(And what you need to do to make it work!)
Nutrition that is not personalized to YOU and your situation may work in the short term, but likely won’t work long term.
If you’re looking to lose fat, it’s best to consume the greatest number of calories possible.
People are often eating too much of either carbohydrates or fat. Lowering the wrong one may not lead to any progress.
Your preferences need to be taken into account so it is easy to stick to the plan long term.
No cookie cutter plans!
Did your friend try this new diet and found it worked great for them to lose weight? Or maybe they hired a nutrition coach who wrote out a plan for them to follow and it worked. Well, as it turns out you’re the same size, gender and age. So she gives you her plan, but for some reason it’s just not working for you like it was for her. What’s the deal?
There is no surprise here, and you’re about to find out why. Not only is un-individualized nutrition a major issue among the general public, but it’s even a big issue among nutrition coaches! It’s easy to fall into the trap of
“Well, if this plan worked for me, it must work for everyone else.”
This seems to be a common mistake made among those who have lost a lot of weight and/or have done a physique competition and decide to start coaching people based on what they did. The fact of the matter is, many different considerations go into what plan is going to work for someone, not just the fact that they are a human being.
Here are a few factors that MUST be taken into consideration when making nutrition recommendations for anyone...
How much are you eating right now?
This isn’t going to be the only blog post where you hear me say this:
If you are looking to lose fat, you should consume the GREATEST number of calories you can while still losing fat.
The reality is, your body adapts to the number of calories it burns based on the number of calories you have been taking in and your body weight/composition. Meaning, if you lower the number of calories you take in, eventually your body will lower the number of calories it burns to meet the decrease[1,2,3]. Also, as your weight decreases, the number calories burned decreases. To avoid plateaus, it may be necessary to either decrease calorie intake further or increase energy expenditure (through exercise) every few months or weeks.
Example: Let’s say you’re eating 3000 calories and you’re friend was eating 2200 calories. Your friend’s diet brings her down to 1900 calories which is a 300 calorie drop for her, but a whooping 1100 calorie drop for you! In a few weeks you’re body is going to adapt, the weight loss is going to stop and you may feel you have to drop your calories further. You get a bit more weight loss and then it plateaus again. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you may end up having to drop further and further and further... and next thing you know you’re metabolism has adapted to 1100 calories, which is not only dangerously low for your health, but is setting you up for future failure as it will be extremely difficult to maintain and bring back up.
In my opinion, the average woman should work on increasing her metabolism to ~1800 calories and the average man ~2200 calories MINIMUM before dropping them in an attempt to lose weight.
You might say “but won’t I just lose weight faster in those first few weeks”. That might seem logical, but you’re body only likes to lose weight so fast (1 to 2 lbs per week MAX). Any faster than this and it will quickly adapt to avoid starvation. The faster you drop, the faster your body will adapt. This is where your body goes: “Hey, where did all the food go? There must not be any available. Better slow down my metabolism so I don’t die.” That’s right, your brain isn’t the only one that has conversations with itself.
One more important reason to not lower your calories too much is that drastic reductions in food intake result in HUNGER and CRAVINGS, which make it far less likely that you will be able to follow the plan and far more likely that you could end up bingeing on that weekend night out with your family and friends. With your metabolism now being so low, those calories won’t be being burned or be going to your muscle (and there’s only one spot left).
What are you currently eating too much or not enough of?
OK, maybe they didn’t give your friend a full-fledged plan and they just gave her some advice. A common one you might hear these days is
“just lower your carbs”
This isn’t necessarily a bad recommendation for one person or another, but it is a bad GENERAL recommendation.
Typically people are eating too much of one of two things that are causing them to gain or not be able to lose body fat – carbohydrates or fat. What about the other big 3 calorie containing nutrient, protein? A very high protein intake is more likely to lead to not eating ENOUGH one of the other 2 nutrients causing an imbalance and possible nutrient deficiencies or it can come with high fat. Both of which can also contribute to difficulty losing weight and/or keeping it off, but that is a topic for another post.
Therefore, if your friend was eating too many carbs and the recommendation she received was to lower her carbs, then great! An imbalance would be fixed and yes she would likely lose weight. However, if you’re more of a burger with extra cheese, bacon and fries type of person and less of a pasta, sweets and baguettes type, then better guidance would be to lower your fat. Thus, lowering your carbs would likely not do anything! (except maybe add room for more fatty potato chips and doughnuts)
What are your preferences?
How about if your friend’s guidance was just to eliminate (insert any modern “evil” food group here; eg. wheat, rice, dairy, meat, sugar, etc.). But… you LOVE your mom’s homemade pasta, you can’t stand the thought of NEVER having a piece of chocolate again and you have a hard enough time getting in enough protein as it is WITH eating meat.
Does this sound like a plan you’re going to be able to stick to? Likely not. Pretty soon your cravings are going to kick in and your body is going to play some jedi mind tricks on your brain to convince it to eat a serving of that pasta (or 2… or 5). Especially when it’s sitting right in front of you on the dinner table while the rest of your family is saying “just try it!”
RULE #1 of nutrition planning:
The best plan is not the perfect plan. The best plan is the one you can stick to.
What you can do
Look at how much YOU are eating right now and eat A LITTLE BIT less. Most people don’t need to calorie count or count grams of carbs, fat and protein. All you need to do is look at your portions, decrease them slightly and maybe increase the number of vegetables you consume to keep you full without adding calories. However, keep in mind the next point.
Take a look at your diet and figure out: are you eating a lot of high carbohydrate foods or a lot of high fat foods? Where are you exceeding? Then go from there. That should be your target for where the calories should come out of. Decrease the portions of those foods or, better yet, switch them to more nutrient dense versions that will fill you up faster and keep you satisfied longer (eg. whole grain bread instead of white, or a handful of nuts instead of chips).
Get to know yourself and understand what you are going to need to stay on track. Do you like chocolate? Find a healthy snack bar recipe that uses a few semi-sweet chocolate chips in it. Can’t live without fast food? Figure out the healthier options at your favourite spots. The best plan is not the perfect plan. The best plan is the one you can stick to.
Feel like you’ve tried everything? Get yourself a coach. A good coach can help you find the right plan for your physiology, preferences and your budget. They’ll also help ensure you’re not wasting your time with fad diets that don’t work or messing up your metabolism to the point where it’s harder to keep the weight off than it was to lose it.
The key to success when you feel like nothing else is working
Tremblay A, Major G, Doucet E, Trayhurn P and Astrup A (2007). Role of Adaptive Thermogenesis in Unsuccessful Weight-Loss Intervention. International Journal of Obesity. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/567126_5
Sumithran P and Proietto J (2013). The defense of body weight: a physiological basis for weight regain after weight loss. Clinical Science. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23126426
Maclean P, Bergouignan A, Cornier M and Jackman M (2011). Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American Journal of Physiology. 10.1152/ajpregu.00755.2010
Johannsen D, Knuth N, Huizenga R, Rood J, Ravussin E and Hall K (2012). Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3387402/
Trexler E, Smith-Ryan A and Norton L (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
Calton J (2010). Prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in popular diet plans. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 10.1186/1550-2783-7-24