Definitely the Deficit
There are several different ways you can approach fat loss when it comes to food:
- Eat whatever you like, just eat less of it and achieve a calorie deficit that way.
- Eat larger amounts of very satiating (filling) low-calorie foods and achieve a calorie deficit that way.
- Eat many small frequent meals spread over the course of the day and achieve a calorie deficit that way.
- Eat fewer larger meals and achieve a calorie deficit that way.
- Cut out a major macronutrient like fat or carbohydrates and achieve a calorie deficit that way.
- Spend a large portion of your day or week avoiding food (I.e. fasting) and achieve a calorie deficit that way.
Do you spot a theme here? Basically, if a diet works it's working because it's helping you achieve a calorie deficit – consuming a below-maintenance number of calories – whether you're aware of it or not.
The Reverse is Also True
If a diet isn't working, it's because it is NOT aiding you in creating that deficit over the long term. In fact, all of the approaches mentioned above can, in susceptible individuals, result in calorie excess leading to no results or even weight gain.
You can fast for half the day and still consume too many calories in your feeding window. You can cut out all carbs and still consume too many calories from fats. You get the idea.
We all know how this works. It's about sustainability. Does the approach you choose lead to effortless, consistent calorie reduction, or a brief deficit followed by surplus intake?
The Hormonal Effects
So what's behind the ability to effortlessly create a calorie deficit? It's the hormonal effects of food: how your meals control hunger, energy, and cravings.
I'm not talking about insulin and sex hormones as much as I'm referring to hunger hormones, brain chemistry, and stress hormones.
To lose fat and keep it off requires two things:
- A calorie deficit
- Ongoing suppression of hunger and cravings (i.e. hormonal metabolic balance).
The approach you choose needs to achieve both. And that's going to depend on your unique physiology, psychology, and personal preferences.
"What about food quality? That's equally as important as food quantity, right?"
For you it may be. For most it may be. You can't say for sure which is more important to the individual in front of you. To do so illustrates both ignorance (not realizing there may be things we don't know or yet understand) and arrogance (being absolutely convinced we are correct and therefore are less likely to even consider that we may not know.)
One example is the overly fat person. I would rather see him include Oreos in his diet and remain in calorie deficit than eat boatloads of blueberries and stay in calorie excess.
That being said, my clinical experience says that, more often than not (for most but not all) a focus on quality over quantity is the best approach. Quality foods typically better suppress hunger and cravings.