you don’t eat enough protein when dieting to lose weight, you can lose quite a bit of muscle, and this in turn hampers your weight loss in several ways:
- It causes your basal metabolic rate to drop
- It reduces the amount of calories you burn in your workouts
- It impairs the metabolism of glucose and lipids
As you can see, when you want to lose fat, your number one goal to preserve lean mass.
Now, let’s turn our attention back to the “low-carb dieting is better” studies mentioned earlier. In many cases, the low-fat groups were given less protein than even the RDI of .8 grams per kg of body weight, which is just woefully inadequate for weight loss purposes.
Research has shown that even double and triple those (RDI) levels of protein intake isn’t enough to fully prevent the loss of lean mass while restricting calories for fat loss.
So, what happens in terms of weight loss when you keep protein intake high and compare high and low levels of carbohydrate intake? Is there even any research available to show us?
There are four studies I know of that meet these criteria and gee whiz look at that…when protein intake is high and matched among low-carb and high-carb dieters, there is no significant difference in weight loss.
The bottom line is so long as you maintain a proper calorie deficit and keep your protein intake high, you’re going to maximize fat loss while preserving as much lean mass as possible. Going low-carb as well won’t help you lose more weight.
Let’s move on down the pyramid to food choices, the tier worshipped by most mainstream diet “experts” as the be-all and end-all of dieting.
The cult of “clean eating” is more popular than ever these days,
While I’m all for eating nutritious (“clean”) foods for the purposes of supplying our bodies with essential vitamins and minerals, eating nothing but these foods guarantees nothing in the way of building muscle or losing fat.
The truth is you can be the cleanest eater in the world and still be weak and skinny fat.
Because when it comes to body composition (how much muscle and body fat you have), how much you eat is more important than what.
Claiming that one food is “better” than another for losing or gaining weight is misleading because it misses the forest for the trees.
You see, foods don’t have any special properties that make them better or worse for weight loss or gain. What they do have, however, are varying amounts of potential energy as measured in calories and varying types of macronutrient profiles.
These two factors–the calories contained in foods and how those calories break down into protein, carbohydrate, and fat–are what make certain foods more suitable for losing or gaining weight than others.
As Professor Haub showed us earlier, and as the “If It Fits Your Macros” crowd simply won’t shut up about, you can lose fat eating whatever you want so long as you regulate your intake and maintain a state of negative energy balance.
That said, certain foods make it easier or harder to lose and gain weight due to their volume, calorie density, and macronutrient breakdown.
Generally speaking, foods that are “good” for weight loss are those that are relatively low in calories but high in volume (and thus satiating).
Examples of such foods are lean meats, whole grains, many fruits and vegetables, and low-fat dairy. These types of foods also provide an abundance of micronutrients, which is especially important when your calories are restricted (eat too much junk on a calorie-restricted diet and you can develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies).
Foods conducive to weight gain are the opposite: high in calories and low in volume and satiety.
These foods include the obvious like caloric beverages, candy, and other sugar-laden goodies, but quite a few “healthy” foods fall into this category as well: oils, bacon, butter, low-fiber fruits, and whole fat dairy products, for example. The more we fill our meal plans with calorie-dense, low-satiety foods, the more likely we are to get hungry and overeat.
Think of it this way: you can only “afford” so many calories every day, whether dieting to lose fat or gain muscle, and you have to watch how you “spend” them.
When dieting for fat loss, you want to spend the majority of your calories on foods that allow you to hit your daily macronutrient and micronutrient needs without “overdrafting” your energy balance “account.” (I know, I’m getting carried away with this financial metaphor but bear with me…)
When dieting for muscle growth, you have quite a few more calories to spend every day. This makes it easy to hit both your macronutrient and micronutrient targets with calories to spare, which you can then spend on, well, whatever you want.
Don’t mistake this section as me railing against eating healthy foods. I’m not a fan of the people trying to prove that you can “eat junk and get shredded”–long-term health matters more than getting super lean while eating boxes of Pop Tarts every week.
As a rule of thumb, if you get the majority (~80%) of your calories from relatively unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods, you can fill the remaining 20% with your favorite dietary sins and be healthy, muscular, and lean.
Last on the pyramid, and last in importance, is nutrient timing. And the long story short is how often you eat and when you eat what don’t really matter.
One of the many beauties of our bodies is they are incredibly good at adapting to meet the demands we place on them, and so long as you get the other points of the pyramid right–proper energy balance, good macronutrient breakdown, and smart food choices–you have a lot of leeway here at the top.
You can eat three or thirteen meals per day. You can eat 80% of your carbohydrates at breakfast, dinner, or after your workout. You’re not on the clock after a workout, slowly losing gains until you chug a shake.
That said, I do think it’s worth noting that there is evidence that eating protein in particular after a workout is better for long-term muscle growth. Personally I “play it safe” and eat about 40 grams of protein within an hour of weightlifting, and I’d recommend you do the same.
If you’ve struggled to find a diet that actually works…that doesn’t make you a slave to arbitrary rules and restrictions…that is enjoyable enough to be a lifestyle and not an ordeal…you now know the way.
Learn how to manipulate energy balance, keep protein intake high and adjust carbohydrate and fat to meet your needs and preferences, eat a wide variety of nutritious foods “supplemented” with some indulgences, and eat on a schedule you prefer, and you’ll be following the best possible diet plan anyone could give you.