There is a lot of nutrition and diet information out there huh? I think we can all agree that it is so frustrating and confusing when there is so much out there with promises of fat loss because of this rule or that rule (low-carb diets, cut out carbs, eat cleaner, zero sugar, etc.) And a lot of times those diets do work … for a little while. But What happens when you cut out all carbs and then you hit a weight loss plateau? When your weight loss stalls… What do you do then… eat negative carbs? Doesn’t make sense does it? There’s a lot of popular myths that I want to touch on today to help you see past the little tricks that make you think that a certain way of eating is the source of fat loss. Or that a particular rule is the magical source of fat burning… I’m not saying that any of these diets are wrong or inherently bad, but I simply want to get to the source of the how and the why of weight loss for each one
Ok so let’s start with Low carb or no carb diets. And just fyi I’ve done every single diet that I’m about to talk about so this isn’t just me speaking on what I think.. I’ve experienced it, I’ve studied it with my school access to scholarly articles… , and so please know that while I am not a doctor, I’ve done my research, so I promise I’m not just giving you a sloppy opinion.
OK so , back to low carb/no carb diets. The goal with these diets and what they claim helps you lose fat is to eat as little carbs as possible, eating below the average recommended amount of 45-65% of caloric intake, and let your body get its energy from other sources like fats and protein. And since protein intake increases satiety, you are less likely to feel hunger. So since the body’s ultimate fuel source is carbohydrates, if you aren’t eating enough of them, your body goes to an alternate source of fuel called ketones. And with the low-carb or keto diet (about 20% or less carbs)_ your body will go into a state of ketosis claimed to accelerate weight loss. Now, there are studies that prove some benefits and some not so great side effects for those on a low fat or ketogenic diet. So, I’ll start with the positives… low carb diets, in patients with diabetes, showed to be beneficial for blood glucose levels and blood pressure concerns. With quick initial fat loss in those who are obese, there’s bound to be some positive changes right. You’re cutting out carbs, you’re eating higher fat and protein which makes you fuller for longer so you’re eating less than normal. However, I read about an 8 week study where participants dieted for 8 weeks… some on the low carb/high fat diet and some with low fat/high carb diet. After 8 weeks, both groups saw similar results in fat loss AND both groups saw improved insulin sensitivity.
The problem I see and read with low carb/no carb diets is that (and this is from a scholarly article produced in 2015) when the body has to rely on ketones alone, optimal physical performance is drastically reduced, studies show a decrease in brain functioning, increase in the body’s acidity, and an increased risk for osteoporosis. Reports from people on ketogenic diets claim to have more headaches, fatigue, back pain, insomnia, and metabolic damage. Yes in the short term it is likely you will lose weight.. but ketones are meant to be like an emergency back up… not a long-term source of energy for the body. Maybe you will lose weight in the short term, but you’re also missing out on some of the major health benefits that come from carbohydrate sources and provide you with essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
And so it’s claimed that With that your body will start burning through the fat instead of using up carbs first for energy. So that’s what this diet claims to do.
Now to the central issue. Is it something specific about eating fewer carbs that leads to actual fat loss? When you eat low carbs and high fat/high protein… you’re fuller for longer, there is more satiety, meaning you eat less than you did before you started the diet. What does that imply? … It implies that you are in a calorie deficit. What is a calorie deficit? It simply means that you are eating less than your body is burning. Energy in versus energy out. Your body is burning more energy than you are consuming and so you are losing fat.
It’s not some magical process in the diet … it’s simply getting you into a calorie deficit by lowering the carbs and eating more satisfying sources of food that keep you fuller for longer.
OK… on to the next…
So, you have your “eat clean” camp like Whole30. And look, I think eating that way is great! It’s healthy, and you should definitely be eating whole foods and nutritious foods for your HEALTH. But eating clean doesn’t necessarily mean fat loss. However, you should be eating whole foods more than processed foods.
So the goal here is to eat little to no processed foods. Organic Whole fruits, grains, veggies, meats etc. Nothing in a bag or a box… no processed foods. And so the thinking here is ok, If I’m only eating “healthy” foods then I have to lose fat, right? There’s nothing bad in it, I’m good to go. That’s the thinking behind fat loss with eating clean. But really, it’s more beneficial to your health, not necessarily an answer to fat loss. But you know what IS happening in addition to the health benefits? You are eating less calories because you are eating cleaner…
Thus, you are in a calorie deficit. Now, I’ve come across women who are frustrated because they eat clean, they’re active, but they can’t lose fat. And the problem is… they think that because they eat salads all day every day and kale for dessert that they should be losing fat… but are you in a calorie deficit? Are you adding a ton of oil to your food when you cook it or as a dressing? Those calories add up quick. Are you eating really high fat foods and not tracking how many calories? If not, that’s the reason you’re not losing fat. Because you are eating more calories than what your body is burning.
You have no sugar peeps who think sugar is of the devil and we shouldn’t consume its sinful sweetness. And while it’s true that sugar can cause weight gain, in excess, it isn’t necessarily the cause of fat gain if you are eating a small or moderate amount. Sugar will not make you gain fat if you are still in a calorie deficit.
Are you seeing the pattern yet??
You also have intermittent fasting where you only eat during a certain time frame , you have a window of time to eat and not to eat.. leading some people to believe that the time of day you eat impacts your weight loss or gain. But … if you have a limited amount of time to eat, it’s possible that you are eating less calories. And by eating less calories than before you started intermittent fasting, you are putting yourself in a ….. Calorie deficit!!!
So all of these diets and techniques (and there’s a ton more), but what they all have in common is a way to get you in a calorie deficit state .. meaning you’re eating less calories than before, hence your body is burning more than you eat.. and then you have fat loss. It’s not necessarily the rules they hold that cause fat loss.. it’s the fact that because you’re eating low carb, you are eating less food all together.. you’re in a calorie deficit. It’s when you eat clean, you eat fewer high calorie foods- hence, calorie deficit and fat loss. When you cut out sugar all together, you’re eating fewer calories once more and putting yourself in a deficit and having fat loss. Same thing with intermittent fasting… you only have a certain time frame to eat, so you’re eating less- leading to calorie deficit and fat loss. So they all initially induce a calorie deficit which is THE way to lose fat. But that’s not always the case.. yes these diets give people some structure helping them to reduce calories.. but not everyone 100% of the time that adheres to these diets lose fat like others do.. and why? Because they are still eating in either maintenance or surplus calories. Not a calorie deficit.
But here’s the problem with these diets… any kind of restriction is bound to fail long term. We as humans do all we can to muster up the willpower to hold fast to the rules that have been given to us, but eventually we fall off the wagon right? We all know that when someone tells us that we can’t do something, eat something, say something, our minds begin to dwell on that very thing. If I say, I’m never going to have carbs again, first of all, I’d feel extremely depressed, but eventually I'm going to start thinking about how good those carbs are and if this diet and losing the weight is really worth it after all. Then I give in, then I binge, and so begins this horrid cycle of yo yo dieting. You see the issue here. And the other issue is that once you’ve hit a weight loss plateau, which happens with anyone who has a significant amount of weight to lose… what are you going to do then? Eat cleaner, constantly increase your fasting window, lower your calories and carbs even more? Heck no! Third, most of these diets leave you deficient in key macro and micro nutrients which could lead to muscle mass loss (which in turn hampers your body’s ability to burn more fat). More muscle equals an increase in burning body fat which is what we want right…
It's all about calorie deficit. You have to eat less than what your body burns to lose fat. Period. End of story. But you have to have a variety of foods to optimally function.
So what happens when you have set your calorie deficit goal and you’ve been doing well for a couple of months and then you hit a plateau? Does it mean you have to go lower in calories. Maybe. But it could also mean that its time to go up in calories. Because your body adapts to what you give it. For instance, l was at a point in my weight loss journey where I was eating like 1200 calories (super low ok). Once I stopped losing weight even though I had about 5 more lbs I wanted to lose… do you think I should’ve gone down even lower. No way! That number is already super low and fyi I don’t’ recommend that unless you're a female under 5ft.
So… I increased my calories slowly. It’s called a reverse diet. I started by increasing my calorie intake by 100 calories more per day. I did that for a couple of weeks to let my body adjust burning the amount I was feeding it and kept creeping up in calories. Now I didn’t lose weight during the reverse, I actually just maintained my weight which is super exciting right because I was eating a lot more and not gaining fat! Yay!
But what happened is I worked my way up to maintenance calories (the amount of calories my body would need not to lose or gain fat).. I pushed as far as I could go in calorie intake without significant weight gain and after staying at maintenance for a while, I was then able to cut calories again and lose that extra weight. But this time since I was eating so much more calories, my deficit calorie intake was higher than before at 1200.
This is a great example of why fat loss takes time. Yes you can lose a lot if you cut for a couple of months in the beginning , but once you’ve stalled and you know you shouldn’t go lower in calories, it’s time to reverse diet so you can get back up as high in calories as you can go, so you can then eventually cut and lose that extra 5-10 lbs or whatever you have to lose. It’s a process but it’s a sustainable one that works. And no diet is going to give you the ability to manipulate the rules like you can you’re your calories. Again if you hit a plateau while in a no carb diet… you can’t eat negative carbs. What are your options right? You could exercise more to burn more energy, but what happens when you hit a plateau again? You see where I’m going?
That will never be a sustainable way of life… for me at least. And that’s why I choose to use macros and calorie intake goals. It’s still a healthy way of eating that doesn’t restrict foods, and leads to a balanced way of eating at 80% nutritious and 20 % less nutritious when you want to treat yourself.
So, I hope this gives a brief insight into why diets work in the beginning but are not always sustainable and why they can cause so much frustration for people who initially lose weight but stall out and either gain back to their original weight… or even gain more. Don’t let that happen to you anymore. Sustainable fat loss comes from a balanced approach to eating.
Let me know in the comments if this cleared up some things for you regarding diets. If you have questions, I'm here to help! Never hesitate to reach out!
Until next time,