I have a distinct memory from when I was 12 years old. It involved my father standing over the stove cooking up a pound of ground beef, and a skillet of eggs. He would put cinnamon in the eggs and ground beef to give it an interesting breakfast-like flavor. This was our experiment with the Atkins diet. Fast forward to my freshman year of college, I gave it another shot. This would involve me going to the dining hall and loading my tray up with hot dogs, hamburgers, salad and maybe just a few french fries. As you may know, fries are not considered part of Atkins and neither is the couple of beers I would later have after a workout. I was always on one diet or another: Weight Watchers, Atkins, Beach Body. Fast forward 20 years and I probably have tried them all - ok maybe not all, but a good number of them. So what have I learned? I’ve learned that some are better for me than others.
Have you ever wondered what the absolute best diet in the whole world was for you? Well, according to Wikipedia (and we all know how reliable that source is) there are over 1,000 diets to choose from. If you ask me, that number even seems low and there are probably many more. Where to even begin with finding the "best" diet? In my opinion, the best diet in the world is the one that works for you and the one you stick with.
Moving forward, I’m going to stop using the word "diet", and replace that with "eating plan." An eating plan consists of the foods you are choosing to eat, possibly in specific quantities, and the adjustments you make to what goes into your body. It is a choice to eat more or less, depending on your goals, and takes the morality and guilt out of food (food is not good or bad and does not make you good or bad). Finally, an eating plan is a flexible lifestyle change for the better and not a short term commitment where you may eventually revert back to old ways. It is unrealistic and unproductive to say "I am never going to eat dessert again because it is bad". There can be a time and place to have sweets and that is entirely up to you and what your goals may be. Desserts are not good or bad - it is literally just food. A more productive and realistic statement would be "I am going to avoid added sugar for the next 4 weeks while I really dial in my nutrition before my next half marathon".
I’ve outlined some of the various eating plans I’ve had the most experience with and share my opinion on them. Every one of these eating plans establishes a template and structure, and some offer accountability as well. To lose weight, all of these diets put you at a caloric deficit, but what happens when you get to a goal weight? What if you actually just want to lose fat and keep your strength? Some of these diets would not be right for you then...
So what should you make of all this? The answer to that is a bit complicated. First and foremost, you have to understand how your body processes the food you eat. There is a reason that a man lost weight on a diet of only twinkies, but at some point, that same person will plateau since he was stripping his body of key nutrients to support his metabolism (not to mention other health implications of only eating twinkies for 10 weeks).
Weight Watchers - A flexible program where you can eat anything you like within the limits of a daily point allocation. Foods are assigned a point value and it is based off the calories, fat and fiber of various foods.
My Take: Weight Watchers is a good support network and has a lot of celebrity endorsement. If you are looking for a plan with accountability, the ability to eat any food and still lose weight, give Weight Watchers a try. The "watch out" here is that it can get pretty expensive and you may not want to be on this program for the rest of your life. You’ll learn about portion control through counting points and only having a certain amount of points per day. Because you can eat anything as long as you track the points, you could end up still eating processed, junk food which could have a negative impact not reflected on the scale.
Beach Body - A shake based program where you get a series of food containers to measure daily allotments of proteins, carbs, vegetables, fruit, and fats. The allotment of containers you can have per day is based on your weight loss goal. Coaches are included for those who want to join challenges like 21 Day Fix.
My Take: Beach Body is one of the most popular diet programs. It has a good social media aspect to it as your coach sets up a facebook group for each challenge where you share with others what you ate for the day or can reach out to for support and questions. It requires quite a bit of planning your meals out and measuring with containers, so if you need more structure and a ‘mindless’ eating plan, it may not work so well for you.
Atkins Diet - A high- fat, moderate- protein diet that severely restricts your carbohydrates to under 20 grams per day. This potentially puts you into Ketosis which increases caloric burn, reduces your appetite, and turns your body's main fuel into the fat that is hanging off it.
My Take: I’m a big fan of getting your body into ‘fat burning mode,’ where your body can switch from carbohydrate consumption to fat consumption for energy pretty easily. Atkins got a bad rap due to the low-fat movement in the 90’s and early 2000’s (even though there are relatively few studies that linked high fat food to heart disease). The tough part of Atkins is actually getting your body into Ketosis, which takes a few weeks of feeling miserable until one day you magically enter Ketosis and feel amazing.
Paleo Diet - A pretty rigid eating plan that removes all processed foods, grains, legumes, dairy, among other foods. The Paleo Diet primarily consists of sustainably farmed meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, butter and fruit. Removing all processed food and sugar resets your body and metabolism. This eating plan also will improve gut health and potentially other biomarkers.
My Take: Paleo gets a bad wrap, but utilizing a Paleo template is the best way to reset your metabolism, heal your gut, and support an active lifestyle. The "watch out" here is that many times people will eat too many Paleo "treats." Since almond flour, coconut sugar and maple syrup are all "Paleo", you can make some pretty delicious treats that are super high in calories. So if you are looking to lose weight, just be mindful of your caloric intake.
Nutrisystem - Massive box of processed diet food is shipped to you and you receive a plan of exactly how many meals to eat and what vegetables and fruits to add in. Very rigid program but offers a number of various choices of "comfort food" (i.e. pizza, burger, cinnabuns, etc). Claims to be low glycemic index, but it is really just putting you at a significant caloric deficit to lose weight fast.
My Take: This was the program that started it all. I was a big fan of the fact that they gave you pizza, hamburgers and fajitas to eat and still lose weight. It did get a bit old after a while and I needed to change it up by taking the food they gave me and creating taco salads and "sausage and gravy." The food on this diet is super processed, so may lead to long term consequences. That being said, losing weight can possibly outweigh those consequences. The "watch out" here is what happens after you stop only eating Nutrisystem meals...
HMR Diet - Less food and more processed than even Nutrisystem. Your daily allotment consists of 3 shakes or oatmeals, two pre-packaged meals and 3 add in vegetables. The program gives you less calories than Nutrisystem and requires you to take a multivitamin to get in your vitamin requirements. Unlike Nutrisystem, HMR is a multi-phase program that slowly has you reintroduce regular food as you get closer to your weightloss goal.
My Take: I used HMR to take off about 30 pounds this year and I was a big fan of how highly structured it was, especially in high stress situations at work where I didn't have to think about what I ate - I just had to reheat my packaged meal. The drawback to this program is the amount of processed food you’ll need to eat. There are hundreds of ingredients in their meals and they are pretty bad for you, which could have long term consequences, but depending on how much weight you need to lose, losing weight could outweigh those consequences.
If It Fits Your Macros - A very flexible program where you have a daily target for a certain number of protein, fat and carbohydrates based off of a total caloric intake target. The carb/protein/fat targets are aligned with your goals which could include fat loss, muscle gain, or improved fitness performance. In order to track your macros, you will need to weigh and measure your food and play close attention to food labels. Many tout this as a plan where you can eat "anything you want," but your body processes different foods different ways, so more nutrient dense foods are preferred.
My Take: This is probably the easiest to follow long term as far as eating plans go. Eventually you get to a point where you know exactly what 3oz of chicken breast looks like versus always having to weigh and measure. The only "watch out" here is that many people think they can just eat pizza and drink beer as long as it fits their macros. That’s a quick way to plateau in weight loss or strength gain and deplete your body of the key nutrients it needs. You will also get "more bang for your buck" if you are eating nutrient dense foods versus junk food that just so happens to fit your macros.
If you’re completely confused, then my job here is done. Next week I’ll weave this into a question I received recently: what exactly is a macro and how can it help me attain my goals?
What other topics would you like me to cover in my posts? Let me know! Until we meet again, catch me in the comments.
Remember, although I’m studying to be a nutritionist, my advice and information should not be used to replace the advice of your doctor!