When it comes to losing weight, the details don't matter much. It's the principles that count.
Every legitimate nutrition expert, whether a popular diet guru or a representative of the medical nutrition establishment, agrees that there are some fundamental principles of healthy weight loss that apply to everyone. No matter how much they are disguised, these principles are at the core of every good diet plan, be it a dietician’s plan or a bestseller’s. And nobody achieves permanent weight loss and optimal health without obeying these principles, consciously or unconsciously. While there appears to be no single right way to eat for health and weight loss (on the level of details), you need to be aware of the basic principles. This will help you avoid those diet plans that do in fact break them and choose the specific plan that is best for you.
“It’s the people who understand the principles who do well long-term,” says Arthur Agatston.
Critics of popular diets frequently claim that such diets encourage unbalanced eating by declaring certain foods and even whole food groups off-limits. The example they almost invariably point to is the infamous cabbage soup diet. But that’s a pretty extreme example.
What the critics overlook is the fact that the average American diet is rather unbalanced to begin with: heavy on animal foods, processed foods, fried foods, and sweets and light on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It’s hard to find a popular diet that doesn’t encourage dieters to consume a variety of fresh, natural plant foods, and thereby support, if not a perfectly balanced diet, then at least a more balanced one.
In Cracking the Metabolic Code, James LaValle, a pharmacist and naturopathic physician based in Cincinnati, OH, explains how nutrient imbalances of various sorts can lead to weight gain, and conversely, how improving nutrient balance can facilitate weight loss.
To give one example, an underactive thyroid gland is a common cause of slow metabolism and, consequently, weight gain. Among the many factors that can lower thyroid function are high levels of adrenal stress hormones such as cortisol, and as LaValle points out, “Eating a lot of sugar triggers the release of adrenal hormones.” The average American diet comprises 18% sugar. The average popular diet most certainly does not!
2. Nutrient Timing
A spate of recent research has shown that when we eat is almost as important as what we eat with respect to optimizing our body composition. “We’ve learned that it’s essential to coordinate energy intake with energy expenditure,” explains John Ivy, Ph.D. and coauthor of Nutrient Timing (Basic Health, 2004). “Calories are put to their best possible use when they are consumed at times when there is a strong demand for them in the body.”
Morning is a time of relatively high caloric demand. Calories consumed in the morning are more likely than calories consumed later in the day to be used for energy than stored as fat. In fact, a study from the University of Massachusetts found that those who regularly skip breakfast are 4.5 times more likely to be overweight than those who eat it most mornings.
Eating smaller meals more frequently (five or six times a day) is another proven way to better coordinate food intake with energy needs. According to statistical data, the average American eats three large meals per day.
Research has shown that simply paying attention to what you eat is one of the more effective ways to reduce your caloric intake. Self-monitoring strategies are a key habit among members of the National Weight Control Registry, a research pool comprising several thousand men and women who have lost an average of 66 pounds apiece and kept the weight off an average of 6 years. “They’re very conscious of their eating,” says Suzanne Phelan, Ph.D., a spokesperson for the NWCR. “About half of them report that they are still counting calories and fat grams.”
Another useful self-monitoring habit that is common among both the NWCR subjects and those pursuing weight loss on popular diets is weighing. According to Phelan, this habit allows the subjects of her study to avoid the insidious upward creep that is the undoing of many initially successful diets. “Because they are weighing themselves as often as they do, they can catch these slips,” she says. “If they do something about it right away, they’re much more likely to be successful in the long term.”
4. Selective Restrictions
Just about every popular diet has a “forbidden foods” list. The specific foods and food types that make the list and how strictly they are forbidden differ from one program to the next. The Atkins diet forbids virtually all high-carbohydrate foods. The Ornish diet forbids animal foods. Peter D’Adamo’s blood type diet forbids a long laundry list of seemingly unrelated foods for each of the four basic bloods types.
No weight loss diet can succeed without restriction of the foods that are most responsible for creating large body fat stores. A majority of mainstream nutrition experts agree that the “bad fats” found in many processed foods and animal foods and the “bad carbs” in sweets and processed foods are the primary culprits. Interestingly, nearly all of the members of the NWCR choose to restrict intake of high-fat foods. “Only seven percent are on a low-carb diet,” says Phelan.
Mainstream nutrition experts warn against taking food restrictions too far, however. “To eliminate specific foods and food groups, especially those people enjoy, is a recipe for disaster and can lead to feelings of deprivation, not to mention nutritional imbalances,” says Elisa Zied, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
James LaValle prescribes only “soft” restrictions to his clients and in the many nutrition books he’s written. “You get gurus who say, ‘You can never eat another dessert again,’” he says. “That sets up a guilt complex in people.” When the options are all or nothing, there is no happy medium between being on the diet and miserable and being off it completely.
5. Low Caloric Density
The concept of caloric density, or energy density, refers to the number of calories per unit volume in a given food. A food that packs a lot of calories in a small area is said to have high caloric density. Because water and dietary fiber are non-caloric, foods that contain a lot of water and/or fiber tend to have low caloric density. Generally speaking, processed foods are calorically dense, while fruits and vegetables, with their high water and fiber content, are less dense.
Caloric density is important for those seeking to lose weight because research has shown that people tend to eat a consistent volume of food regardless of the number of calories it contains. In a Penn State study, women were fed either a high-density, medium-density, or low-density meal three times a day. The subjects in all three groups ate the same weight of food, but the women eating the high-density meals took in 30% more calories than the women eating the low-density meals.
Healthy eating is not like a vaccine: one shot and you’re covered for life. Instead it requires a daily, lifelong commitment. There is growing evidence that the more consistent you are in your wholesome eating habits, the greater your chances of maintaining a healthy body weight.
Again, the members of the National Weight Control Registry set an example. “One of our most recent findings is that they do maintain a very consistent eating pattern,” says Phelan. “Unlike many dieters, they tend to eat the same during the week as on the weekends. The same holds for the holidays versus the rest of the year. They tend to have a consistent eating pattern throughout the year.”
A persistent myth of dieting is that those who achieve long-term success start off with a more moderate, slow-and-steady approach than the crash dieters who take on severe restrictions only to bail out after a few weeks or months and regain their weight. According to Phelan, there is no evidence that the long-term successes start off differently. The real difference is that they simply keep doing what they started doing!
Why are some dieters able to maintain their healthy new lifestyle indefinitely while most others peter out after a few weeks or months? This is currently one of the hottest questions in weight loss research. As yet there is no definitive answer, but there are indications that it’s mostly about motivation.
Certain types of triggers for weight loss diets are more likely to yield long-term success than others. For example, “One thing we’ve found is that people who have medical triggers for their weight loss are more successful in the long term than people who don’t,” says Phelan. There’s nothing like a near-death experience to keep you on the straight and narrow path of healthy eating!
More evidence for the motivation explanation comes from the fact that just about every other explanation can be eliminated.
It is often assumed that successful dieters have more inherent willpower. However, most members of the NWCR actually failed in several weight loss initiatives before they finally succeeded, indicating that something about their circumstances rather than their psychological makeup was the key.
“Bad genes” that resist weight loss are also frequently blamed. And yet, says Phelan, “Many of [the NWCR members] have parents who were overweight or were overweight themselves as children, which suggests they may have a genetic predisposition to obesity, but they still manage to lose weight.”
Finding the Perfect Fit
Each of us is unique – metabolically, psychologically, and circumstantially. For this reason, there’s no single diet plan that works well for everyone. “Each person needs to find what works for him- or herself,” says Zied. But there are underlying principles of healthy nutrition and dieting that do apply universally. Understanding these principles is essential to finding the right plan for you.