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How to choose a diet that will work and maximise results

Posted on | Last updated 05-04-2016

Bruce Lee is probably one of the most iconic figures of our time. His movies are legendary and he is credited with bridging some of the cultural gap which existed in America by being the first person to openly accept white Americans into his martial arts classes.

More than this, though, Lee was a modern philosopher, credited with some exceptionally wise quotes and phrases which have become posters, internet images and even tattoos. My personal favourite is this, said in reference to the various fighting styles which he adopted and combined to create his own system:

Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.

I like this quote so much because it relates so well to training and nutrition – which is the stuff I tend to talk about. This is EXACTLY what we should do when we look at various different dieting protocols and approaches. As soon as you give a dieting system a name you create rules, and rules breed rigidity and dogmatism; but when you look beyond the book sales and the dedicated forums populated with avid, cult-like followers and analyse the dieting practice itself, you have a set of guidelines which millions of people, the world over, have used to get lean, become healthy, and perform at their best in day to day and athletic settings.

By only looking at the name, and the ‘prescribed rules’ we risk taking a diet too far, and risk suffering for the sake of adhering to arbitrary restrictions laid down by whoever wrote the first book. Any diet with a name was not created for YOU, it was created for the creator, through the tinted lenses of their world view in their situation and alongside their values. Unless you share all of these things, whatever dieting approach you choose will not suit you 100%.

Sure, you could pick one, follow it, and maybe get to where you want to be – but that’s not the way to look at it. If I wanted to get to my garden I could jump through the window and get there, but it’s not the easiest way nor is it the way with the fewest drawbacks. Forget the specifics of the approach and look at the actionable information, then see where that fits in to your life.

What we must do, therefore, is to look not at specific diets, but look at the recommendations they give and weigh up the positives, look at their drawbacks, and combine every approach you are aware of with a large dose of personal preference, and we will have something we can use. Let’s take a look at 4 popular dieting approaches and see what we can take from them, starting with the diet in vogue at the moment:

Paleo: What is it?

A diet which has many iterations, but the overarching theme is that we only eat foods which were around 10,000 years ago, before agriculture. Emphasis is placed on food quality (as described by the above rule and a few others, including organic and local in some circles) but not on quantity. What are the proposed benefits?

Paleo proponents claim that you will remove all of the foods which cause modern diseases and ‘inflammation’, you’ll lose weight, you’ll gain muscle, and you’ll live longer. This is, however, entirely unsupported.

What are the pros?

This diet focuses on whole foods, advocates a high protein intake and a large amount of vegetable consumption, and reduces intakes of added sugars, highly refined grains and sweetened beverages. This improves nutrient intakes and also reduces the risk of overnutrition by a significant amount. Herein lie some of the benefits which are claimed, above.

What are the cons?

Paleo dieting, in it’s strictest sense, advocates the removal of many foods which are in fact beneficial, such as whole grains, legumes and dairy. It also pays little or no attention to calories while advising a large intake of fatty meats and other added fats and therefore will only ‘work’ in terms of weight loss for those who happen to autoregulate their eating effectively. Finally, it’s highly restrictive and will make it very difficult to take part in numerous social situations.

What should we take from Paleo?

A whole foods approach should generally be the one you adopt, and protein, vegetables and fats should be the main things you pay close attention to with your overall food intake, adding carbohydrates after that according to lifestyle and athletic requirements. This will improve your health, energy levels and athletic progress.

IIFYM: What is it?

IIFYM is the extreme endpoint of ‘flexible dieting’ (here I’m taking the two as separate entities, as they basically are). Essentially IIFYM controls how much you eat, but not what and when. So long as your macronutrient needs are met by the end of the day, you can pretty much do what you like.

What are the proposed benefits?

This dieting strategy promises guaranteed results with no restrictions on food choices. Loose fat while eating burgers and gain muscle while skipping the post workout shake. There are, however, a few things which need to be addressed.

What are the pros?

Simply, it works. If you hit your numbers, your body composition will probably make predictable changes. There are also no restrictions on foods or timings meaning that you can fit your fitness goals into any lifestyle.

What are the cons?

As mentioned above, IIFYM is the extreme endpoint of flexible dieting which is the approach advocating flexibility over food choices. IIFYM, in it’s strictest sense, means that one could live on quest bars, protein powder and jelly babies if one wanted to, and though physique goals would be met, energy levels, nutrient deficiencies and dental health would likely suffer. Furthermore, this approach can lead to people obsessing over their numbers and, in the end, living a life which is no longer flexible because if a food cannot be weighed, it cannot accurately be tracked. It’s not uncommon to see on public forums that people are concerned about eating at the home of a family member or at a restaurant as food won’t be weigh-able.

What should we take from IIFYM?

Calorie and macronutrient control matters if you want to optimise body composition, and we cannot rely simply on hoping for the best when it comes to energy balance. Furthermore, there really aren’t any foods which must be universally avoided in order to maintain optimal health. Healthy eating involves including more variety, rather than excluding ‘bad things’.

Gluten Free: What is it?

(This could have been dairy or sugar free, too, it’s all the same thing, really)

Removing gluten from one’s diet is a current trend, which is really a problem in and of itself. Removing foods because it is trendy makes no sense at all, and unfortunately that is what is the case, the majority of the time. Gluten is a protein found in some grains which for some people can cause an adverse reaction. Those with celiacs disease can have symptoms ranging from digestive discomfort to death, while a non celiac gluten sensitivity is a hotly debated potential issue which has (depending on who you believe) roots as a non allergic food sensitivity, or a placebo effect. Removing gluten containing foods is done, in both instances, as a means of removing symptoms.

What are the proposed benefits?

(Here I’m not talking about those who are celiac, as for those people, the benefits are obvious and not really for debate)

The proposed benefits of removing gluten are as wide reaching as reducing inflammation, losing weight, improving cognitive function, lengthening your life and, of course, improving digestive issues. Whether any of this actually occurs is a very contentious topic.

What are the pros?

Well, for those who cut out gluten, it ‘works’. Those on a gluten free diet report reduced symptoms and overall improved health, either through removal of a genuine problem food or due to the phenomenon of ‘If you think you’ll feel better, you’ll feel better’. Removing gluten will typically reduce someone’s intake of highly refined grains and other ‘junk foods’ which contribute to over-nutrition, and of course removing gluten is unlikely to lead to any kind of nutrient deficiency.

What are the cons?

Well, in a lot of cases, there is no need to remove gluten. A lot of folks are doing it without looking into why, and are just drawing a ‘gluten is bad’ conclusion from nowhere. This means that they are making their diet needlessly restrictive. Removing a largely harmless substance from your diet should never be a blanket recommendation as it makes dietary adherence difficult, and serves no practical purposes.

What can we take from this approach?

There’s a very important lesson here, and it is this: Sometimes, you really do just need to listen to your body and do what feels right to you. There is a heated debate raging as to whether non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists or whether it’s something else, but for me, that’s not really the point. What we should take from that discussion is the very important message that for many/most people, gluten isn’t to be feared and shouldn’t be removed from the diet as standard procedure, but we can also take the other side. A lot of people report a reduction in certain symptoms by removing gluten from their food, and they FEEL GOOD. That means that, although the body of evidence doesn’t support a gluten free diet, some people just might benefit from adopting one. The huge popularity of gluten free dieting may be a marketing ploy or a gimmick, but if you feel better not eating pasta, well, don’t eat pasta (Just don’t tell everyone else they must do the same).

Use what is useful, discard the rest, add what is yours. 

Intermittent Fasting: What is it?

Simply, Intermittent Fasting is the practice of ‘not eating’ for a predetermined amount of time. This can range from 24-36 hour full day fasting, to 16 hour daily fasts which amount, more or less, to skipping breakfast. Other pseudo fasting protocols exist, too, which involve eating 500-600 calories for 1-2 days per week.

What are the proposed benefits?

IF promises effortless fat loss without feeling like you are dieting. Though a small amount of hunger will be experienced during the fasting periods (which goes away in time), the feeding windows allow for a far greater food intake than would usually be possible while still losing fat. Various other claims are made, too, ranging from longevity, reduced illness, improved body composition secondary to caloric restriction and even feelings of euphoria during fasting periods.

What are the pros?

Intermittent fasting should be viewed, really, as another means of calorie restriction. By not eating for a lot of the time, you will generally reduce your calorie intake without thinking, unless you make a conscious effort not to (some approaches involve calorie and macronutrient tracking for this reason). The claims made about hunger are true, too, because the feelings of hunger you get initially will go away after a short while as your body gets used to your new way of life.

This also makes life a whole lot easier. If you are safe in the knowledge that you can get up and just work until 1-2pm without having to break for food, you get a lot more done.

Additionally, IF can be an extremely useful tool for those who are obese or very overweight for a number of reasons involving insulin sensitivity etc, but mostly for another reason – IF helps you understand hunger. Many people go through life avoiding hunger at all costs: we have snacks in the car, at our desks and in our pockets so that, should hunger ‘strike’, we have an immediate cure. Foods are promoted as filling, and as a great way to live a life without hunger, but the fact is:

Hunger isn’t a bad thing, and if you are going to lose fat, you are going to be a little bit hungry some or a lot of the time.

IF protocols allow people to experience hunger. It helps you to understand the way it comes and goes in waves rather than increasing over time, and it helps you realise that just because you are hungry, nothing particularly bad will happen. This sounds like a small thing, but it can be critical for fat loss success.

Finally, some of the health claims surrounding IF and longevity or reduced risks of some illnesses are promising. It’s very, very early days and no conclusions should be made either way, but it’s an interesting area of research.

What are the cons?

IF isn’t all roses. First of all, we need to think of nutrient sufficiency. If you are eating 1-2 meals per day it can be difficult to consume the same wide range of micronutrients as you would eating 3-5 times. This can lead to issues down the road, especially when it comes to fibre needs.

Then there’s calories. If you are training then you are going to need to fuel that, and consuming the 3000+ calories most active males need per day in a short eating window can be difficult without resorting to ‘junk’ food.

Next, think about muscle gains (which is a topic close to the heart of a lot of you guys reading this). There’s a reasonable amount of evidence suggesting that spreading protein out over the course of a full day is beneficial from a muscle protein synthesis standpoint, and there may therefore be a few issues with only eating a couple of large doses.

Finally, most IF protocols don’t control for calories and this can lead to binge-like behaviour. Some people simply don’t deal well with hunger and once they start eating, they struggle to stop. This can mean that a 4 hour eating window can be more than enough to offset 20 hours of fasting, and of course a full day fast can be knocked out during normal days because the dieter may think they can eat whatever they like.

What can we take from this approach?

IF teaches us that skipping meals isn’t the end of the world. It also shows that hunger isn’t the devil and if we get hungry nothing bad actually happens. Pseudo fasting approaches like 5:2 can be very useful for sedentary populations who would struggle to reduce calories enough to lose weight given their already rock-bottom maintenance intakes, and of course the cons of IF teach us that, once again, calories do count – regardless of what you do.

Final thoughts

Look, everything works, at least for a while. That’s why in the BTN Academy we advocate an open minded approach which is aware of the underlying principles behind dieting, and which doesn’t focus on rules or guidelines laid out by people who want to sell books or approaches.

Nutrition NEEDS to be bespoke, and if we view the whole diet industry as a set of tools (the industry, not the people in it…) then we can look and see what works and what we don’t need. There are lessons we can take from everything: Herbalife teaches us that people like easy, the cabbage soup diet tells us that even the most stupid thing you can think of will ‘work’ in the short term and not kill anyone, veganism teaches us that you CAN get swole eating beans, and Slimming World teaches us the value of accountability and community.

Use what is useful, discard the rest, add what is yours.

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