16 June 2021
The person behind the diet – Part 1
By Tabby Knight When it comes to dieting for fat loss, the average person generally seems to relate feelings of suffering and misery with success. Seldom do people think that they can lose weight or fat without having to eliminate their favourite foods, avoid social outings and give up all of their diet-related pleasures. In turn, they struggle…
By Tabby Knight
When it comes to dieting for fat loss, the average person generally seems to relate feelings of suffering and misery with success. Seldom do people think that they can lose weight or fat without having to eliminate their favourite foods, avoid social outings and give up all of their diet-related pleasures. In turn, they struggle and despise the challenges that they know come with dieting. Oftentimes, these individuals set themselves up for failure by being too absolute with their approach, expecting perfection, and focusing only on the short term. They inevitably struggle to cope with the fatigue that comes with dieting, the inherent difficulties navigating their nutrition (especially in social settings) and are inadequately prepared to manage the side effect of a lengthy fat loss phase. Thus, when their progress suffers and they cease the diet, they claim it didn’t work.
Expecting to be perfect on your diet is setting you up for failure, this is because real life is not conducive to the perfect-eating attitude. It’s normal to want to follow the rules exactly when you first start. You trust that if you do so, you’ll be successful in melting off your unwanted fat. You’re convinced that this approach is the right one, until you hit the familiar speed bumps, such as overindulging with friends after a hefty work week, and your “perfection” comes to a grinding halt. Developing a flexible approach to dieting may actually improve your adherence. Studies have shown that flexible dieters (as opposed to rigid dieters) tend to weigh less, show better adherence and have less binge eating episodes in the long run (1). Being a flexible dieter includes adjusting expectations, not seeing food as good and bad, not demonising certain foods, and acknowledging the importance of purposefully overeating your weight loss calories, often known as re-feeding or eating at maintenance. As you can see, it isn’t all about tracking macros! Based off my experiences I can tell you that most of the time deliberately incorporating protocols such as re-feeds into your plan will actually enhance your ability to adhere. But unfortunately, too often people associate eating more food with a lack of progress. I can tell you first-hand that the correct implementation of a flexible dietcan be a determining factor to your success.
Losing weight is not fundamentally difficult. Eat less and exercise more – you’ll lose weight! But if it is this simple, why do we have an obesity pandemic and such a high prevalence of weight regain? It’s not that diets don’t cause weight loss, because they all do. At least as far as I can tell, the reason why many people struggle to attain the specific physiological state required for weight loss (an energy deficit) is partly their inability to avoid absolutes when dieting.
This ties into the premise of the article. It is the person behind the diet that dictates the outcome. More specifically, it is not the plan that is the issue (although it often can be), it is the individual behind the plan. It is the dieter that drives the success of the diet. When dieters expect perfection and think in black and white, they struggle to see the shades of grey. An all or nothing mentality views any slip up, no matter how big or small, as a complete and utter failure. The diet is thus abandoned and often the binge cycle begins.
Now, I can’t say that you’ll make any progress without some form of restraint. You simply can’t afford to eat out all of the time and go over your macros on a regular basis, especially if in a serious fat loss phase such as a contest prep. For the average dieter though, restraint does not have to equal restriction. If you have modest weight loss or body composition goals, taking a more flexible approach that includes learning how to go off script from time to time and “minimise the damage” will only increase your chances of success. If you take the attitude that anything less than absolute perfection is a failure and that you need to be ‘perfect’ in order to progress, you are setting yourself up for misery and failure from the get-go.
It is rare to see perfectly linear fat loss without stalls or plateaus. I can assure you, across my 12+ month prep, my weight fluctuated weekly. The reality is, if you have a lot of fat to lose, you need to start thinking in the long term, you will need to make changes to your diet and activity that last. As a secondary issue, dieters seem to think that once they have lost the weight, they can revert to their old habits and keep the weight off. For a short period, these individuals change their eating habits drastically, drop the weight then revert back to the lifestyle that caused the weight gain in the first place. For this reason, a profound argument exists for making small, sustainable lifestyle changes to your eating and daily habits and avoiding the type of extreme rigid approach mentioned earlier. This is because small, manageable changes are easier to maintain in the long run, even though they might not generate the rapid results which you are after. But that’s almost the trade off! Small changes that cause slower progress are more sustainable in the long run; and the extreme perfectionist approach generates rapid results that are merely impossible to sustain. Whether you want to accept the truth or not, the only way you will lose weight and maintain the loss is to adopt some of the diet and exercise habits you changed permanently.
Key point: Diets don’t fail per se. Diets that are only followed in the short-term fail to produce long-term results.
Now, there are some exceptions where results have to be obtained in a short period of time and mistakes can’t really be accepted. One of these exceptions being a contest prep. I’ll admit, undergoing a contest prep involved some obsessive dedication to my nutrition. I really did begin to strive for perfection with my food choices, however, even then I included some deliberate breaks for both my psychological and physiological health. With the incorporation of re-feeds into my fat loss phase I was able to better adhere to the plan and see it out until I hit the stage. Re-feeds allowed me to feel more satiated and energised and implementing these re-feeds frequently may have helped me retain muscle mass and sustain my training performance over an extended period of time.
Like I said, dieting for weight loss is fundamentally easy, but the underlying triggers make it all that much harder. To your body, becoming too lean is a threat to survival. When we lose body fat, leptin, a hormone that is capable of sensing energy status, decreases. Leptin is one of the primary hormones which tells our brain how much energy we have stored (as fat) and how much we are eating. Leptin (along with other hormones) send an integrated signal to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and signal a warning when calories are low. Our leptin levels can regulate metabolic rate, hunger, hormonal balance and appetite. Thus, when we diet, a number of physiological processes change. For one, our sympathetic nervous system functioning goes down which slows our metabolic rate, our cortisol levels increase (putting us under more stress) and hormone functioning is dysregulated. All these processes urge us to abandon our restricted diets.
Now there isn’t a single approach to dieting that works for every individual, whether it be restricting fats, carbs or other nutrients, each method causes a skew in how many calories you’re consuming relative to what you’re burning. It’s finding a method that works for you. In saying that, a requirement I believe must be adhered to in order to maximise dieting success is sufficient protein consumption.
Protein is the most appetite-blunting nutrient, so consuming an adequate protein-rich diet will help you minimise calories consumed throughout the day and keep you feeling fuller for longer. Furthermore, protein can also increase your energy expenditure, through the thermic effect of food, which refers to the number of calories burnt throughout the digestion of food. Protein, out of all the macronutrients, has the highest thermic effect, meaning that when protein consumption is high, the thermic effect of food rises substantially, thus helping to skew the calories in versus calories out equation in your favour (2). Last but not least, a sufficient protein intake will ensure that your body doesn’t use muscle for energy throughout a long-term weight loss diet, and thus will help with muscle retention. This is a crucial aspect of any fat loss diet, from both a body composition and a health standpoint – if you simply want to lose weight, losing muscle will actually help with that, but it won’t make you look any better! Along with a high protein intake, a well put diet should also consist of plenty of vegetables. Vegetables help to add volume to meals, ensuring you stay full throughout the day. Beyond these requirements, I’m a big believer that the rest simply comes down to factors appropriate to the individual. This includes meal timing, meal frequency and even factors such as social support. It’s no lie that the best diet for long term weight loss success is the one best adhered to. And that means the “best diet” may look different for everyone! The one thing that all successful diets likely have in common though, is…
As the name suggests, the basic idea of flexible dieting is that you aren’t expecting absolute perfection and strictness in your dieting behaviour – one of the fundamental reasons that I mentioned causes diet failure. Losing weight still requires some rigidity, and taking a flexible approach isn’t an excuse to break your diet, but it’s important for you to understand that expecting yourself to adhere to your diet 100% without exception is generally a recipe for disaster.
Here are some key tips for anyone who has previously taken a rigid dietary approach or wants to simply improve their current flexible approach:
- Implement maintenance weeks, re-feeds and un-tracked meals so that you have a sense of control over your diet.
- Ensure you’re consuming a diet rich in protein – around twice your bodyweight (kg) in grams of protein.
- Consume plenty of vegetables / high volume – low calorie dense foods.
- Match your diet to your lifestyle. This means being aware of meal timing and meal frequency.
With time, just like anything, you may be able to diet successfully and apply a flexible approach into your daily life whilst maintaining just enough rigidity to maintain routine and structure. I like to think of this as flexible restraint, whereby you can keep control over your flexible diet. This is what works for me.
- Stewart, T., Williamson, D. and White, M., 2002. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 38(1), pp.39-44. (Stewart, Williamson and White, 2002).
- Healthline. 2021. How Protein Can Help You Lose Weight Naturally. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-protein-can-help-you-lose-weight#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3> [Accessed 4 June 2021].