Here's How to Find the Best Approach for You
So you need to drop some unwanted body fat, but after doing a bit of research, you quickly discover that there are far more diets and "feeding strategies" to choose from than you ever realized.
Further digging reveals that ALL of these approaches have zealous supporters as well as harsh critics. I mean, how is it that some people "never felt better" on a vegan diet, while others are equally enthusiastic about the carnivore diet? What gives?
While this can be maddening, it turns out that all successful diets have one common denominator: They allow you to maintain an energy deficit (meaning that you consume fewer calories than you expend) long enough to lose the desired amount of fat.
Put another way, various diets work in different ways, but in the end, when they work, it's because they facilitate that energy deficit.
Thankfully, while diets are many, the mechanisms these diets use to promote an energy deficit are few. In fact, there are only three broad categories of approaches to lowering your calorie intake. The key is to identify which strategy works best for YOU.
This is ultimately a matter of trial and error, but we can streamline the process. Below are three different diet strategies, along with the unique pros and cons of each.
Consider your unique goals, circumstances, and personality type – along with your past experiences with dieting – and you'll quickly identify the approach that'll best work for you.
The very first step is to figure out whether or not you'll track your daily calorie intake (or your macros, which will indirectly accomplish the same thing). If the answer is yes, Method 1 is for you.
If you decide that tracking isn't something you'll realistically do, your next step is to decide which of the other two approaches best suits your purposes.
Method 1: Monitor and Track Calorie Intake ("Flexible" Dieting)
This is the oldest and ultimately most effective method of fat loss... if you're willing to navigate its more challenging features, which includes actually tracking your calories.
As I often point out to my clients, imagine you started a new business, but you decide to never track income or expenses. You MIGHT be successful if you're lucky, but you're leaving a lot to chance.
- Tracking calories offers the most reliable method of ensuring that you're in an energy deficit. When you have control of inputs, you have better control over the outputs.
- No foods are strictly off limits (hence the term "flexible" dieting).
- By consistently tracking calories, you become much more educated about the caloric value of the foods you eat.
- There's a bit of a learning curve involved – you must learn how to read labels and use a food scale. And of course you'll need to find a way to log all those calories and/or macros, be it an old-fashioned food journal or an app.
- It's difficult for people who eat out frequently.
- Since any food is allowed in moderation, some people might go off the rails if they eat a triggering food item that generates uncontrollable cravings. Some people may also disregard health and be tempted to eat nutritionally empty junk foods that "fit their macros."
If you're intimidated by tracking, or for whatever reason don't think it'll work for you, there are two non-tracking approaches to choose from.
Method 2: "Inflexible" Dieting Systems
There are a number of diet systems/philosophies available that often lead to a calorie deficit by tricking you into eating less than you ordinarily would. They do this by simply limiting your food choices or opportunities. A few of the more popular examples include intermittent fasting, veganism, and keto.
All of these approaches have relatively strict rules. Intermittent fasting confines your entire daily calorie intake to a relatively narrow time window (8 hours, for example). Many people find that they eat fewer calories this way, even though when they do eat, they eat as much as they want of whatever they like.
Veganism ensures that you consume a lot of fiber (which makes you more full) and nutrient-dense but low-calorie foods.
Keto requires that you consume little to no carbohydrate. When your food options are this limited, many people find themselves eating less since their food choices are relatively boring.
- Having strict dieting rules makes the process more clear-cut, which helps people remain confident that they're on track.
- No need to track/monitor calories.
- Most of these rules-based systems are more heavy-handed than necessary. For example, some perfectly healthy and beneficial foods may be off limits.
- Most of these approaches can't be maintained indefinitely. Either the dieter caves to cravings, or nutrient deficiencies derail his or her health.
- Many of these approaches are difficult to comply with when eating out or in social situations.
Method 3: "Instinctive" Calorie Reduction
The third and likely least predictable fat loss method is sometimes called "instinctive eating."
Rather than strictly tracking your calories or eating according to a set of prescribed rules, you instead eat by gut instinct. You might, for example, strive to make better food choices, reduce environmental challenges to eating productively, and in general, eat less than you're used to.
My personal bias is that I'm always super-skeptical when someone says they plan to diet (or exercise for that matter) by "instinct." Let's face it – most people's "instincts" involve eating waaay too much of foods that taste waaay too good for fat-loss purposes.
Nevertheless, by "instinct," I'm referring to making an honest estimate of eating the amount of food that'll facilitate fat loss. This strategy's drawbacks are probably more evident than its benefits, but let's take a look at both:
- No calorie or macro tracking.
- No strict rules or forbidden foods.
- Easy to navigate restaurants and social occasions.
- You'll optimize your eating behaviors and learn to navigate the discomfort of hunger (IF you succeed).
- Most folks who struggle with being overweight probably have poor discipline regarding calorie intake and may require a more structured approach, at least initially.
- This is the least reliable of the three categories – it might work (and certainly does for some), but if it doesn't, you'll need more structure.
Fat Loss Success: Matching the Dieter to the Right Diet
Most dieters secretly think that if they could find the magic diet, fat loss will happen quickly and painlessly. While this is definitely not the case, it is true that the process can be made much easier.
If you need to lean up in a serious way, consider the unique pros and cons of the three methods discussed and select an approach that'll give you the best shot at success, given your unique personality and circumstances.
Once you decide upon your optimal strategy, the following proven behavior-modification strategies will improve your odds of succeeding:
Seek Out Social Support and Accountability
The people in your life need to be on board with your plan. Let your immediate family and friends know how important your fat loss goal is and suggest ways they can support (or at least avoid derailing) you, such as not offering you unproductive foods, not making a fuss when you choose goal-friendly options at restaurants, and so on.
You might also consider having a coach or an accountability partner that you check in with on a regular basis. This person need not be on a diet. He or she might actually be a coach that you pay. Either way, the two of you have a goal in common and support each other in pursuit of your objectives.
Minimize Environmental Friction
Keep your pantry stocked with healthy food options you like and keep unapproved foods out of the house. Use smaller plates and dishes. Find restaurants that offer healthier menu choices than the places you normally frequent. Learn to actually cook.
The possibilities are almost endless, but the take-home point is to ensure that your environment facilitates your new habits as much as possible.
Fat loss isn't about being perfect, it's about being better. Assume that occasional lapses of judgment and willpower will happen and when they do, avoid self-judgment and simply move forward.
Don't Stray Too Far Out of Your Comfort Zone
Intensity is great until you can't sustain it. Successful dieters typically lose between .5% and 1% of total bodyweight per week. If you have a significant amount of weight to lose (say 50-100 pounds), a slightly faster rate of weight loss is acceptable, at least initially. Otherwise, diet like a marathoner, not a sprinter.
One Last Thing: Don't Say You'll Start On Monday!
Saying that is a sure sign they're full of shit! Joking aside, if it's truly important to you, you'll start now. I understand it might take you a day or two to get a plan together, but it doesn't change the point. Make today the day. Don't make me come over there!
Choose a plan and launch it immediately. Your only regret will be not starting sooner.