Can you even count the number of fad diets anymore?
I can’t, and I make my living talking about nutrition, sport-performance and strength training. Clearly, there’s something funky going on with the way that we deal with diet.
I’m not even going to tell you about my favorite approach to dieting today – that’s how serious I am with this. We’re all exhausted with these “my team is better” approaches to diet and nutrition!
This piece is all about the real-world and how you deal with dieting in a way that isn’t dull, drab, and full of people shouting about which side is best.
The Big One: Everything Kinda Works
Ever wonder why there’s so much debate in diet and nutrition? Why people with radically different approaches to diet are still arguing about their method being the best?
It’s actually quite simple: a lot of diets work1 – even if only by accident. You see, almost every diet, fad or otherwise, reduces calorie intake. This means that they’re going to make some people lose some fat – even indirectly.
Far from bashing this, I think it’s awesome. I won’t always say that these diets are optimal, but if people are getting healthier and fitter then it’s a win.
Obviously, making everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside isn’t the point of this article. What it is, rather, is a follow-up to that realization. Everyone’s already discussed the fact that different diets can bring about weight loss through calories, so what’s next?
Well I’m glad you asked.
The Goal: Building A Full Dieting Toolkit
This is the real goal of nutrition. It’s not about proving that your diet is better than the others – it’s about knowing when a diet is appropriate and for whom.
This should be common sense but it doesn’t seem to have sunk in just yet. Imagine if someone asked you if they should train bench or squats. That doesn’t seem to make sense – the answer is either “yes” or a really confused face. I prefer to do both at once.
The point is that these two exercises aren’t competitors – they have totally different goals, methods, and results. If you want to sit down and stand up but really hard, you’ll choose the squats. On the other hand, if you want to fill out your t-shirt, you’ll choose the bench press. Duh.
So Why Don’t We Treat Dieting this Way?
As a writer and a generally-knowledgeable fitness-y bloke, I’ve been asked countless questions that take the general format of “should I use diet x or diet y?”. I use the same answer as before – “yes” and a confused face.
The reality is that a diet is only useful in the context of your goals, medical history and a whole bunch of other factoids that I don’t know about you. I need more information.
So, clearly, it’s time to re-frame the whole question of dieting. The goal of this article is simply to try and push our dieting approach a little bit further away from “what diet is best” towards “what diet best suits my needs”. After all, specificity to your goal is something we’ve practiced in sport science for decades2.
Building a Big Arsenal
Right. Time for the actionable stuff – the stuff you (at least try to) implement in your life.
I’m going to start by saying it: the popular fad diets right now are actually awesome in their own right.
When I look back at the types of diets that were being proliferated seriously in gyms even a decade ago, they were awful. Restrictive diets, early juicing diets, stimulant-supported diets, and all that awful junk that gave dieting so much of a bad reputation that people like to pretend it doesn’t work.
However, modern “fad” diets aren’t anything like that. I only call them fad-ish because they have something of a cult following or miracle status, often over-blown by gurus who have tried to turn a small positive into a whole business. These people aren’t to be trusted, but the diets themselves are actually pretty decent.
I’m going to deal with the three elephants in the room because they provide the best approach to a new, not-stupid method of dealing with diets. It’s called ‘using the right tool for the problem’ and it’s how we managed to become the dominant species on earth.
Keto is the new-wave revamp of the Atkin’s diet – except now it’s cool (apparently).
Keto is all about dropping carbs. The point of this diet (at least in the scientifically-credible Jeff Volek version3) is to reduce carb intake so your body keto-adapts, becoming more efficient using fats as a fuel source.
As it so happens, this is an actual thing and the research is starting to focus on it, showing that this process does happen, but it can take a few months to really get rolling.
How Do You Use It?
The keto diet is actually pretty good for endurance athletes and has been growing in scientific support since 2015 with a few studies discussing the positive effects4.
It might also be a good way of dealing with the risks of brain disease that come into play during advanced aging. This is especially true if you focus on your poly-unsaturated fats and the super-awesome Omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, in particular5.
For healthy people who don’t like running marathons (I fulfill at least one of these criteria), it’s a decent method to dealing with a diet that’s jam-packed full of sugar.
Behavior change is one of the biggest, most-important aspects of dietary change, and keto can be a good way of bashing down those sugar cravings – even if you’re only using it for 3-6 months.
Paleo is definitely more of a fad than keto. It suggests that you should eat what cavemen ate, to which I have some general criticisms:
- Who cares what they ate? There’s no scientific studies in cavemen, and they had a weird tendency to die all the time. This is a weird choice.
- Archaeological/anthropological evidence suggests that they ate a whole bunch of grains.6
- Stop cutting out pulses and wholegrains7 – they’re awesome plant foods.
Once I’m past my personal hang-ups with it, paleo actually isn’t a bad idea in practice. It advocates for more unprocessed foods, a reduced intake of refined carbs (especially sugars) and promotes the consumption of lean meats and veggies.
While it restricts some great foods, it also pushes some other great foods on you. Where I come from, we call this swings and roundabouts.
How Do You Use It?
The point of paleo is dropping out highly-refined foods. This has some overlap with keto, primarily in the fact that you don’t get to stuff your face with twinkies. Imagine how that might affect your health!
Unlike keto, however, it’s not going to drop carbs entirely (even if it has arbitrary limits on what is “paleo” or not). It also means that you don’t get the same kind of pro-fat diet you get in keto, which is important for dropping out things like heavily-processed pink meat (like sausages and bacon).
Paleo is going to be really useful for you if you tend to snack on sugary crap and processed fats. Basically, it’s a good way of giving yourself a black/white framework for dealing with your bad habits.
Another example of a cool 21st century fad, intermittent fasting is another legit approach with its own benefits to health.
As with the others, it also comes with its own hucksters who are trying to cash in on it by preaching it as the one true diet. Ignore those people, but don’t ignore IF as a method.
IF is about restricting your food intake at sometimes of the day – or week – and then eating at other times. Super vague, so here’s an example: you don’t eat for 18 hours a day, then you eat for 6 hours. That’s your “feeding window”.
There’s no magic weight-loss properties here, but you do get some benefits. The research is sketchy on the ground, but calorie restriction is a decent way of boosting some health markers, sometimes, in some people. Great.
How Do You Use It?
If you suck at dieting because you graze all the time (snacking between meals), IF is an awesome process for managing your overall intake. It’ll help break that habit over the course of a few weeks of adherence and, hopefully, result in some improved dietary habits when you switch back.
It’s probably not the most sustainable in the long-term as it’s a pretty extreme approach, but that’s personal preference and if you can stick with it then it’s not particularly unhealthy. You’re just going to be grumpy and hangry 16 hours a day (except for the 8-10 you should be sleeping).
What’s the Common Thread?
The point of these diets is simple: they have different situations where they’re the best solution. They’re also directed not only at the scientific benefits, but at behavior change.
If you’ve read any of my other work, you’ll note that I’m a big fan of this concept. You are at the center of your diet as a human with experiences and feelings and habits. We can’t pretend you don’t exist, or that you’re a black box with inputs and outputs but no autonomy.
The diet you can stick to is the best one to use – and sometimes that means going for a diet that directly tackles bad habits and changes behaviours, rather than a scientifically-optimal one. You’d not do badly to use the 3 mentioned above, as they indirectly provide scientifically-badass results.
Making the most of your diet is as simple as being able to identify where you fall down in previous diets. Having the self-awareness and humility to know where you need to get better is the main step in choosing from these 3 diets.
The reality is that they’re all relatively effective – hence the debate between their followers – and their target aspects of dieting that aren’t simply about the science and the stats.
The best diet is the one that you can stick to. As fitness enthusiasts, writers and coaches (I go 3/3 here), we need to develop a better understanding of how to deploy diets strategically. Nutritional interventions have to be just as goal-oriented as a training plan or competition-day strategy.
Let’s hope that we see more discourse and a more nuanced approach to diets. It’s clear that the market needs it, and the people who are doing the dieting need a more honest, effective approach!
- Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone Diets for Weight Loss and Heart Disease Risk Reduction
- Resistance training modes: specificity and effectiveness.
- Low Carbohydrate Diets for Athletes
- Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA
- Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing
- Whole Grains and Pulses: A Comparison of the Nutritional and Health Benefit