Diet confusion: A simple strategy for hacking through the noise
Losing weight is easy.
A few pounds here, a few pounds there. Most people who set out to drop a little flab are able to do so within a few weeks. Big deal.
The trick is keeping it off.
People aren't as good at that.
In search of answers
If you're turning to Google for weight loss advice, I sincerely wish you luck.
You may just be looking for some simple guidance, but the information landscape is so cluttered that it'll be hard to recognize good advice even if you do happen to stumble on it. Hacking through the multitude of diets, training routines, guru philosophies, and list of dos and don'ts is enough to make anyone's head spin.
But putting all of that on hold for a second, we can at least agree that dieting has to be part of the plan, right? Good.
Now, what to eat?
Well, clearly eating random stuff that tastes good is no kind of strategy, so you should probably avoid doing that. So back to Google it is to see what the latest and greatest is from the world of nutrition.
A lifetime could be spent mulling through all of the different nutrition options out there. You've got diets focusing on carbs, fats, or protein--there are high and low varieties of each. There are diets that demand only plants be consumed and others that advocate eating an abundance of animal products. Interesting. And then there are diets that condemn the cooking process entirely and advocate only 100% raw and unprocessed foods be eaten.
If none of that sounds appealing, you could take a different approach and pattern your eating after an ancient population as the Paleo diet suggests, or from a specific region of the globe such as the Mediterranean diet.
Then there are nutritional strategies--not full on diets--like juicing, cleansing, fasting, putting butter in your coffee, or consuming only liquids which are designed to be some kind of accelerant to fat loss.
And those are just the popular dietary topics that I could think of. Go down to your local bookstore and peruse the diet section. You'll find no shortage of a few more magic solutions for you to consider.
It's absolutely crazy.
Even for someone like me, who is by no means an expert but does know a thing or two about nutrition, it's easy to get lured towards new and diet trends. For example, I was really into intermittent fasting for years. And although I still feel it's a strategy that has a ton of health benefits, I've loosened up quite a bit with my "regimen" and have learned to just eat when I get hungry.
And a few summers ago I went deep into the Ketogenic diet. Of course I would never admit it, but I secretly hoped it might have magical powers that would give me greater health and easier-to-maintain abs. Again, I felt there were some up sides, but I pulled the plug when I started having to count the carbs in my balsamic vinegar. It was a bit too restrictive to say the least.
So what do people actually do? Well maybe a few hack through the noise and find something. But usually I think people end up doing whatever worked for someone they know.
"Jenny lost 40 pounds, so I might as well give it a try."
For a select few of those, they find something and it works. But for most, they either end up back at the keyboard looking for more answers, or they just lose interest entirely.
At the end of the day, most people are just looking for some solid, practical advice on what to do. But what they run into is preaching, promising, and nutritional panaceas. And despite all of this, there seems to be no one strategy that's leading the way.
Even the scientific community has its disagreements and contradictions on whether fat is good, or carbs are bad, or just saturated fat is bad, or not all carbs are bad just some of the sugars...it's a mess. If you look hard enough you can find a study to support any diet out there. And such studies are the ammunition for people all over the world to defend their dietary doctrine as the one true way.
Oh, awesome. A biphasic ketogenic Mediterranean diet. Thanks, science.
So with all of the conflicting opinions and research, I feel like it just leaves the average Joe and Jane with more anxiety and lower motivation to take action.
Evidence for no true way
In 1994 Rena Wing, a behavioral psychologist at Brown University and James Hill a pediatrician at the University of Colorado founded the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), an ongoing research project that examines long-term weight loss and what people are doing to achieve it.
In their body of research, they analyzed the diets and lifestyles of thousands of successful weight loss cases in an attempt to identify what those people had in common. What did the people who lost weight, and kept it off, do that their less successful counterparts did not?
A major question they wanted to answer was with all of the different options people have, what dietary patterns work the best? Low carb? Vegan? Paleo? The Baby Food Diet? (Oh yes, that's a thing.)
Their research would disappoint most diet book authors: there was no clear winner. Despite the variety of diets people used, not one proved superior for achieving and maintaining a lower body weight. Instead they were able to demonstrate that multiple strategies could be successfully used for losing weight, and keeping it off for good.
So what could explain this?
A lot of people operate on the assumption that our bodies are all essentially the same, and therefor there must be a particular style of eating that suits the human physiology best. A popular argument amongst many diet leaders is that humans have evolved to eat and thrive only on certain kinds of foods. Both ideas are just fundamentally wrong.
In terms of things like number of fingers and average core body temperature, yes our bodies all look and function quite similarly in many ways. But one area where we show surprising variation is in our metabolism, and specifically, how our bodies handle carbohydrates.
It starts in the spit
While there are a few factors that influence how our bodies respond to carbs, such as our level of insulin sensitivity, muscle mass, and how well we slept last night, those things can be modified through exercise and diet.
But there's a genetic and less controllable factor at play here: amylaze, a salivary enzyme responsible for breaking down starch the minute you put that buttery potato in your mouth.
Depending on your lineage, you were born with a certain level of salivary amylase. Descendants from cultures with higher starch intakes, like the Japanese, tend to be born with more and can digest carbohydrates better than descendants from other cultures, such as the Inuits, who subsisted on a higher fat and protein diet. Research has also found that people with higher levels of amylase tend to eat and weigh less than those with lower amounts.
Long story short, due in part to genetics and the current state of your physiology, some people can handle large quantities of carbohydrates better than others (by "handle" I mean they don't get as severe of a glucose and insulin spike), and this variation is a huge factor in determining what type of diet will work best for you.
Peter Attia, MD (Johns Hopkins trained surgeon and founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative), Tim Noakes, PhD (Professor of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town), and Dominic D’Agostino, PhD (Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology & Physiology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine) are three scientific heavyweights in the nutrition community.
Although they would commonly be associated as falling in the low-carb diet tribe, all three of these guys acknowledge that carbohydrate tolerance varies drastically between individuals and that people need to find what works best for their body. Peter Attia has, I think, some of the best advice for how people should think about constructing their optimal diet:
"Eat in whatever way your genetics and epigenetics permit you to such that your glucose levels stay low, and the variability stays low, and those two things will ensure your insulin levels stay low."
He goes on to say "What you can eat to achieve that varies tremendously by individual. There are some people that just dispose of glucose remarkably."
The point of this is not to put carbohydrates in the spotlight. The effectiveness of a diet for weight loss depends on a variety of genetic, biochemical, lifestyle, and dietary factors. The point is to highlight the very basic but often overlooked idea that the physiological response to eating any given piece of food can vary greatly from person to person.
So it's likely that staunch proponents of a high-carb vegan diet just happen to tolerate carbs very well. It's also likely that the high-fat low-carb advocates happen to be a part of a population for whom a banana would send into a diabetic shock, and they just happened to stumble upon an approach that also worked well for them. Their only mistake is falsely assuming that everyone would benefit from their way of eating.
First, let go of the notion that there is a best way to eat and you just haven't read about it yet. As much as we would love too think there is a universal diet out there just waiting to be discovered, we're seeing more and more that just isn't the case.
I think people have a tendency to overvalue novelty. They think that if it's new or different, there just might be something to it. They place their hope in that new thing until it becomes normal and mundane at which point they're off to the next thing.
In my experience, it's simple, boring, consistency that usually wins the day.
Second, don't take this to mean that there aren't some tried and true best practices when it comes to nutrition. For example, regardless of what diet you happen to read about, most generally advocate whole foods and vegetables.
Even research from the NWCR seems to supports this. Despite not finding a clear diet winner, they did notice that successful "losers" ate more vegetables and less sugar. Not too much of a shocker, so again if you're at a loss on what to do, start with the boring-as-shit advice of increasing your veggies and decreasing the junk.
The last bit of advice I have is regarding carbohydrates. If you've successfully eliminated the sugary junk and want to make carbs in general your next target, fine. But I would recommend two things.
First, analyze your food using an app like MyFitnessPal or Nutritionix Track--at least for a little while. I don't think obsessively logging everything you eat is a good long term strategy, but I do feel it's valuable to develop some awareness around calories and carbohydrates. I've worked with clients that didn't know orange juice contained carbs, assumed that ranch dressing "didn't count", and thought that the lettuce on their burger counted as a serving of vegetables. If any of those surprise you, I think some basic food education would do you some good.
Track everything you eat for a week and be thorough. Even if you think you're pretty savvy, you might be surprised to learn a thing or two. After you feel comfortable estimating the carbohydrate content of your favorite foods, stop tracking and learn to develop your intuitive sense.
Then I would suggest trying a lower carb approach (below 100 grams per day) and increase your intake progressively, if needed. Monitor how you feel, how much you weigh, and how your body responds. Give yourself two weeks to really come to a decision since it can take time for the body to acclimate to a new diet.
So if you start at around 80-100 grams of carbs per day and still feel like crap after a few weeks, try upping it by 20 grams. Or if you just don't like eating that way and find it too restrictive, add some more carbs since you likely won't stick with something you hate doing. And if the carb content doesn't seem to be helping things, take a closer look at your portion sizes. But if you're happy and getting the results you want, just keep it up, you're that much closer to refining your optimal approach.
Take methodical steps and make outcome-based, not emotional dietary decisions. Honestly evaluate how your body responds and be patient.
Notice this has nothing to do with being vegan, raw, paleo, organic, dairy-free, or gluten-free. Nor is it bound by any religious restrictions or ethical beliefs. I think those concerns are somewhat secondary and this approach can be successful within any of those frameworks.
Also keep in mind that this isn't the only way to approach or construct a personalized approach to eating, it's just one strategy I happen to think works.
Try it...or don't. But take action, and yes, continue to read. Despite all of the noise, I still feel that the more you educate yourself, the better. As you expose yourself to more information, your nutritional senses will continue to develop and sharpen. You'll be able to spot trends and patterns, see charlatans for what they are, and recognize sound, expert advice when you happen to find it.
Just don't make the mistake of thinking there's a dietary panacea out there. You have to find your own way, it just might take a little effort to figure it out.
I didn't think of all of this on my own. Here are links to the people and sources mentioned in the article.
1. National Weight Control Registry. www.nwcr.ws
2. Interview with Dr. Peter Attia on Jocko Podcast #56. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18PDWLV0zrE
3. Diet Cults, by Matt Dixon. Amazon link here.
4. Low copy number of the salivary amylase gene predisposes to obesity. Falchi et al (2014). Published in Nature here.
5. High endogenous salivary amylase activity is associated with improved glycemic homeostasis following starch ingestion in adults. Mandel and Breslin (2012). Published in the Journal of Nutrition. Read the full study here.