The best diet is the one you can maintain forever. Forever ever? Yes, forever.
Because every diet works if you can stick with it. The deciding factor isn’t the diet itself, but whether or not the diet encourages sustainable behaviors.
With any diet you choose, if you treat it like a short term solution, once you stop the diet the weight will come back. No matter how much weight you lose it doesn’t matter if you gain it all back, right? What’s the point of winning the lottery if you piss it away in a month?
If you notice you function well on low carb diets, great. I’m not telling anyone to stop doing something that’s working for them.
What I do seek to do here is clear up some misconceptions about low carb because eliminating carbs isn’t a requirement for weight loss.
Low carb has taken up different monikers throughout the years. First it was Atkins. Then it was Paleo. Now it’s Keto. Next year it’ll be Keanu. Who knows?
Misconceptions about carbs can lead people to take on unnecessarily strict nutrition protocols. The stricter a diet, the less likely it is to be sustainable in the long term (remember that whole “forever” thing we were talking about?).
First off, and this is important, carbs don’t make you fat. An excess of calories makes you fat.
Regardless of whether those calories come from carbs, fats, or proteins. If you eat/drink too many calories, your body will store them as fat.
Ok, cool, but what does “too many calories” mean?
Too many means you consume more calories than your body burns. In physics, we have a law called the Law of Conservation of Energy which says,
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred.
A calorie is a unit, or way of measuring energy. If your body doesn’t expend the calories/energy you consume via the bodily functions keeping you alive, plus the calories used for exercise, building muscle, digestion etc. that energy has to go somewhere. It can't just disappear. So the body transfers it to your fat stores.
For the purposes of this post this is pretty much all you need to know about how weight loss works. Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but for all practical purposes, that’s what it comes down to.
For a more detailed explanation of how calories and fat loss work click here to read All You Need to Know About Carbs, Fats, and Proteins.
First off, not all carbs are created equal
Equating table sugar to rice is a false equivalency. Just like equating fruit to fruit juice is a false equivalency.
How many apple’s worth of sugar do you think is contained in a 12 oz glass of apple juice?
A medium sized apple (155g) has 95 calories and 25g of carbohydrate.
A 12 oz cup of unsweetened apple juice from concentrate on the other hand has 240 calories with 170g of carbohydrates.
I could easily down two cups of Apple juice in 2 minutes. Even with unsweetened juice this would give me the calorie count of about 5 apples, and 7 apples worth of carbs! Holy eff.
When was the last time you ate 5 apples in a row? I'm gonna go out on a limb (pun intended) and say probs never. Eating 5 apples in a row will make you feel pretty full. You wouldn’t want to eat anything else for a while.
500 calories (plus lots of fiber and vitamins) for a few hours of fullness is a good trade off. However, after drinking 500 calories of apple juice, you can eat something immediately after because it’s done nothing to satisfy your hunger. 500 calories for zero fullness is not a good trade off. Obvs.
See what I’m getting at? With juices and added sugars it’s physically effortless to consume tons of extra calories.
You can easily drink your entire carbs for the day from just a few sugary drinks. Then you add those calories and carbs to whatever else you eat throughout the day.
When you strip the substance from a food, it becomes significantly easier to overconsume. Because you’ve just created pure energy/calories, without any actual food. There’s about 40g of sugar, which is a type of carb, in a soda. You will feel much different after eating 40g of carbs worth of rice, quinoa, or fruit.
It’s not the carbs that are the problem here, it’s the ability to consume levels of carbs/calories that would essentially be impossible eating unprocessed carbs such as rice, oatmeal, fruits, starches, veggies, etc.
Does this mean you need to cut out sugar entirely? Of course not. It does mean you ought to pay attention to how much sugary stuff you’re consuming. FYI, an occasional chocolate bar isn’t going to kill you.
The point of this section is to say eating 40g of carbs worth of potatoes is hardly the same thing as drinking a bunch of empty calories from a soda. This will come up later when I talk about when carbs are a good thing, as I’ll be referring to the kind you know are healthier.
Regardless of what diet you follow, you can’t lose weight if you eat more calories than you burn.
This relationship between calories and weight loss sets a cap on how quickly you can lose weight. A pound is roughly equal to 3500 calories. This varies from person to person, but again, in this instance, an oversimplification is practical.
When people go on low carb diets, they often notice ridiculously fast weight loss within the first few weeks. Notice how I didn’t say they notice quick “fat loss”.
Say you lose 5 lbs in a week. If that were fat loss, that would mean you’d have cut out 17,500 calories (5 lbs x 3500 calories/lbs). That would be cutting 2,500 calories a day. Which, unless you just stopped eating entirely, is highly unlikely.
Why did the scale jump so suddenly?
The cause of this seemingly magical initial rapid weight loss:
Carbs have lots of water in them. Water your body stores when you eat them.
When you cut out carbs you sneakily stop putting lots of water in your body. The scale drops so rapidly at first because of this decrease in water intake. This is where the fat loss vs. weight loss discussion is important.
If you solely care about the number on the scale, then going low carb could seem like the end all be all. After all, you saw such quick results. The scale dropped so rapidly. However, the scale simply doesn’t show the whole picture. It doesn’t show what the lost weight is actually composed of.
If you want to lean out, have more muscle definition, and fit into that old pair of jeans again, not all weight loss is created equal.
When you say, “I want to lose 10 lbs”, the full sentence is no doubt, “I want to lose 10 lbs of fat”.
Because weight loss could be anything. It could be water weight, it could be fat, you could have gone to the bathroom, you could have lost muscle, you could have chopped off a foot -- it could be any number of things.
This is why your scale weight can fluctuate a few pounds in a few hours. Your body isn’t losing and gaining pounds of fat on an hourly basis. This is just your body’s normal fluctuations in weight, which can be influenced by everything from how much water you drank to how much sleep you got the night before to how much salt you ate at lunch.
Fat loss, on the other hand, is a more specific term. You’re losing fat, not muscle or water. It says so in the term "fat loss".
I’m guessing you want to lose fat and have a different shape. Maybe you've noticed as you've gotten older you can't eat the way you used to without putting on weight in your tummy, back, or thighs. And now you want to change that and look the way you used to.
To acheive this, the distinction between fat loss and weight loss is crucial in guiding your decisions. Defining your goals specifically gives you a more clear path to those goals.
Helpful side effects of low carb
There are some productive side effects that can happen when you go low carb, depending on your prior eating habits.
However, they’re just that -- side effects. Not primary causes.
Mainly, if going low carb makes you subconsciously up your protein intake, this is a great thing for fat loss.
Eating a metric shit-ton of protein is an intelligent strategy for keeping your calories low and preserving hard earned muscle. Protein is super filling for the amount of calories you get.
500 calories of chicken (mainly protein) is going to be way more food than 500 calories of peanut butter (mainly fat).
That said, it’s pretty easy to increase your protein intake without eliminating carbs. Just sayin’.
It also depends on what your diet was like before. If going low carb means you stop eating pizza, ice cream, chips, then that’s going to really help you drop body fat.
However, low carb won't stop you from eating peanut butter.
My beef with low carb
My main qualms with low carb zealotry are:
- The complete lack of evidence supporting this idea that calories don’t matter and cutting carbs is everything.
- Low carb is unnecessarily strict. People do better with flexible guidelines rather than strict rules.
- Psychology is the limiting factor in most people’s fat loss. People don’t need new diets, they need something they can stick to.
Just because low carb can promote fat loss, doesn’t mean cutting carbs is necessary for fat loss.
Because that initial huge drop in scale weight comes from significantly decreasing your water intake, your weight won’t continue to decrease at that same speed.
My online clients know the most successful diet is as flexible as possible while still cutting enough calories to cause steady fat loss.
More often than not, rigid, hyper strict dieting leads to yoyoing and fat gain.
Most of my clients who have come to me throughout the years are no stranger to strict dieting. What finally brings them results after struggling for years is finding personalized nuanced solutions to eating better.
There’s more than 1 way to do this. As long as the caloric math works out, you’ll drop body fat. The trick is to figure out how to individualize your fat loss strategy specific to your personality and desired lifestyle.
The goal is to get your calories under control in such a way that doesn’t rob you of everything that brings you fun and happiness. I truly believe you can find this balance because my online clients have.
Objectively, fat loss mainly comes down to this:
- Too many calories cause weight gain. Enough calories cause weight to stay the same. Anything below “enough” calories cause weight loss.
- The most sensical/healthiest way to achieve a caloric deficit is to eat a fistful of protein at every meal. This will keep your calories low, your stomach full, and your muscle intact. Also veggies. Lots of colorful veggies. Also at every meal.
- Lift weights 3 times a week. What builds muscle, keeps muscle. When eating in a caloric deficit, lifting weights will give your metabolism a little bump and maintain the muscle you have as the fat drops off, resulting in a lean, toned physique.
- Get 8-10 hours of sleep.
- Hire an awesome coach to keep you motivated and accountable to lose stubborn fat and build muscle definition even if you have a ridiculously busy, unpredictable schedule. (#shamelessplug)
That’s it. Everything else is negotiable. Hell, even the protein thing is technically negotiable if your calories are under control. However, adding tons of protein is going to make this way easier. Trust me.
Sure we could make this a bit more complicated, but let’s keep it simple because simple will be more helpful for your success.
I encourage you to stay focused on mastering those bullet points before doing anything more specific because mastering the basics is what breeds success in any endeavor.
If going low carb puts you in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose fat. However, if you achieve a caloric deficit without cutting carbs, you’ll still lose fat.
What I’m getting at is that it can work, but it’s certainly not the only way, and it definitely doesn’t work for everyone. And if fat loss happens, it’s not because you eliminated carbs specifically, it’s because you eliminated calories.
This means you were probs getting most of your extra calories from carbs. But if you tend to get your extra calories from eating half a jar of peanut butter every night (What? Don’t look at me. I’ve never done that...heh...heh..uhhhm...let's move on!), going low carb isn’t gonna do anything for your fat loss.
Again, if you’re happy with your results, I’m not trying to convince you to change anything. Just the opposite, actually.
I want you to help you find what best works for you, by introducing flexibility into your thinking.
I’m trying to convince you that low carb isn’t necessary. So if it’s NOT working for you, if you feel like it’s too strict, come back to the carb side.
In fact, carbs can actually fuel fat loss. Depending on your activity level, cutting carbs might be shooting yourself in the foot.
Next, I want to talk about how proper use of carbs can enhance your workouts and your fat loss.
In defense of carbs
Carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source. As you become more active you can get away with eating more carbs. Not just that, it might even benefit you to up your healthy carbs a little because those carbs will enhance your workouts.
Now, for your weight to go down, calories are all that matters. (Have I said that yet?) However, to change your body composition, to see more muscle tone and definition, to build muscle in the places you want to be muscular, your workouts are crucial.
Cutting out carbs can slow down your workouts, which means you can’t work as hard, which means you can’t build as much strength, muscle, or street credit.
If you want to change the way your body looks, it’s important to prioritize your performance in the gym. Including moderate portions of carbs like oats, rice, quinoa, barley will help you push yourself harder in the gym for faster progress.
Can low carb work in the gym? Yeah, but it takes a while for your body to adjust, and I’d still argue a carb-eating athlete, all else being equal, will out perform a keto athlete.
Based on that lift, I'm gonna guess that dude probably eats carbs.
What’s the answer?
Every body is different.
Some people can tolerate more carbs than others. For example, if you have diabetes your relationship with carbs will be quite different than if you don’t.
My goal here is simply to reverse this notion that there’s a one size fits all blanket approach to fat loss and fitness. Because the sooner you accept this, the sooner you can stop making fat loss harder than it has to be, you can stop trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
More important than the specific details of any diet or nutrition ideology, is whether or not you’d be happy eating that way forever.
So it needs to be realistic. It needs to mesh with the lifestyle you want to lead.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. There’s plenty of gray area between low carb and hella carb.
That initial drop in water weight makes low carb seem too good to be true. And it is. Can it work? Sure, anything can work if it’s executed consistently. However, following overly strict nutrition dogma makes achieving that consistency unnecessarily difficult because the rules are unrealistic.
Just like with most things nutrition related, it’s not all or nothing. It’s about finding a balance between your goals and the life you want to live.
The key takeaways are this:
- Calories matter.
- The easiest way to reduce calories without hating life is to add in lots of protein and veggies prepared in a way you enjoy.
- Get to bed early and get 8-10 hours of sleep
Everything else is up to you.