Most people who read my articles and e-books know me as a science guy who likes to quote studies and apply research to everyday problems such as weight loss, bodybuilding, and other health/fitness related topics. However, sometimes you have to step back from the science and look at the big picture to help bring people back into focus, so they can see the forest for the trees, so to speak.
For most people reading this article, finding an effective diet that works most of the time must seem as complicated as nuclear physics. It’s not, but there are a bewildering number of choices for diets out there. High fat or no fat? High carbohydrate or no carbohydrate? Low protein or high protein? To make matters worse, there are a million variations and combinations to the above diet scenarios to add to the confusion. It seems endless and causes many people to throw up their hands in frustration and give up. In this article I will attempt to change all that.
There are some general guidelines, rules of thumb, and ways of viewing a diet program that will allow you to decide, once and for all, if it’s the right diet for you. You may not always like what I have to say, and you should be under no illusions this is another quick fix, “lose 100 lbs. in 20 days,” guide of some sort. However, if you are sick and tired of being confused, tired of taking the weight off only to put it back on, and tired of wondering how to take the first steps to deciding the right diet for you that will result in permanent weight loss, then this is the article that could change your life…
Does your diet pass “The Test”?
What is the number one reason diets fail long term; above all else? The number one reason is…drum roll…a lack of long term compliance. The numbers don’t lie; the vast majority of people who lose weight will regain it – and often exceed what they lost. You knew that already didn’t you?
Yet, what are you doing to avoid it? Here’s another reality check: virtually any diet you pick which follows the basic concept of “burning” more calories then you consume – the well accepted “calories in calories out” mantra – will cause you to lose weight. To some degree, they all work: Atkins-style, no carb diets, low fat high carb diets, all manner of fad diets – it simply does not matter in the short term.
If your goal is to lose some weight quickly, then pick one and follow it. I guarantee you will lose some weight. Studies generally find any of the commercial weight loss diets will get approximately the same amount of weight off after 6 months to a year. For example, a recent study found the Atkins’ Diet, Slim-Fast plan, Weight Watchers Pure Points program, and Rosemary Conley’s Eat Yourself Slim diet, were all equally effective. (1)
Other studies comparing other popular diets have come to essentially the same conclusions. For example, a study that compared the Atkins diet, the Ornish diet, Weight Watchers, and The Zone Diet, found them to be essentially the same in their ability to take weight off after one year. (2)
Recall what I said about the number one reason diets fail, which is a lack of compliance. The lead researcher of this recent study stated:
“Our trial found that adherence level rather than diet type was the primary predictor of weight loss”(3)
Translated, it’s not which diet they chose per se, but their ability to actually stick to a diet that predicted their weight loss success. I can just see the hands going up now, “but Will, some diets must be better than others, right?” Are some diets better then others? Absolutely. Some diets are healthier then others, some diets are better at preserving lean body mass, some diets are better at suppressing appetite – there are many differences between diets. However, while most of the popular diets will work for taking weight off, what is abundantly clear is that adhering to the diet is the most important aspect for keeping the weight off long term.
What is a diet?
A diet is a short term strategy to lose weight. Long term weight loss is the result of an alteration in lifestyle. We are concerned with life long weight management, not quick fix weight loss here. I don’t like the term diet, as it represents a short term attempt to lose weight vs. a change in lifestyle. Want to lose a bunch of weight quickly? Heck, I will give you the information on how to do that here and now for no charge.
For the next 90 to 120 days eat 12 scrambled egg whites, one whole grapefruit, and a gallon of water twice a a day. You will lose plenty of weight. Will it be healthy? Nope. Will the weight stay off once you are done with this diet and are then forced to go back to your “normal” way of eating? Not a chance. Will the weight you lose come from fat or will it be muscle, water, bone, and (hopefully!) some fat? The point being, there are many diets out there that are perfectly capable of getting weight off you, but when considering any eating plan designed to lose weight, you must ask yourself:
“Is this a way of eating I can follow long term?”
Which brings me to my test: I call it the “Can I eat that way for the rest of my life?” Test. I know, it does not exactly roll off your tongue, but it gets the point across.
The lesson here is: any nutritional plan you pick to lose weight must be part of a lifestyle change you will be able to follow – in one form or another – forever. That is, if it’s not a way of eating you can comply with indefinitely, even after you get to your target weight, then it’s worthless.
Thus, many fad diets you see out there are immediately eliminated, and you don’t have to worry about them. The question is not whether the diet is effective in the short term, but if the diet can be followed indefinitely as a lifelong way of eating. Going from “their” way of eating back to “your” way of eating after you reach your target weight is a recipe for disaster and the cause of the well established yo-yo dieting syndrome. Bottom line: there are no short cuts, there is no free lunch, and only a commitment to a lifestyle change is going to keep the fat off long term. I realize that’s not what most people want to hear, but it’s the truth, like it or not.
The statistics don’t lie: getting the weight off is not the hardest part, keeping the weight off is! If you take a close look at the many well known fad/commercial diets out there, and you are honest with yourself, and apply my test above, you will find most of them no longer appeal to you as they once did. It also brings me to an example that adds additional clarity: If you have diet A that will cause the most weight loss in the shortest amount of time but is unbalanced and essentially impossible to follow long term vs. diet B, which will take the weight off at a slower pace, but is easier to follow, balanced, healthy, and something you can comply with year after year, which is superior? If diet A gets 30 lbs off you in 30 days, but by next year you have gained back all 30 lbs, but diet B gets 20 lbs off you in the next 3 months with another 20 lbs 3 months after that and the weight stays off by the end of that year, which is the better diet?
If you don’t know the answer to those questions, you have totally missed the point of this article and the lesson it’s trying to teach you, and are set up for failure. Go back and read this section again…By default, diet B is superior.
Teach a man to Fish…
A well known Chinese Proverb is – Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
This expression fits perfectly with the next essential step in how to decide what eating plan you should follow to lose weight permanently. Will the diet plan you are considering teach you how to eat long term, or does it spoon-feed you information? Will the diet rely on special bars, shakes, supplements or pre-made foods they supply?
Let’s do another diet A vs. diet B comparison. Diet A is going to supply you with their foods, as well as their special drink or bars to eat, and tell you exactly when to eat them. You will lose – say – 30 lbs in two months. Diet B is going to attempt to help you learn which foods you should eat, how many calories you need to eat, why you need to eat them, and generally attempt to help teach you how to eat as part of a total lifestyle change that will allow you to make informed decisions about your nutrition. Diet B causes a slow steady weight loss of 8 -10 lbs per month for the next 6 months and the weight stays off because you now know how to eat properly.
Recall the Chinese proverb. Both diets will assist you to lose weight. Only one diet, however, will teach you how to be self-reliant after your experience is over. Diet A is easier, to be sure, and causes faster weight loss than diet B, and diet B takes longer and requires some thinking and learning on your part. However, when diet A is over, you are right back where you started and have been given no skills to fish. Diet companies don’t make their profits by teaching you to fish, they make their money by handing you a fish so you must rely on them indefinitely or come back to them after you gain all the weight back.
Thus, diet B is superior for allowing you to succeed where other diets failed, with knowledge gained that you can apply long term. Diet programs that attempt to spoon feed you a diet without any attempt to teach you how to eat without their help and/or rely on their shakes, bars, cookies, or pre-made foods, is another diet you can eliminate from your list of choices.