Paleo. Atkins. Zone. Dukan. Bodybuilding. Raw. South Beach. Weight Watchers. If It Fits Your Macros. Carb Backloading. The list of diets is never-ending and for each one you research, you'll find gushing testimonials: "It worked for me, you've got to try it!" It's fair to assume that every diet you hear about has indeed worked for some people, for without success no diet would ever gain the traction necessary to be known the world over. With that being said, here's the dirty little secret that nobody ever talks about:
There isn't one diet that works for everyone.
Last week we discussed the history of nutrition advice and why we're afraid of carbs and confused by fats. Now, if you suffer from Celiac disease it's not hard to accept that a low-carb diet is likely a safe option for you; avoiding death is a great a motivator. But what if you're someone who's genetically pre-disposed to favourably metabolise carbohydrates? You can try cramming a high-fat diet down your throat because you've read that carbs are evil and insulin will make you fat, but given your individual genetic makeup your odds of improving body composition or health on such a diet are miniscule.
Unfortunately for us humans, we aren't manufactured in a factory and don't come stamped with dietary recommendations. For this reason, it's up to us as individuals to take the information at hand and to make the best decisions my listening to our own bodies. Let's take a look at some of the basics that can help you determine the diet strategy that's best for you.
Why we need carbs
Dietary carbohydrate has one major purpose: To provide energy. Carbs are broken down in the body to produce glucose and the brain and central nervous system require roughly 130g of this substrate daily to function optimally. It's so important for the body to receive this glucose that it has evolved with the ability to manufacture the necessary amount from other sources in lieu of adequate dietary carb intake. Although glucose is important for health, dietary carbs aren't an essential daily macronutrient because we can generate everything we need from other sources.
If dietary carbs are not used immediately for energy, the body will then store them for future use. The preferred means of storage is within muscle as glycogen. When humans perform demanding bouts of exercise like sprinting or lifting a heavy weight, stored carbs (in the form of muscle glycogen) are depleted to produce energy. For this reason, the one area in which carbs are indisputably required is during high-intensity activity, meaning carbs are critical for athletes competing in power, strength or speed sports.
By contrast, people who do not exercise at high intensities are rarely tasked to deplete their stores of muscle glycogen. For individuals who fit this sedentary description, consistent consumption of carbohydrate-rich meals will therefore lead to increased fat storage. With muscle glycogen stores constantly at capacity, the body has no choice but to store extra energy as body fat.
Why we need fats
Dietary fats have a much broader scope of necessity and have several important functions in the human body including but not limited to:
- Energy (as per the 9 kcals per gram, fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient)
- The production of hormones
- The formation of our cell membranes
- The formation of our brains and nervous system
- The transport of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K
For these reasons, an excessively low-fat diet can lead to long-term health ramifications. It's also important to note that although the human body is excellent at taking food and creating the necessary substrates, it cannot synthesize two fats that are essential for health: Omega-6 linoleic acid and the Omega-3 family, ALA, EPA & DHA.
Linoleic acid is widely available through products containing processed oils, however, the most important Omega-3s (DHA and EPA) can only meaningfully be attained through oceanic sources. Having a balanced intake of Omega-3s vs. Omega-6s is critical for optimal health and the prevention of inflammation and disease. It is for this reason that wild fish and grass-fed dairy are superfoods and yet another reason why sugar and processed foods should be minimized.
From an energy perspective, fats provide more energy than carbs. If you have 10% body fat your have more than 30,000 calories of energy stored on your body. Fats are the preferred source of energy during low to moderate-intensity activity, which is the majority of the human existence. This is good to remember when you have cravings for carbohydrate-rich snacks; fight this urge and your body will be forced to burn fat to release energy.
It is important to note that excessive dietary fats, much like excessive dietary carbs, will be converted to body fat. A high-fat-high-carb diet will ultimately lead to increased body fat.
What are your needs?
When trying to find the best diet for you as an individual, don't rely on message boards or testimonials but instead ask yourself what's best for you. Many people have found success on both low-fat and low-carb diets, so keep an open mind and take the approach that will work best for your lifestyle.
For active and healthy populations
As a general rule of thumb, low-fat tends to be an effective short-term solution for people who are already healthy and active and who are looking to "lean-out". Going low-fat (less than 50g) for an extended period of time is a risky proposition for health, so this is a strategy to be used temporarily and with discretion.
If you want to give low-fat a go, start slowly right around the 50g mark daily. Fats are very energy-dense so stripping too many from the diet at once will put you in a very low calorie range and leave you little wiggle-room for further maneuvering. Given that fats are important for health, schedule a few higher-fat meals each week to make sure your hormones stay happy. It is important to note that most products labeled "low-fat" contain added sugar, so if your goal is to improve body composition or health, these products are not an acceptable solution for full-fat products.
For inactive and overweight, obese populations
Low-carb carries fewer health-risks and is almost always health-promoting due to the associated reduction in sugar intake. This tends to be a better solution for the majority of people, especially those who are overweight or obese and who will need to first reduce inflammation and gut issues before being able to achieve sustainable results.
If you go low-carb, start by consuming carbs relative to the physical demands of your lifestyle: eat more carbs on the days when you exercise and fewer on the days when you find yourself inactive and often seated. A low-carb approach for inactive days would be under 100g daily, but it's safe and effective to stay under 50g by avoiding starches and sugars entirely.
"The moral of the story is that the concept of dieting is dead."
If you're not sure where to start, my advice is to simply flip the script. If you've been eating a ton of carbs (which is the case for most people), try reducing them and see how your body responds. If you've been low-carb for at least a few months and haven't seen results, try a lower-fat approach and go from there. Finally, remember that processed foods, be they labelled "low-fat" or "low-carb", are not a healthy solution for either approach.
Important considerations that can sabotage any diet
Gut health is a massively important topic when it comes to losing body fat. There are approximately 10 times as many bacteria in your gut than there are cells in your entire body. If your gut bacteria have a problem, you have a major problem. These bacteria survive on dietary carbohydrate, so if you're experiencing signs of gut problems (weight gain, gastrointestinal issues, skin problems, headaches) your best bet is to starve some of these bad bacteria by eliminating sugar and processed foods in the diet. Artificial sweeteners and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs can also negatively impact gut health, so limiting these products is another step towards better health and body composition.
Many people also suffer from abdominal pain and bowel disorders such as IBS, bloating and constipation: all of these are red flags and should not be considered "normal". Functional gastrointestinal disorders can be caused by a variety of foods in the diet which can lead to gut inflammation along with compromised digestion and poor nutrient absorption. The list of potentially culpable foods is long, but includes low-quality processed meats, dairy, and almost all carb sources, including fruits and some vegetables.
If you are dealing with gut issues, your best bet is consult with an expert who can help you identify the suspect foods and assist you with implementing a thorough and effective elimination diet. A low FODMAP diet is often a good place to start. Not only will an elimination process improve your gut health, but it will show you the foods that work best for your body and take the guess-work out of which type of diet approach is best for you.
Finding the approach for you
In summary, whether you go low-carb or low-fat, sustainable improvements to health and body composition will stem from the following habits:
Choose a diet that fits your lifestyle. Be realistic about your environment, the foods you love and the people who influence you. By acknowledging and owning your vices but simultaneously compromising certain short-term desires for long-term goals, you can create an effective plan that can truly work.
Manage calories by selectively minimizing either fats or carbs. Note that I didn't say drastically limit calories or diligently count calories. Calories are not the be-all-end-all and food quality absolutely matters. The human body is far more complex than simple addition and subtraction.
Prioritize nutrients in the diet. You can do this by prioritizing whole foods, notably quality protein sources and fresh produce. Nutrients promote health, and health produces a lean body composition.
Eat foods that agree with your body. If you're having gastrointestinal or skin issues, track what you're eating and work to eliminate any foods that could be the cause. A happy gut will lead to happy results.
Be consistent. A healthy body will only come as the result of a healthy lifestyle built over time. Start by making one small healthy decision, stick to it until it's part of who you are, and then take another step. These habits create the foundation for long-term health.
Enjoy the process. When it comes to nutrition there are no concrete rules. Try a low-carb diet for a few weeks and then switch it up and go low-fat for a bit. By rotating these strategies (and keeping protein high) you'll maintain muscle mass and a healthy metabolism without the stress of counting calories or growing bored of constantly eating the same things.
The moral of the story is that the concept of dieting is dead. In order to achieve meaningful improvements to health and body composition you have to tailor your eating habits to your individual lifestyle and needs. Rome wasn't built in a day and as with anything else in life, impactful results take time. Find the foods that work for you, show self-compassion when things go a bit off the rails, and treat every day as an opportunity for improvement. There may not be one best diet, but with the proper effort and attention you can surely find the best diet for you.
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