“I don’t know what to believe.”
If you’ve ever read a fitness magazine or searched for any health-related information on the Internet, this is probably how you feel. Or, maybe it’s more like, “WTF! Why does every piece of information contradict one another?”
Every day, it can seem like something is bad…and then good…and then bad again. At some point, you might even wonder what is safe to eat.
First carbs are bad, then fats, and even protein is criticized (wrongly) for causing kidney issues.
The campaigns to push dietary agendas are enough to make you think Paleo and Atkins are running against Mediterranean and Low-Sugar for the office of diet supremacy. Like any election, all candidates have their flaws, but that doesn’t mean they are fundamentally flawed. The diets that work are the ones that align with food preferences and lifestyle in a way that just fits.
And while you can safely assume any plan that includes the words “cookie” or “miracle” is full of shit, trying to tackle every new diet trend would be an impossible task.
Instead of naming names, here are three simple tips to help you figure out what actually works and what might work best for you.
Don’t believe any plan that points out one “enemy.”
So many new trends in the health and fitness world use smart marketing techniques to both scare you and promise quick results.
Weight loss is a complex topic. If something promises to change one thing and everything will get better, then it’s probably a lie.
That’s because your ability to lose fat will be determined by calories, but that’s only a small piece of the picture. It’s also influenced by the quality of those calories, your hormones, stress levels, your health history, genetics, the exercise you perform, age, your family history, and a host of other factors.
Does that mean you need to become an expert in nutrition in order to start a new eating plan? Most definitely not. But, it does mean that if any diet suggests changing one element is the “key to success,” you should be skeptical.
And yet, look for any diet book, and any of the following are singled out as the “primary” cause of weight gain:
- Late-night eating
- Elimination of overnight meals
- Processed and/or packaged foods
Can adjusting your diet around these principles lead to weight loss? Of course. But, it’s likely not the long-term solution.
In general, you want to limit unnecessary restriction of foods you might enjoy. Completely removal limits the likelihood that you’ll stick with the plan, and that means it’s designed to fail.
For example, some people might have to avoid certain foods or ingredients because of food allergies (this topic is an entirely different and fascinating beast), but most people are overreacting and cutting foods from their diet because they’ve been tricked into believing these “bad foods” are a health problem. They’re not.
For the most part, odds are you don’t have a food allergy — no matter how much the latest book might try to convince you otherwise.
Case in point: Research found that 86 percent of people who thought they were gluten intolerant were not. And scientists estimate that only one to two percent of people in the world actually suffer from gluten intolerance.
If you’re truly allergic to a food, then you’ll experience a reaction in your body similar to how pollen crushes my sinuses every summer when you eat them.
But, this is where reality ends. If you’re trying to understand nutrition, it’s best to consider the words of Dr. Mike Israetel, a professor of exercise science.
“Ultimately, successfully countering weight gain and obesity is a combination of many nutrition and behavioral principles that keep the fundamentals (like calorie balance) in mind. Catchphrase demonization of a single nutrient as a magic-bullet cure is unlikely to ever be the solution, and–in fact–more likely to create problems and confusion about how to fight obesity.”
Think of dieting like dating (hear me out).
Looking at what works for your friend, sister, co-worker, or favorite Instagram star is a bad idea. And yet, that’s often how a lot of people get inspired to start a new diet. Instead, think of healthy eating like dating .
You wouldn’t choose to be in a relationship with someone who you despise from day one, so why would you do that with the foods you have to eat. Every. Single. Day.
Anything that sounds like it would make your life miserable is going to be a problem. Because while your body might survive just fine, your mind won’t. You will quit the plan, you will learn to hate nutrition, and you’ll probably end up more confused and a few pounds heavier than when you started.
After working with hundreds of clients over the past 10 years, here are a few things I’ve seen:
Bad relationship No. 1: Molly wants to try a low-carb diet but loves pasta. She’ll be OK for four to six weeks, snap, pay rent at her favorite Italian spot for the next month, and then think dieting can’t work.
Bad relationship No. 2: Paul loves dessert. He tries a clean eating plan of chicken and broccoli… which satisfies him for about two weeks, before he becomes grumpy and hates his life.
Bad relationship No. 3: Rebecca loves breakfast. It’s her favorite meal of the day. But she’s heard that intermittent fasting works and that she needs to start her meals at 12 p.m. every day and only eat for an eight-hour window. This relationship does not go well.
The problems repeat over and over (and over) again. Choosing a diet because it sounds good or because it worked for your BFF and not prioritizing your personality, preferences, and lifestyle sets you up to fail before you’ve even stocked your fridge full of raw meat and vegetables (Paleo, anyone?).
You can build a healthy diet that’s higher-carb, allows dessert, and may or may not include breakfast (some mornings are crazy).
“Do what works for your body” is simple advice, but it works incredibly well. And it makes perfect sense. You have a different body from your friends or siblings, so why wouldn’t you want to make slight, personalized adjustments that seem to fit?
If you want to live a healthy, low-stress life, you need to consider whether a plan is a good fit for you. If it’s not, look for something else. There are a lot of options and a lot of them work, no matter how much certain experts may try to condemn competing ideologies.
At the end of the day, weight loss starts with burning more calories than you eat (science nerds call this a “caloric deficit.”) It doesn’t end there, and many other factors must be considered. But start with something doable and you won’t be finding yourself exhausted and frustrated in just a few weeks.
Don’t buy the hype
The most important parts of any healthy eating plan–whether low-carb, low-sugar, or anything in between–are consistency and sustainability. I’ve written about it many times, but four-week fat-loss plans are full of lies.
“Thirty-day solutions” sound great on paper, but they don’t play out so well after the first 30 days. You can lose weight quickly, but most of those “get-fit quick” plans are all smoke and mirrors.
Eating is social, fun, and should bring happiness. You should feel in control and know that your healthy choices are making a difference and helping in the ways you want.
The hardest thing about consistently eating healthy is the fact that no one wants to “be on a diet.” That’s why we’re often drawn to the quickest solution available, so we can get the results we want and return to our “normal” existence.
My suggestion: Do everything possible to ignore the instant gratification. It only leads to more frustration. It’s OK if you’re confused by food and nutrition and/or have no idea where to even begin. At some point, this is a struggle for everyone.
When it comes to nutrition and your body, you must see the bigger picture. Just as you don’t transform your body by doing one exercise repeatedly for 30 days, you won’t change your body permanently by committing to something for such a short period of time.
Exceptions exist, but if healthy weight loss is your goal, one to two pounds per week — on average — is a great goal. Anything faster than that usually means you’re losing more muscle (and not fat).
And the average part is important. One week you might lose 4 pounds. The next week you might lose zero pounds. Think of weight loss in 2-4 week periods but mini-stalls are part of the process.
Many people quit their weight loss journey because they think they are stuck when, in reality, they are still on track.
The 1-2 pounds per week might not sound like much, but it adds up fast. Think about it: you can stick with it for three months, you could be looking at as much as 25 pounds of fat loss. Not too bad, right? And because it was done progressively, focusing on what works instead of hype and false promises, you’re more likely to keep it off for good.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and the author of You Can’t Screw This Up. He is the founder of Born Fitness, and the co-founder of Arnold’s Pump Club (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Pen Name Consulting. An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was previously the Chief Nutrition Officer for Ladder, the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to The Huffington Post, Bornstein is “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and E! News.