Despite the popularity of diets in the modernized world, many swear against dieting, citing adverse health effects and the dreaded boomerang effect. These people know what they’re talking about; if a diet is only a diet and not a continuing lifestyle, it will fail. But dieting doesn’t have to fail, as long as it’s sustainable. What does that mean, “sustainable?” It means that the dieter can keep going, for years and years, without falling off the wagon, losing health, or hating his life. Here’s how to evaluate whether your ambition to lose weight is sustainable, and as a result, effective:
Are you getting all of your nutrients?
On their quest for a slimmer waistline, many dieters focus so heavily on calorie restriction that they forget about the most important function of food: nutrients. Beyond the calories humans need each day to keep their bodies going, it is also necessary that they eat the six essential nutrients, including a host of vitamins and minerals. Among these six essential nutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Most dieters feel they understand how each of these nutrients interacts with the body, and how to game the system to lose weight, but in reality these three categories and our relationship with them are more complex than we can imagine!
Fat is Your Friend
Many popular diets capitalize on eliminating either fat or carbohydrates. The problem is that truly eliminating any of these food groups is dangerous; they’re called “essential nutrients” for a reason. Fats are instrumental to cell growth, the production of hormones essential to general human function, brain function, and a number of other processes. Fat also stockpiles vitamins A, D, E, and K because the human body is frequently requiring it. And because our bodies need to store these vitamins, in the event that fat stops coming in altogether, the body does its best to stop burning fat as a survival mechanism.
This means that when we try to get our bodies to burn fat by depriving it of fat, it backfires. These are programs like the Atkins diet and the keto diet: fat is your friend. Rather than discontinuing the supply to your body, focus on giving it the various kinds of fat it needs, including unsaturated fats and Omega 3s. You can find these in fish oils, vegan alternative fish oils (if you’re concerned about heavy metals), walnuts, salmon, and of course, avocado.
What about carbohydrates?
This one is complicated. The keto diet and the Atkins diet both tout fat (and protein) above other nutrients, and are common methods people use to try and shed the pounds. If you eat carbs, they argue, you will burn sugar instead of fat so carbs are “bad.”
The issue with this perspective is that it demonizes carbohydrates, when we need them. Technically, a no-carb diet would mean no vegetables and no fruit, no beans and no lentils. Additionally, the human body cannot function without carbs. Without glucose, the neurotransmitters in our brains cannot function to help us learn, think, or remember vital information. Carbs carry fiber, which there’s no doubting we need. They also help us fall asleep.
How, if carbs are “bad” and make us lose weight, can there be people who are intelligent, digestively regular, able to sleep at night, and thin? Carbs are not what make people overweight; an imbalanced diet overly comprised of carbs, especially sugar and simple carbs, is what gets people into trouble. These diets are low carb, not no carb. Sometimes dieters forget this and get themselves into tough situations. What these diets have in common that works is that they move the dieter away from added sugar and flour: that’s the important part. If you’re trying to eliminate fat or carbs from your diet, reconsider.
Can You Eat Too Much Protein?
Yes– Yes, you can. The Atkins diet and other programs like the anti-inflammatory Zone diet all recommend high protein intake because of the role of protein in preventing hunger, building muscle, repairing tissue after exercise or injury, and promoting general weight loss. They are all effective diets for this reason. Where dieters get into trouble, however, is when they take in too much.
“Too much” may sound like a warning against taking in too many calories, which is a valid concern, but the more pressing issue is the effect of too much protein on our heart and kidneys. Those who take in meat in excess of optimum protein goals are at increased risk of heart disease and cancer. High levels of nitrogen found in protein can cause the kidneys to struggle, and overconsumption of protein is also linked to decalcification of bones. To prevent these adverse effects, it is generally recommended that adults take in no more than 1.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
If it seems extreme, it probably is.
Another trend circulating these past few years is fasting, restricting mealtimes to a shortened window of each day. This is often referred to as intermittent fasting, and is often part of the keto diet. Other forms of fasting include skipping meals or forgoing food altogether for one or two days. (Those who are fasting should still drink water.) All of these types of fasting are valuable to some dieters for various reasons. Those who tend to overeat can benefit because fasting extends the amount of time a single meal provides the body energy, and so eating a huge, nutritious meal can fuel the body without contributing to an overconsumption of calories. Furthermore, those on the keto diet who fast are advised to record the nutrients they consume during the meals they do eat in order to make sure they are properly nourishing their bodies.
Reframed, it becomes possible to see how dieters might take this endorsement of fasting improperly and hurt themselves by overdoing it. Over the past two decades, health professionals have cautioned against skipping breakfast, citing studies that illustrated a tendency to eat more calories for a lunch after no breakfast than are normally consumed during lunch and breakfast. More concerning, the calories people choose to eat after skipping breakfast tend to come from less healthy sources, because they are ravenously hungry and have not planned something healthy to eat.
One of the things that separates a fasting keto dieter from someone who is crash dieting is that when they do eat, they eat enough calories and nutrients to fuel their bodies until the next meal. Dieters who try to take shortcuts and lose weight by skipping calories for 24-48 hours without making up for them beforehand, skipping meals without making up for them in a healthy way afterward, or narrowing their eating window but not expanding their nutrition intake are, in truth, crash dieting. And we know why it’s called “crash” dieting: at some point, something has to give.