Diet is a four-letter word that often triggers drastic action — or reaction to displeasing feelings about what you weigh or how you look. Slash carbs to lose weight fast. Track every calorie consumed and burned to carve out a deficit. Eliminate certain foods until you whittle down to your goal weight.
The truth: Going off and on diets sets you up for a weight on, weight off cycle. Americans spend $33 billion on weight loss products, and 45 million people go on some type of diet every year. Yet, over 70% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Clearly, the system is flawed.
How can you get off the “diet, cheat, repent, repeat” cycle and not obsess over every bite you take? Is it possible to lose weight without a strict diet regimen? Lettuce look beyond salads at what weight loss strategies work and how to keep the pounds from creeping back.
The Problem With Restrictive Diets
The second you tell a child they can’t have something, it’s exactly what they’ll ask for. It’s no different with adults restricting their diets.
Our bodies require a certain number of calories and nutrients to function. If we eat less than what we need, our bodies will hold onto fat stores for survival. Scientists believe that negative energy balance (eating less) has a bigger impact on us psychologically and physiologically than overeating.
One study noted that in periods of dieting, metabolic and behavioral responses occur that work opposite to the goal of weight loss. When lean tissue is lost, energy expenditure also decreases, resulting in a lower metabolism. If under-eating is continued, appetite-related peptides (proteins) may lead to increased hunger and food intake. It’s also been suggested that loss of lean tissue could act as an appetite stimulant signal during weight loss, but more research is needed.
While a low-carb, high-fat diet is popular and will assist in weight loss and blood sugar improvements in the short-term (six months), research does not show continued loss with its use. In addition, avoiding entire food groups (grains, fruit, and dairy) is difficult and may not be doable long term. Eventually, you want a potato!
Most low-carb diets are higher in fat and protein, which could affect health in negative ways. Too much fat (above 30% of calories) has been linked with increased inflammation in the body and bone disease such as osteoporosis. Excess protein may negatively impact individuals with underlying kidney disease. Animal protein seems to be more harmful than plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, and soy products, according to research. There isn’t enough data yet to say a low-carb, high-fat diet is safe for everyone beyond two years. These types of diets are low in fiber, which could impact the gut microbiome in negative ways as well.
What Works for Weight Loss?
Obesity is considered a chronic medical condition because it needs regular management. Anyone trying to control their weight for the long run needs to make lifestyle changes to limit calories and maintain regular physical activity. Just be aware that one day of food restriction won’t impact weight just like one day of overeating won’t either.
While there are multiple ways to lose weight, sustaining the loss can be challenging.
Fortunately, the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), a national research study focusing on lifestyle habits in those who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year, offers some insight. Here’s what the weight loss success stories had in common:
No one diet worked for all: Most dieters tried multiple methods of weight loss before landing on something that worked for them.
They exercised most days of the week: NWCR losers did some form of exercise most days for about 60 minutes. While the U.S. Dietary Guidelines advise 150 minutes of exercise per week, this is not enough for weight loss or weight loss maintenance. A combination of aerobic as well as strength training is advised to burn calories and maintain metabolism, respectively.
Many were motivated beyond aesthetics: Some were concerned by a possible health scare such as diabetes or high blood pressure, and some wanted to have more energy.
If you feel a little frustrated by the statement, “no one diet works for all,” we get it. Take heart that an individualized approach to nutrition, even when you want to lose weight, can help you adopt a style of eating that benefits your body, health, outlook, and preferences. As you navigate the right nutritional path for yourself, consider what published research says about the fueling strategies that work for weight loss.
Power of Protein
There’s a reason that high-protein diets are so popular. Protein is satiating, meaning it provides a feeling of fullness, which could curb hunger and lead to fewer calories consumed. Protein also helps preserve muscle and lean body mass during weight loss, which keeps your metabolism humming.
The quantity and quality of protein make a difference. In rodent studies, whey protein (from dairy products) and plant-based protein (from beans, lentils, quinoa, and soy products) have a favorable impact on obesity prevention and maintenance of lean body mass. Branch chain amino acids such as tryptophan and methionine and the metabolite glutamate may be at play. More research is needed in humans.
A study on postpartum (pregnancy) in women also found positive results with a high-protein diet. Using a control and intervention group with the same calorie level, subjects consuming a higher-protein, lower-carb diet lost more weight after pregnancy.
How Much Protein?
When compared to calorically-equivalent diets, a systematic review found that a higher protein diet (>25%) showed more fat loss and more lean muscle retention in older adults compared with a lower protein diet (<25% of calories).
The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein for most people is .8 grams per kilogram, or roughly half of your body weight in pounds. If you weigh 200 pounds, your protein needs are about 100 grams per day.
A 2015 study suggests you might need nearly twice this amount for weight loss. The authors note that after reviewing several studies on protein and weight loss, 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight may lead to better weight loss results. While they suggest 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal, protein needs are based on body weight, and this may be too much for some people.
What’s the Role of Carbs for Weight Loss?
While protein is necessary for losing weight and maintaining muscle, it’s not the only nutrient that’s important in weight loss. Carbs get a bad wrap because they are easily digested, can raise blood sugar, and get stored as fat when eaten in excess.
However, the type of carbs matters. Are you having Skittles or skim milk? Simple sugars from candy, cake, cookies, and sweetened drinks are empty calories. They are quickly digested, raise blood sugar, then drop it and leave you hungrier.
Whole grains, on the other hand, are slowly digested carbs. These include beans, whole grain cereals like bran flakes or rolled oats, and other grains such as brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, and whole wheat pasta. These provide dietary fiber, which helps them digest more slowly and provide a feeling of fullness.
Serving sizes of grains is still important. A recent study evaluating whole grains versus refined in the management of weight found that whole grains helped reduce body weight and markers of inflammation.
Fruits and vegetables also provide carbohydrates in addition to fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other plant chemicals that are important to good health. Vegetables are low in calories and add volume to your diet to fill you up. Studies indicate that reducing calorie density aids in weight control.
Could a portion-control plate for meals help you eat less? Yes! A recent systematic review of studies found that using a portion control plate did indeed impact weight loss. Four out of five studies that met the criteria indicated that when subjects used a portion-controlled plate, they had significant changes in body weight, BMI, and waist circumference.
Another study comparing a vegan diet or portion-controlled diet in the weight and management of blood sugar in individuals with diabetes found that both were successful methods to improve blood sugar and aid in weight loss. No significant differences were seen between the two methods used after a 20-week program.
Eat Your Calories, Don’t Drink Them
There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine or beer now and then. But chronic intake of empty calories makes weight control difficult. One study noted that when individuals drank alcohol before their meal, they didn’t compensate for the additional calories. In addition, alcohol may lower inhibition and the ability to resist energy-dense, highly palatable foods. In short, it stimulates you to eat more.
Strong evidence links habitable consumption of sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages and obesity. High fructose corn syrup used in soda has been found to alter the gut microbiome, leading to inflammation in the gut. This inflammation can in turn create signaling proteins that make certain enzymes that change fructose to fat in the liver. While high fructose corn syrup is associated with weight gain, the above study notes that a small amount of fruit juice may be helpful in respect to weight and waist circumference.
Artificial sweeteners have been found to decrease satiety, alter the gut microbiome, and change glucose metabolism. These sweeteners have been linked with increased calorie intake and weight gain and should be avoided when possible.
Liquid calories may not provide the same satiety (feeling of fullness) as solid food. Chewing food slowly and thoroughly has been shown to help reduce food intake. Researchers believe that changes in gut hormone responses related to satiety may be at play to reduce calorie intake and aid in weight loss.
Ways to keep weight off:
Keep moving. Do aerobic exercise most days of the week as well as strength training.
Include adequate protein at meals and snacks. Protein from low-fat dairy products and plant-based sources (beans, lentils, soybeans) are encouraged.
Eat more plants. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils provide fiber, which is filling. These foods also tend to be lower in calories.
Eat foods you enjoy in smaller portions — moderation versus avoidance.
Drink water over calorie-laden or artificially sweetened beverages when possible.
Chew your food. If you’ve got teeth and a small intestine, let your body do the digestion!