Why do so many people diet hop, year after year, without ever making lasting progress? It’s a million dollar question I only wish I had all the answers to.
While there’s undoubtedly some that will accept nothing less than a magic pill/food/exercise, I believe there’s plenty of others who are simply confused about what’s really important in the fat loss process. This post is my attempt to help the latter.
The truth is that many different diets can lead to healthy, sustainable fat loss. Yet despite their differences, I’ve noticed most of them share a common set of characteristics, in that each one:
- Creates a caloric deficit
- Includes all macros (in sufficient quantities)
- Focuses on food quality
- Fits your personality and lifestyle
- Includes your favorite foods
- Transitions to maintenance
Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.
1. Creates a Caloric Deficit
If there’s one “secret” to fat loss, it’s this:
You need to burn more calories than you consume (calories in < calories out).
This creates what’s known as a caloric deficit, or negative energy balance.
You don’t have to be in a deficit every single day, but averaged out over time (weeks, months, etc.) you’d better be in the red for fat loss to happen.
In practice there are various ways a diet may go about this, including:
- Portion Control – Limits the amount of food you eat by manipulating portion sizes.
- Restricted Choices – Limits which foods you can eat.
- Restricted Feeding Windows – Limits when you can eat.
- Tracking – Requires you to record information about the foods you eat (calories, Weight Watchers points, etc.).
The important thing to note is that all of the above are simply different ways of putting you in a deficit.
Keep this in mind if your diet touts any of “magical” fat loss foods. In reality you’re just been tricked into eating less.
Bottom Line: Your diet must put you in a caloric deficit.
2. Includes All Macros (in sufficient quantities)
Macronutrients, or macros, are the substances our bodies require in the largest amounts – as opposed to micronutrients, which are required in much smaller amounts.
In other words, macros provide us with energy (calories) from the foods and drinks we consume.
To better illustrate this, think of total calories as your budget and macros as the categories where you spend your money.
Using this analogy, your “budget” may be 2000 calories per day, which you can then “spend” on:
- Protein (4 calories/gram)
- Carbohydrates (4 calories/gram)
- Fats (9 calories/gram).
- Technically alcohol too (7 calories/gram), though it’s not actually required by the body.
If you want to dig a bit deeper, this macros guide is a great read. However, for the purposes of this post, here are the take home points:
- Each macro plays an important role in your overall health.
- No macro should be eliminated or severely restricted from your diet long term (unless directed by a medical professional).
- Carbs aren’t evil.
- Neither are fats or protein.
- No macro will “make you fat” unless you overeat.
Bottom Line: If you’re a healthy individual, your diet should include a good mix of protein, carbs, and fats. Exact proportions may vary between diets, but be skeptical of any diet that recommends severely limiting or excluding any macro long term.
3. Focuses on Food Quality
Believe it or not, it’s entirely possible to reach your fat loss goals eating nothing but junk food. Used improperly, IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) is one example of this. As is the nutrition professor that lost 27 pounds on a diet of twinkies and donuts.
However, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that regularly eating like crap is not in your best interest if health is a priority.
So even though losing fat is the goal, you’ll want to stick with eating primarily micronutrient dense foods – such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, low fat dairy, and healthy fats – that will keep you healthy in the long run.
As an added bonus, many of these foods will help keep you fuller for longer – a big plus when you’re in a deficit.
Bottom Line: Your diet should focus on eating nutritious, whole or minimally processed foods most of the time.
4. Fits Your Personality and Lifestyle
If your diet has checked all our boxes so far, there’s a good chance you’re on the right track – but healthy fat loss is only part of the equation. There’s another equally important detail we haven’t discussed.
In the end, the most thoughtfully planned diet out there won’t do you much good if it makes you miserable. Sure, you can probably white knuckle your way through it for awhile, but you’re never going to stick to a diet you hate.
So how do you determine if a diet might be a good fit?
This is one area where a good coach can really help, but it largely boils down to trusting your instincts.
Look at the diet’s guidelines – do you see anything you think might make it difficult to sustain? If yes, it should raise a red flag.
Here are just a few examples that might warrant a change of direction:
- You’re hungriest first thing in the morning, but your diet makes you skip breakfast.
- You travel most of the time, but your diet requires frequent shopping and meal prep.
- You feel most satisfied eating 2-3 larger meals a day, but your diet requires 6 smaller ones.
- Your diet has you regularly eating kale, but you have to choke down every bite.
Now make no mistake, even a diet that may be suited to you isn’t all roses.
There will be times you’re hungry and uncomfortable in a caloric deficit. What’s important is that you find one that makes the process as painless as possible and minimizes your reliance on willpower.
On a related note, if it’s been awhile (or a lifetime) since you’ve really paid attention to what you’re eating, completely overhauling your current diet may be too extreme. In this case, a good alternative to jumping right into traditional dieting is to focus on one small, manageable habit at a time.
The reasoning is centered around change psychology. Basically, the fewer things you focus on at once, the greater your chances of success in the long run. The trade off with this approach is that results will usually take a bit longer – but if you can deal with the delayed gratification, the long term results can be incredible.
Bottom Line: Find a diet that matches your personality and lifestyle. Focusing on small, manageable, healthy habits will dramatically increase your chances of long term success.
5. Includes Your Favorite Foods
I probably could have included this with #4, but I think it’s important enough to deserve it’s own section.
Anyways, this one’s short and sweet.
Your diet should allow you to eat your favorite foods.
Specifically, I’m talking about foods that wouldn’t normally be thought of as diet-friendly: pizza, ice cream, potato chips, etc.
Call it flexible dieting, IIFYM, whatever – just know that any diet that makes the foods you love off limits is setting you up for failure.
If you’re eating the nutritious foods your body needs most of the time, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a treat or two.
Trust me, it’ll help keep your sanity in check.
Bottom Line: Your diet should allow you to eat the foods you enjoy (in moderation).
6. Transitions to Maintenance
Congrats, you’ve finally hit your fat loss goal!
You’re officially ready to transition to a new phase in the dieting process.
Like taking the training wheels off a bike, your diet should have prepared you to move forward on your own. This means mapping out a plan so you can maintain the changes you’ve made in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
Sadly, many diets conveniently ignore this important detail. Those juice diets and other quick fixes may help you drop a few quick pounds, but they’re almost a guaranteed one way ticket back to where you started.
Fact is, maintaining fat loss should be much easier losing it in the first place (for starters, since you no longer need to be in a deficit, you can now eat more). Often it’s just a matter of making a few small tweaks to what you’re already doing.
Bottom Line: Your diet should go beyond just helping you lose fat and teach you the skills needed to maintain your changes in the long run.
So there you have it. Regardless of which diet you follow, keep these foundations in mind and you’ll be well on your way to healthy and permanent fat loss.