With 2020 almost here, many of my friends will be on a mission to shed the muffin tops and Dad-bods of 2019 and morph into stronger, leaner versions of themselves. They'll start out exercising in earnest. I can see them now, sweat dripping creatures - lifting weights, jumping around in HIIT circuits, crushing Crossfit, running marathons, whatever they think it takes. Not much will change except they'll be sore, tired and hungry. At this point they will consider going on a “diet”. Because only Michael Phelps and Dean Karnazes can out-exercise a bad diet.
"I hear that Sue has lost thirty pounds using Weight Watchers"
"Oh really? Sam lost 25 doing Keto"
"Well veganism is the healthiest and it saves the planet too".
"Have you see that Netflix documentary The Game Changers?"
With a shitload of "diet" options available, it's easy to become confused and overwhelmed. So what is the best diet for losing weight and achieving your body composition goals? Without sacrificing performance and taste of course.
The answer is simple. Any diet that consists of less calories in than out, will produce weight loss. It's also more complicated than that.
Here's a good example. I could eat one McDonald's Big Mac and medium fries (780 kcals) per day, nothing else, and lose weight, if I was consistent. But how would I feel? I would probably feel pretty gross at first and then hungry AF a few hours later. I would definitely get h'angry. And be in a very bad mood. I don't think I could perform my activities well. From a nutrition standpoint, it wouldn't be very good at all. Poor quality protein, too much fat and sodium, processed carbs, no real vitamins or minerals or fiber. I could go on. Over time I would feel more and more like shit mentally and physically. On the positive side, it would be pretty easy (as long as there was a McDonald's close by). No grocery shopping, no preparation, minimal mess. It would also be relatively inexpensive. Like what $8/day? But still. No.
If you are considering changing your nutrition habits to achieve weight loss it is important to ask yourself these THREE questions. I will start by considering big picture nutrition - plant-based versus everything else:
1. How do I feel?
This is the first and most important one. If I feel like crap on a particular diet, what are the chances that I will remain consistent? Very low. A diet that works for me must give me energy and vitality while I'm losing fat. After all, it's not like it's gonna happen overnight. You can't be hungry and miserable and you can't be dragging your ass around. Period. Bye bye McDonalds. If you feel great, you're gonna stick with it and get amazing results. Plant-based diets done right give you tons of energy and make you feel light even if you're heavy. More on that later.
2. Is it good for me? And I would add on, is it good for our planet?
We ALL know the Big Mac diet is not a contender here. The general consensus is that plant-based/vegan is superior to meat-based diets. Less carbon-based emissions, less methane production, etc. etc. If I go vegan will I feel amazing and be super healthy? Not necessarily. In addition to lacking in quality, absorbable *protein and vitamin B12, vegan and plant-based diets, if not done right, can be challenging to health and the planet. You're not gonna like me for saying this but many of my vegan friends eat a shit-ton of processed foods. I'm always surprised at this - veggie burgers, veggie dogs, veggie chicken nuggets and lots of starchy foods like bread, rice and pasta. All the stuff I generally avoid because really, what the fuck is in that shit? Beige "Foods" filled with cheap fillers and inflammation-causing vegetable oils like safflower, sunflower, soy, canola and corn. Nutrient void and calorie dense. Not great for carving out a lean physique. Or a smart brain. Or saving the planet. How much fucking energy and packaging goes into that? Now I'm venting.
A sound plant-based diet is rich in non-processed, whole foods. Stuff that grows in the earth and lies around "naked" on the produce shelves. Stuff that requires a bit more effort, generally but not always. Much could be consumed raw and cooking doesn't have to be complicated but lots of vegans don't do it!
*It is challenging to derive adequate protein (you have to eat tons of greens!) and Vitamin B12 from a vegan or strict plant-based diet. Protein is critical to rebuild muscle after a hard workout and to maintain metabolism and leanness and B12 is not found in plant sources. It is essential for healthy nerves, blood cells, DNA and energy production.
3. Is it convenient? i.e you’re not gonna stick with it if it’s a fuck-load of work
As mentioned above, good vegan and plant-based diets require more discipline and preparation to be effective and healthy. If you're not up for some work then it's probably not for you. Especially if you don't love real vegetables. It's always better to eat real food than something out of a box just because it says "vegan". I do whole food vegan a couple times a week. It's not super convenient and it's expensive but it's worth it to me. I happen to love veggies so it's like a treat.
How about other diet plans/philosophies? I'll go through a few more superficially and give you my take.
Weight Watchers requires diligently counting points and keeping score. It's reputed to be simple, seems to work for many and it's not restrictive in terms of choices. There is a membership fee but it's not super expensive and totally worth it if it works for you. For me I find the idea of having to think about food points and counting, a bit cumbersome. Plus if I think about food all the time, I will get very hungry.
Keto is like the Atkins diet, very restrictive and requires some sacrifice. Only high protein and fat. Here we go. No soda, fruit juice, smoothies, cake, ice cream, candy, grains or starches, wheat-based products, rice, pasta, cereal, fruit, except small portions of berries like strawberries. No beans or legumes, no root vegetables and tubers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips. Wowzer. I know it works for weight loss if you can stick to it, but some people end up with bad breath from ketosis (yuck) and constipation from inadequate fiber (ugh). If that's not enough to deter you, in addition to the above banned foods, it doesn't allow wine or beer. Hard pass for me.
Paleo makes a more sense to me - what has "grown in the ground or had eyes" - but I can't give up bread entirely. That's very inconvenient for sandwiches. Admittedly, I probably do Paleo by accident once a week.
Five small meals/day
I need to feel satiated when I eat, so any really tiny meal is out
I will overeat and consume too many calories overall
I want my body to tap into my reserves and this will never happen
Too inconvenient to prepare so many meals
When would I have time to workout?
Bottom line for me:
I'm an omnivore, eating mostly plant-based (80%) and sustainably raised animal products as much as possible. How do I feel? I feel great and have plenty of energy for working out, sports, my family and life. I also enjoy a little alcohol from time to time. And chocolate. Both plant-based, just saying. But I try not to overdo it - extra calories add up quickly. I get plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein and fats from a wide variety of whole foods. I feel fucking awesome for 51.
I use portion control (aka calorie control) - Intermittent Fasting (IF) is my gig. Simply skipping breakfast and saving myself a sugar rush and several hundred calories each day, allows my body to tap into it's reserves (fat) and trains my metabolism to burn fat at a higher rate. For me this is the "diet" or "non-diet" that works. It's cheap (free actually) and convenient. Less prep, less mess and provides a host of hormonal benefits including protection from certain diseases and a higher libido. Since I am only able to exercise on an empty stomach (except for coffee), it's ideal for my schedule. I "break" my "fast" around 2 p.m. most days and have my last food around 8 p.m. I grocery shop often for fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts and whole grains, and although I always make a bit of a mess in the kitchen, I keep most meals simple. Think salads/roasted veggies with lean protein like chicken breast, wild salmon etc. adding flavor and color with spices, herbs. I also make sure to include a variety of fats from olives, avocado, coconut oil and butter. Delicious, healthy, good for the planet, good for me and not too difficult at all. PLUS I can be vegan, Keto, Paleo whenever I want with this option.
Last words. Whether you're a vegan, omnivore, follow Keto, Paleo, or Weight Watchers, you can achieve your weight-loss goals. It takes consistency and patience. There are many pathways to the same destination. It boils down to what works for you. How does it make you feel? Is it good for you? Is it convenient? And yes we all need to make more mindful choices not only for ourselves but for the planet and its inhabitants. Animal cruelty, over-consumption, over-processing, over-packaging all need to stop. That will depend on our behavior as consumers.
Good luck with your 2020 resolutions. Always appreciate hearing your thoughts.