While it’s reliable knowledge that energy balance is an important factor for fat loss/gain. That is, calorie intake versus calorie expenditure (calories in vs. out). The abundance of information, choice and confusion around effective dietary approaches can be overwhelming.
There are numerous ways to create an energy deficit from reducing calories or consuming a low calorie diet, reducing carbohydrates, reducing fat, to fasting, juicing diets, meal replacements, subscription-based diet programs and pre-packaged meals, to increasing the number of calories you burn through movement and exercise.
Further, an effective dietary approach for one person may not be suitable for another; food preferences, taste and digestion as well as lifestyle (or cultural) and time management are highly personal – what makes one person feel good may be awful for someone else.
This article summarizes a few popular diets (Keto, Paleo, Alkaline, Dash, Low Carb, Vertical diet, Mediterranean, Intermittent Fasting, and Flexible dieting), and provides tips on how best to adhere to a diet, beat hunger, avoid potential side effects, and make sustainable lifestyle choices.
A ketogenic diet (or keto diet) is based on consuming 60%-70% of daily caloric intake from fat; 5%-10% carbohydrates; and 20%-30% protein.
With this diet, the idea is that the body converts fat to ketones (or ketosis), which are used as a fuel source when glucose/glycogen availability is low. Ketosis and a high-fat (healthy fats) diet can also reduce your appetite, causing you to eat less.
Carbohydrate reduction puts your body into ketosis – a metabolic state. When this happens the body burns excess fat into energy, thereby reducing body fat and can help to increase or retain muscle mass.
Typical foods found in a keto diet include: avocados, nuts, full fat dairy, seeds, oils etc. and non-starchy vegetables.
This diet limits your intake of starchy vegetables, fruit, dairy, wholegrains and legumes; to the equivalent of a small tub of yogurt, an apple and about half a medium potato per day.
The keto diet often results in very rapid weight loss, initially, which can be attributed to losing stored water. Carbs are stored in the body with water, so when it is broken down your body loses a lot of water. The reduction in your total energy intake with this diet will also make you lose weight (less than 10% of your energy will come from carbs); cutting out carbs naturally means cutting calories.
Some downsides with this diet:
- Often called the ‘keto flu,’ some side effects of ketosis are headaches, nausea, fatigue and bad breath.
- Lack of fiber can cause digestive issues and effect gut microbiomes.
- Equivalent to over-training, decreased carbohydrate intake may decrease performance, induce fatigue and alter the hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA), which is necessary to get adaptation from a training response.
- Carbohydrate has a critical role in optimizing the immune function for those who are physically very active.
- There is considerable evidence to support that diets with a high fat content can be a factor favoring passive over-consumption and weight gain.
- Adherence to strict food rules can cause some people to become anxious when making food choices and lead to an overall poor relationship with food.
Paleo diet / paleolithic diet
The paleo diet is based on eating foods similar to our ancestors. The focus is on whole foods – protein, vegetables, fruit and nuts; along with the removal of dairy, refined sugar, grain, flour and processed foods.
This diet is based on the premise that we should eat the types of foods that were around as we evolved into humans, the choices that we are designed to thrive on.
The idea is that the body is unable to process certain foods, and by their removal it is easier to promote weight loss, better health and reduce the problems associated with processed foods and allergies.
Paleo diets are not written in stone, and adhering to this diet doesn’t involve going all the way back to the paleolithic period (Old Stone Age). Hunter-gatherers, paleolithic humans thrived on a variety of diets, depending on what was available at the time and where in the world they lived. It is therefore acceptable to adapt the diet around individual taste, seasons, choice and budget.
With this diet, weight loss occurs as a result of reduction in total calories. It’s an open secret that significant weight loss will occur with a diet that rules out pizza and beer.
Things to consider with this diet:
- Cost: High cost is a consideration with this diet. While it’s not practical to spend your time hunting woolly mammoths, deer and bison, fishing for wild salmon and collecting berries, fruit and nuts. You will need to consume grass fed meats and caught fish, and avoid most farmed, manufactured and processed foods.
- Variety: Excluding dairy protein, grains and legumes from the diet can mean you’re missing out on recovery boosting amino-acids, and foods rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and beneficial gut bacteria.
- Planning: You will need to plan carefully to ensure you obtain all the necessary macros and vitamins to maintain health.
An alkaline diet is based on eliminating foods that cause acidity in the body; the premise is that the body functions optimally between a PH of 7.35-7.45 (alkaline).
The diet encourages an intake of healthier foods (fruit and veg), but restricts some healthy foods such as dairy and grains.
While weight loss occurs due to a reduction in daily total calories and not due to reduction in PH. General health benefits do occur, as a result of eliminating processed, convenience, snack and junk food from your diet.
There is also evidence to support this type of diet can help to inhibit the replicative cycle of common viruses such as cold sores/herpes simplex.
The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is designed to help reduce or prevent high blood pressure or hypertension.
The 2,000-calorie-a-day DASH diet encourages the reduction of the sodium, added sugar, saturated fat and processed foods in the diet, and emphasizes a variety of nutrient rich foods, particularly those high in potassium, calcium and magnesium. The diet also emphasizes vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, fish and poultry. You can eat nuts in moderation, and red meat, sweets and fats in small amounts.
Two versions of this diet:
- Standard DASH diet: You can consume up to 2,300 mg of sodium a day.
- Lower sodium DASH diet: You can consume up to 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
The DASH diet focuses on healthy food choices rather than weight loss, with the diet generally including around 2,000 calories per day. Weight loss might occur for those who typically consume more than 2,000 calories, but if you’re trying to lose weight quickly, you may need to eat fewer calories.
Low carbohydrate diet
A low carbohydrate diet involves limiting carbohydrates consumed each day to less than 100 grams, combined with high protein and moderate fat intake.
While weight loss occurs as a result of a reduction in total daily calories, as carbs excluded from the diet are not replaced with anything, a reduction in micronutrient intake may occur.
An important consideration for athletes when adopting a low carbohydrate diet is to avoid running on empty by consuming daily carbs around training in order to optimize sessions and induce training adaptations.
Things to consider with this diet:
- Do your homework to understand what foods contain carbs and how much, and what you can realistically consume each day to adhere to this diet.
- Get protein from varied foods to ensure your diet is balanced, and you’re getting all essential amino acids.
- Consider supplementing this diet with vitamins and minerals to support the immune system and sustain activities.
- If the aim of this diet is to increase the intake of vegetables, also known as AMVAP, (As Many Vegetables As Possible), try to vary your veggies including eating fermented vegetables to offset gut symptoms.
Developed by Stan Efferding, the Vertical Diet is a performance-based diet intended for athletes and anyone looking to improve body composition for optimal health and performance. The diet starts with a solid foundation of highly bioavailable micronutrients to enhance metabolism and overall digestive health.
The diet prioritizes high quality red meat for protein; and white rice and white potatoes for carbs. The diet also prioritizes nutrient-packed foods including:
- Fresh fruit (particularly oranges and cranberries)
- Vegetables (particularly potatoes, spinach, carrots and peppers)
- Greek yogurt
- Whole eggs
- Chicken stock / bone broth
Efferding’s signature meal is the “monster mash,” that consists of white rice and ground bison cooked in chicken broth and seasoned with Himalayan salt. Potatoes, spinach, carrots and peppers can be added to the meal as a side dish or blended as a smoothie.
Following a Mediterranean style diet means eating the way people across the Mediterranean region traditionally ate. This includes consuming generous portions of organic/fresh produce, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats and caught fish.
While the Mediterranean diet is relatively high in fat, it is not a pasta and pizza diet.
General guidelines of the diet include:
- A wide variety and high volume of vegetables and fruits
- Healthy fats including nuts, seeds and olive oil
- Whole grains
- Dairy, fish and meat in moderation
- Moderate quantities of red wine
Benefits of a Mediterranean diet include:
- Lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Reduces blood sugar and the chances of getting diabetes and dementia
- Improves sleep quality
- Promotes weight loss
Intermittent fasting is a low calorie/restriction option that doesn’t necessarily involve starving or abstaining from food.
Intermittent fasting is great if you want to occasionally pull back on calories consumed, experiment with different diet approaches, and reset your body.
Fasting strategies succeed in reducing blood sugar and creating a calorie deficit. This type of diet is a proven approach for rapid weight loss, as well as reducing the chances of getting dementia and diabetes.
The benefit of this type of diet is that a short-term fasting option may be easier to adhere to than long term dieting.
Popular types/variations of intermittent dieting include:
- Fast diet or 5:2 diet (eat as normal for 5 days; eat a quarter of a normal day’s recommended calories for 2 days)
- 16:8 (fast for 16 hours; 8 hour window for eating meals)
- Time restricted eating
- Circadian rhythm fasting
Recommended food choices with this diet predominantly focus on the Mediterranean style diet.
Flexible diet / If It Fits Your Macros
Popular with young bodybuilders, the flexible diet or ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM), goal is to consume certain amounts of the three macronutrients – protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
The emphasis is not solely on calories or food types, and nothing is off limits; so you can meet your macros by eating anything including mostly unhealthy foods.
While IIFYM can be a successful and legitimate approach to sustainable nutrition and weight loss (you can still be healthy eating a diet that isn’t dominated by plates of vegetables and salad bowls). The focus on numbers rather than food quality and overall health will impact the insulin response (blood sugar levels), energy, satiety, mood and hormones depending on food choices.
Things to consider with this diet:
- Not all macros are created equal: While you might be hitting your numbers, you could be missing out on fiber, nutrients, and essential amino acids that might otherwise assist some growth potential and training adaptations.
Side effects and minimizing effects of prolonged dieting
While the above listed diets mostly focus on healthy eating rather than simply restricting calories. It is important to be aware of potential side effects of prolonged dieting; and consuming calories lower than the daily recommended amount for an extensive period of time:
- Metabolic adaptation – the body gets used to low calories and becomes efficient at dealing with reduced energy intake. In other words, the metabolism slows down.
- Hunger – during dieting hunger may increase. Ghrelin, or the hunger hormone increases appetite, food intake and fat storage.
- NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) reduces with prolonged dieting.
- Diet fatigue – food boredom and reduced adherence to the diet may result in mindless snacking, secret treats or an increase in portion sizes.
Adhering to the diet and beating hunger
- Lifestyle and social support: lifestyle factors such as more physical activity and extended social support systems can help to adhere to diets. Joining fitness groups or classes will help to keep you on track. Having a network of like-minded and supportive people will help to detract from potential negative influences.
- Intervention: Short term interventions such as controlled refeeds and overfeeding (sometimes referred to as reverse dieting) can help to rebalance effects of dieting. Refeeds involving 2-3 consecutive days of increased carb or fat intake may offset metabolic adaptation and replete muscles with glycogen. Studies have shown that 3 days consecutive carb overfeeding can help to stimulate insulin secretion.
- Volume eating: To beat hunger hormones and cravings, high volume, low-calorie meals will help you to stay on track. Whole foods, high protein, veggies and plain popcorn are great options to satisfy your hunger.
Making sustainable lifestyle choices
Avoid being drawn to fad diets. At the end of the day, when choosing a way of eating, whether you want to maintain a constant body weight, gain or lose weight, ask yourself: ‘does this work for me?’ ‘is this enjoyable and enhancing my life?’ and ‘can I eat this way forever?’
Be kind to yourself and treat yourself with patience around food and other lifestyle practices – find what works best for you to enable new healthy habits to get off the ground.
If a diet makes you feel restricted, anxious or if there are unpleasant side effects, it’s probably not for you (stress and emotional eating are key reasons for diets to hit the skids). Sustainability, affordability and pleasure are the most important things to consider when making lifestyle changes.
Look for ways of eating that provide you with everything you need, not only nutritionally and cost effectively, but in terms of the foods you love and can’t go without. Look for a diet that can be used as a solid core and allows you to continue doing the things you enjoy.
The key to maintaining a healthy weight in the long term is an eating pattern that is flexible and sustainable over time.