My new book has a section devoted to weight loss diets. There will be about 10 chapters, the first couple discuss what a weight loss diet is and how to navigate the dieting landscape. Later in this section, I will be dissecting 8-10 popular weight loss programs that I feel give the best chances of success. This is a rough draft of the first chapter on weight loss diets. Please let me have it in the comments. Your ideas so far have been great!
Meet the Modern-Day Weight Loss Diet
Diet marketers have created a strange situation…they want everyone to be on a diet, but most people know very little about how dieting works. The term “diet” itself has negative connotations for most people, especially if you’ve been overweight most of your life. Dieting is seen as punishment for overeating, so we go into a diet with the mindset that we brought this all upon ourselves and don’t deserve the right to feel good about what we are doing.
There is nothing shameful at all about getting healthy! Dieting should be viewed as a positive step in the right direction. Regaining health is a highly rewarding endeavor, something to be very proud of. My goal here is to take the mystery out of dieting. This will empower you to take control of your health. And, it’s quite possible you don’t need to diet at all!
Two Types of Diets
- Weight Loss Diets – Weight loss diets are used by greatly overweight people in a controlled way to effectively drop excess weight for health reasons. Weight loss diets are complicated and must be followed precisely. They require a great deal of attention and effort to ensure success. Good plans should be fun, educational, and social. It’s very hard to complete a weight loss diet with no support. Weight loss diets are mostly done by restricting food intake, but exercise is introduced as well.
- Maintenance Diets – Maintenance diets are not diets in the traditional sense at all. They are used for weight stability, nourishment, and to fuel our activity. Also known as “eating right” or “way of eating.” The opposite of a maintenance diet is unrestricted eating of low quality food, also known as the Western diet. Eating right needs to become a lifelong endeavor, done automatically with little fanfare or support. Losing weight is easy compared to eating right for many years afterwards. Exercise, sleep, stress, medications, diseases, and gut health are all integral to a maintenance diet. See Part 3.
Four Basic Weight Loss Diets
Of the thousands and thousands of weight loss plans available, they all operate from four basic templates:
- Low-carb, low-calorie
- Low-fat, low-calorie
- Balanced eating, low-calorie
- Time-restricted eating, low-calorie
Diet marketers will try hard to set their diet apart from the others by making fantastical claims, but there are simply no tricks to weight loss other than the aforementioned basic diets which all rely on cutting calories to elicit fat loss. What makes diets successful is how well followers can adhere to the diet.
Why We Diet
Carrying too much extra weight is unhealthy. Every human has fat stores, it’s how we survive starvation. We can get away with being a little “pudgy,” but when the fat stores grow too big it causes a host of health issues, as we all know. Many people don’t consider dieting until they are well overweight, and often the first couple dieting attempts fail to create meaningful weight loss. Most people find a tipping point that causes them to start a diet:
- Can’t fit in clothes.
- Changes in life-status (divorced, retired, married, etc.).
- Doctor’s orders.
- Harsh words from others.
- Low energy levels.
- Unhappy with appearance.
- Worried about health.
These are all good reasons to lose weight, but weight loss diets are not right for every circumstance. Weight loss diets are a big deal, not to be taken lightly. I only recommend weight loss diets for people who are quite overweight (more on this in a bit).
Many people that start diet programs don’t need to. Conversely, lots of overweight people think they can use “one weird trick” or tweak their eating just a bit to lose weight. If you are healthy and just a few pounds overweight, simply changing your eating style to avoid ultra-processed food and improve gut health is enough. Combine that with exercise, better sleep, and all the rest we’ve talked about and you won’t need to ever go on a diet. But if your weight is causing health problems, you need to go all-in on a real diet.
Dieting is a drastic step that should only be undertaken by people who truly need to lose weight for health reasons. How do you know if dieting is for you? The big diet companies want everyone to be on a diet. But dieting is hard on a body and can lead to some long-term health issues if done incorrectly. Only do it if absolutely necessary. An easy way to determine if you need to diet is to use the BMI chart and some key health markers.
The Body Mass Index (BMI) is used by doctors, researchers, insurance providers, and pharmaceutical companies to quickly determine if a person is in a healthy weight range. BMI is also used to differentiate between underweight, normal, overweight, and obese.
There is just one BMI chart, used by men and women alike. At first glance, it seems ludicrous to have just one standard with so many variables to consider. The BMI chart will indicate that some elite athletes are obese even though they have very little body fat, for instance. The BMI chart was made with the entire global population in mind, so it misses outliers.
The ranges within the BMI scale are fairly accurate for determining a healthy weight for most people. Simply line up your height with your weight and voilà, there’s your BMI.
Table cite: (National Institutes of Health, 2018)
Waist circumference is also a good predictor of overall health, especially when combined with BMI. The National Institutes of Health recommend people should first assess their BMI and then waist measurement. If your BMI shows you are overweight, and your waist is greater than 35” (for women) or 40” (for men,) then you should “take action.” I think this is very good advice. As you get into the “overweight” zone, it’s time to start working on the quality of your diet, eat right, and examine your lifestyle and exercise habits. If you’re in or nearing the “obese zone,” with a too-large waist, you most likely will need to use a weight loss diet.
Picture cite: (Adapted from National Institutes of Health, 2018)
The waist measurements criteria ignore your height, build, and age. The prevailing theory is that when any man or woman gets a waist bigger than allowed (ie. 40” or 35”), it indicates the person is accumulating fat around their organs. This so-called abdominal (or visceral) fat is the deadliest type of fat as it interferes with how your organs function. Back in the old days, we were simply told that you should only be able to “pinch an inch” of fat around your waistline. This advice was wrong because it only considered fat that was under the skin and not the fat on your liver, kidneys, and intestines.
While you can get a good idea of your general health and weight by looking up your BMI number and measuring your waist, your doctor has some other tools to really dial this all in. The regular set of labs drawn during routine checkups can tell you a lot about the effectiveness of your diet, exercise program, and your overall health.
Your doctor should be tracking your cholesterol levels, triglycerides, blood pressure, and fasting glucose among others. If some or all of these are out-of-range, and you are overweight with a waist circumference that’s over-the-limit, you definitely qualify as a person who needs to be on a weight loss diet.
Diets Actually Work Really Well!
I know what you’re thinking: “You’ve been saying 95% fail!” Yes, but only at long-term weight maintenance. In the short-term, weight loss diets can do exactly as they are designed.
While trying to determine the best diets for weight loss, clinicians conduct experiments to see which diets work best. Guess what they find time after time—all weight loss diets work. The only thing that sets one diet apart from the others is how well people can adhere to the diet. Diet marketers continually debate the merits of low-carb versus low-fat or other aspects peculiar to one diet over another. This is all for show. The diet that will work best is the diet that you can stick to for 6-12 months. I’ll help you pick the right one.
Effectiveness vs. Efficacy
Big Pharma must put new drugs and medical therapies to rigorous testing. Two such tests are known as efficacy and effectiveness.
Efficacy refers to how well a drug or therapy works in a clinical setting. For instance, if a new cancer drug cures 98% of the patients who take the drug, it gets high efficacy scores. If the drug only cures 10% of patients it would score low in efficacy.
Effectiveness refers to how well a drug works in a real-world setting. For instance, if the cancer drug that cured 98% of cancer patients costs over $1 million per day, no one could afford it and it would not be an effective therapy. But if the drug was cheap and had very few side-effects, it would be very effective.
If diet plans had to undergo this same scrutiny, most diets would pass the efficacy standards but fail on effectiveness. Humans can lose 1-2 pounds a day by fasting for extended periods (high efficacy), but fasting is not enjoyable and leads to bingeing, pre-occupation with food, and nutrient deficiencies so most people will not do extended fasts for weight loss (low effectiveness). Ketogenic diets change the way our bodies metabolize fat and have been shown to lead to weight loss (high efficacy), but ketogenic diets also ban major groups of food people love to eat and cause bad breath, so hardly anyone will stick to this diet for long (low effectiveness).
Hallmarks of the Modern Diet
There are thousands of diet books and dozens of branded, trademarked diet plans available to everyone. These diets aren’t approved by regulatory agencies, and only in very rare cases are diet marketers held to any standards or liability. One notable exception is the Kimkin Diet. This diet promoted a very low carb, low calorie plan. The Kimkin’s website was filled with fraudulent claims and made-up testimonials. A class-action lawsuit for fraud and unjust enrichment was filed. The courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and the owner was ordered to pay over $2 million in restitution. Had this class-action lawsuit not been filed, Kimkins would still be operating today.
Modern diets are heavily marketed affairs. Diet ads feature thin, happy-looking people who have presumably lost weight using the plan. Celebrity spokesmen are used by the bigger diet companies: Oprah Winfrey, Kirstie Alley, Marie Osmond, Valerie Bertinelli, Queen Latifah, and others have graced the airwaves extolling the virtues of one diet or another, oftentimes with a spectacular failure or two.
Modern Diets are heavily branded. Many have their own lines of diet products such as ready-to-eat meals, bars, shakes, snacks, clothing and merchandise. The names of these diets are household words. Who hasn’t heard of Weight Watchers (now WW™), Jenny Craig, or Atkins? It’s a numbers game for the diet industry…the more people they can lure to their websites, the more money they make. The modern diet is filled with ever-changing buzz-words. “Low-fat” was replaced by “low carb” which has been replaced by “Keto!”.
The Keto Craze
The latest diet fad is the keto diet. “Keto” is short for ketosis or ketogenic, a diet used to treat epilepsy since the 1920’s (Paoli, 2013). The original ketogenic diet called for the patient to eat very few carbohydrates, usually less than 50 grams per day. This forces the body to produce ketones, an adaptation that keeps us alive under starvation conditions.
A side-effect of the ketogenic diet is weight loss. The ketogenic diet has proven successful at helping dieters lose weight since Dr. Atkins wrote his diet plan, The Atkins Revolution (1981).
“When a person on a safe, controlled carbohydrate plan such as mine is releasing ketones, he or she is in the fat-dissolving state of lipolysis. This process is simply the most efficient path ever devised for getting slim. And the more ketones you release, the more fat you have dissolved (Atkins, 1981).”
The Atkins Diet started a revolution indeed! Thousands upon thousands of low-carb diet books copy the methods proposed by Dr. Atkins. As these diets proved no more effective than any other diet, web-site developers twisted the words a bit, and a new revolution was born—Keto.
“Keto” is everywhere you look now. It’s hard to find a low-carb diet book, they’ve all been rebranded as “keto.” It’s even fun to say, keto, keto, keto! The new keto diets don’t track ketones like Dr. Atkins did, instead they simply just restrict carbs to varying low levels.
Keto diets are just as likely to fail as any diet. Save your money…don’t buy into the keto craze. Many of these diets promote unhealthy eating and avoidance of some very healthy foods. Give it a year or two and you’ll see “keto” go the way of low-fat and Paleo.
Weight loss diets should only be used when necessary as a health intervention. Otherwise, simply just start eating right. Learn the signs and talk to your doctor to find out if a weight loss diet is right for you. Waist measurement, BMI, and other markers of health should be the starting point for a weight loss diet. Dieting is a seller’s market. With nearly ¾ of the world overweight or obese, it’s child’s play to attract dieters. Smart marketers are always looking for new buzzwords that will generate more clicks and hits, and in turn, more money. The latest trend is “keto,” a rebranding of the low-carb diets of the 1980’s as popularized by Dr. Atkins. Research shows that just about any diet will work for weight loss if it can be followed for 6-12 months. Read on to learn more about dieting and how to find a plan that will work for you.