What is the best diet?
Spoiler: The best diet is the one that you can stick to, which means it must be effective and must keep you healthy. Once you know the basic principles, you’ll be able to tell the marketing gimmics apart from healthy lifestyles and find the one which one suits you best.
Your body needs a certain number of calories per day to survive. This number is called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and varies for everyone and depends on factors like: body composition, activity level, and genetics. If you eat the same number of calories as your TDEE you will maintain the same weight. If you eat more than your TDEE you will gain weight. If you eat less you will lose weight.
Calorie surplus = Gain weight
Calorie deficit = Lose weight
Ok, but “weight” can mean a few things: fat, water, or muscle. I’m going to assume that anyone reading this who wants to lose weight means they want to lose fat. Losing weight just for the sake of lowering the number on your scale isn’t necessarily healthy. You want to keep your muscle, lose fat, and stay hydrated. There are two keys to keeping your muscle while losing fat.
Basically, to keep your body from cannabalizing muscle you need to lift weights or dosome other form of resistance training while consuming enough protein in your diet. Resistance training creates micro-tears in your muscle that your body needs to repair, and it needs protein to make these repairs. This is the normal process of how muscles get bigger and stronger; when the body repairs the muscle it makes it better (aka stronger) than it was before in an attempt to prevent it from tearing again under the same load in the future.
Notice I didn’t say “increase your muscle while losing fat”. While it’s possible to get stronger in a calorie deficit, you won’t be gaining much muscle mass.
You can get stronger, to a point. Eventually, you’ll need to increase muscle mass, which happens in a calorie surplus. But if you’re just starting out with strength training you don’t have to worry about this as you won’t hit a “plateau” for awhile.
“A bigger muscle, all other things being equal (and those “other things” are the rest of this section), is a stronger muscle. There’s no way around it; past a point, you simply have to grow.” Source
There simly aren’t enough building blocks for your body to use since all your food intake is going to fueling your body, some of the protein is going to repairing your muscles, and the difference that your body needs to survive comes from your fat stores. If you don’t do resistance training, your muscles won’t need repairing, and your body could easily decide to make up some of the calorie deficit by taking protein from your muscles instead of fat from your fat stores. From your body’s point of view, your muscles aren’t being used and they burn up a heck of a lot of energy so it might just be best to take them apart and use their protein for energy. Taken to the extreme, such as with eating disorders, your body can actually start cannibalizing your organs as well.
There is another way to lose fat that’s fairly popular these days, but I consider it too easy to get it very wrong and so I’m not going to be covering it here.
Alright, so far we’ve established 3 essential components of losing weight:
- Daily Calorie Intake
- Macronutrients (Protein / Fat / Carbs)
- Resistance training
Great, but how does this work in practice? Let’s look at each one.
As mentioned earlier, your body needs a certain number of calories each day just to survive. This number is estimated and called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). There are several calculators that will estimate your TDEE for you. Most will also give you a macronutrient split but you can read on to calculate your own.
One pound of fat contains 3500 calories. If you want to lose one pound of fat per week this nicely works out to 500 calories per day. So to lose one pound of fat per day you need to eat 500 calories less than your TDEE.
A macronutrient is just another name for a nutrient that has calories. There are three main macronutrients:
- Protein - 4 calories per gram
- Fat - 9 calories per gram
- Carbohydrate - 4 calories per gram
Alcohol is another source of calories that contains 7 calories per gram. However, there is no recommended amount of alcohol to consume as part of a normal diet, and your liver has to metabolize the alcohol in order to extract these calories. If you drink enough alcohol to overwhelm your liver then you don’t gain these calories, and this is how you get drunk. This isn’t an excuse to drink more. Use moderation.
Make sure to do your own research on the numbers below until I can provide citations. And you can always consult your doctor or a nutritionist for a personalized recommendation.
I see 0.8 - 1.2 grams per pound of body weight recommended most often.
Your body needs a certain amount of fat to function. While the American Heart Associateion recommends limiting the amount of saturated fat in your diet to less than 10%, the amount of total fat the USDA previously recommended is 20-35%.
Once you’ve calculated your calorie, protein, and fat intake goals, you simply use carbs to get the remaining calories.
Let’s say your TDEE comes out to 2000 calories per day and you currently weigh 190 pounds.
|Protein||190 g||760||1 gram per pound of bodyweight (190 * 1)|
|Fat||67.7 g||600||30% of total calories (2000 * 0.30)|
|Carbs||160 g||640||remainder of calories (2000-760-600)/4|
This is what you’d eat to maintain your current weight.
If you wanted to lose 1 lb of fat each week you’d subract 500 calories each day which leaves 1500.
|Protein||190 g||760||1 gram per pound of bodyweight (190 * 1)|
|Fat||50 g||450||30% of total calories (1500 * 0.30)|
|Carbs||72.5 g||290||remainder of calories (1500-450-600)/4|
I know from experience that 190 grams of protein can be tough to eat everyday. The recommended range for protein intake gives a little leeway. And if you really like bread and pasta then 72.5 grams of carbs may be too limited for you to realistically stick with these goals. Luckily, the split between fat and carbs can be adjusted as well as long as you keep your fat intake in safe levels. So let’s tweak the splits to better suit a diet that will be easier to stick to long term. We’re still working with 1500 calories total.
|Protein||152 g||608||0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight (190 * 0.8)|
|Fat||37.5 g||300||20% of total calories (1500 * 0.20)|
|Carbs||148 g||592||remainder of calories (1500-608-300)/4|
If you want more information on the subject of macronutrients or need examples of how to apply these concepts, then I recommend the following articles.
3. Resistance Training
It is important to always add more resistance (e.g. lift heavier weights). Remember what I said about your body repairing a muscle? It’s going to repair it better than it was before. That means next time you lift the same weight, you aren’t going to do as much damage to the muscle. This is exactly what your body wants, but is exactly what you don’t want. So you simply have to increase the weight each time, even by a couple of pounds. This ensures that your body is always repairing the muscle and never gets a chance to burn the protein (either from your diet and from your muscle) for energy.
To pick a starting weight, just experiment and find a weight that is difficult but you can do 5 to 10 repetitions (reps) of 3 different times (sets) with a minute or two break in between each set. For more info or which exercises to choose see the Strength post.
How often should you exercise? This is determined by your body’s recovery time. You want to give your body a chance to actually repair the muscles you “damaged” before working them again or you could actually injure yourself. At least one day of rest between workout sessions is perfect. This means working out every other day or setting a schedule such as Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Every other day would give you the most optimal results in theory, but habits are easier to form if you have some sort of consistency. Personally, this means I lift weights every Mon, Wed, Fri. But it could easily be Tues, Thurs, Sat; or 3pm every other day. Pick something that works for you and stick to it.
I only mentioned three points earlier, but tracking your progress is a very important part of the process. You can use whatever suits you best: a phone, computer, or plain old notebook. These are the methods I’ve used successfully.
To make sure I’m on the right track, I weight myself daily. I can attest that my weight fluctuates quite a bit every day. So rather than use the daily weights as my indicator, I have a spreadsheet that tracks my weekly average weight. This is a more stable number and better progress indicator.
I also take a weekly progress picture to be able to compare my body over time. Another way to do this would be to buy a body caliper and measure different points on your body.
Calories / Macros
I’ve used the first two and heard that MyFitnessPal is popular with other people.
Besides the following apps I also use spreadsheets when I need something more customizable.
Nutrients are things like vitamins and minerals that are important for your body to function properly but don’t contain calories and thus don’t contribute to weight gain/loss. For the most part, a calorie is a calorie whether it comes from a Twinkie or a carrot. Nutrients (and I suppose diabetes) are the missing piece that keeps us from just eating junk food to lose weight.
When people say foods are “healthy” they can mean so many things. Healthy foods are not black and white at all. The heuristic I like best is the idea of nutrient density. Basically, the more essential nutritents that a food provides per calorie, the better. This metric is most useful when comparing foods against each other. A food can be nutrient dense by packing in tons of vitamins and minerals, having little to no calories, or both! What you want to avoid are foods that don’t have vitamins and minerals but do have tons of calories. Green vegetables are nutrient dense because they contain all sorts of nutrients with very few calories. Junk food is not nutrient dense because it contains lots of calories in the form of fats and sugars with little to no nutrients. Nutrient density isn’t a perfect metric as you need calories to survive and can’t survive solely on no-calorie foods.
Six Pack Abs
To get a six-pack you need a low body fat percentage. Something like 6-9% for males and 16-19% for females. It doesn’t matter how toned your abs are if there is a layer of fat covering it.
You cannot reduce fat in a specific area by doing targeted exercises. Your genetics determine where fat comes off of first, regardless of the exercise. This is why you need to reach a certain overall body fat percentage.
The Best Diet
So what is the best diet? Now that you know in order to lose weight you need to reduce the number of calories you consume. If you’re analytical like I am you might also find that weighing your food and counting macros is the best way for you.
Guess what? Many mainstream diets are simply ways to apply these same principles without requiring you to count calories. All of these diets achieve a calorie deficit which means you will lose weight. Not all of them will achieve the best macronutrient balance for maintaining muscle so you may lose more muscle mass than you wish.
- Weight Watchers - Works by providing point values to each food and a maximum number of daily points you can consume. The foods are weighted to encourage higher nutrient density and by allotting a certain number of points they are effectively limiting your caloric intake as well.
- Paleo - Limits the number of carbs, sugars, and energy-dense processed foods. Encourages eating lots of vegetables and meat. You could technically overdo the meat but by focusing on vegetables you will have a harder time eating too many calories.
- Intermittent Fasting - This is another way to restrict the number of calories you consume in a day. You’ll lose weight because you eat less overall. You’d see the same effect if you ate the food throughout the day rather than fasting part of it. But creating a fence around when you can eat makes it easier to avoid snacking or overeating.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
This quote is from Michael Pollan and is wonderful for its simplicity and powerful advice. “Food” means steering away from the overly processed, refined, or artificial, “Not too much” is a nod towards moderation, and “Mostly plants” translates to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
You can find an overview of Michael’s message in this article titled “How to Eat”. Michael has several bestselling books on food. They vary widely in how in depth they go.
The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right tries to answer the most common questions about modern health and diet. My favorite question from the article is:
Q: What happens if I eat too much yogurt?
A: We have no idea. Probably you get full.
There is a followup article here.
Mark Bittman is also the author of a great cooking resource called “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”. It’s not the absolute best cookbook I’ve read, but it is full of recipes and inspiration for meatless meals.
This entire subreddit is a wealth of knowledge and resources. In particular, their Getting Started page is a great place to… well, to start.