Looking to lose weight this year? Look no further than the proclaimed best diet to lose weight via a quick internet search: Paleo, vegetarian, vegan, low carb, ketogenic, intermittent fasting, volumetrics, carb backloading, juicing, low fat, low calorie, Flexitarian, TLC, DASH, Mayo Clinic, Mediterranean, Ornish, The Biggest Loser, Atkins, gluten free, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, (insert supplement here) Diet and on and on and on all claim to not only work but also be the best.
Every single one of these diets (and many others) have fantastic claims, research to support them, thousands of testimonials, great spokespeople and tons of information available in books, seminars and on the internet.
But what diet works the best?
They all do. Any diet can work and often does, particularly in the beginning. Every single one of those diets above has potential benefits and works for people and probably works “the best” for a certain group of people. Cutting out processed foods and eating like our ancestors works really well. Cutting out animal products works really well. So does counting carbs or fat, skipping meals, eating your carbs at night, adding up points, filling up on high volume low calorie food and trying to copy what the people in the Mediterranean or Okinawa supposedly eat. Most simply, eating less food also works too.
If someone follows one of these diets well they will lose weight (particularly if they undereat and improve other lifestyle factors). No one can deny that any of these diets work. There are too many examples of success on each of these programs to deny they work. They may not work for you or everyone who tries them but you can’t deny they work at least some of the time if not often.
Take Home Point: Any diet works if you do it and every diet works for some people.
The next question is which one(s) work the best and for the most people?
No one really knows because it’s too hard to study and there are too many other factors that get in the way of isolating a diet intervention. We can guess just by doing a bit of research and seeing how many people claim to have success with a diet. The problem is that we might calculate that 1 million people say a vegetarian diet or Weight Watchers worked for them but we have no way of knowing how many people tried and failed or how to even start analyzing the millions of details in each of their diets or lifestyles to see if the diet was what actually led to the weight loss.
Interestingly, the diets that seem to be the most popular and work really well are the ones that restrict more things. The paleo approach has gained tremendous popularity for its efficacy and it restricts quite a bit. So does low carb, low fat, vegetarianism, veganism and simple calorie restriction. All of these appear to be tremendous tools in helping people lose weight. The catch: the restrictions catch up to almost everyone. Eliminating grains, dairy and legumes works great for a while but eventually the bread comes a calling pretty loudly. So does meat, carbs, fat or whatever you’ve been eliminating. These type of diets also give people a biased and often limited perspective and often destroys a possible healthy relationship with food.
Take Home Point: The more restrictive diets are often the most powerful but usually come with a catch. Avoiding things usually end up in overcompensation or food relationship issues.
What about a more common sense approach: Which diets seem the least restrictive, most practical and easiest to follow?
This is where you see the more commercial diets pop up that sell the promise of ease and followability. Just make a few simple changes, count points, take this/that or swap this out for that and life your life will float along easily as you lose weight effortlessly. Sounds too good to be true, which it is, and therefore another few problems pop up. The more user friendly diets seem to work mildly but much less often and usually are followed by weight regain, much of which is due to the lack of difference between what people were doing before and what these diets call for. They are easy to follow because so often they don’t create enough stimuli for change (which is what’s necessary and usually comes with some discomfort). People very rarely get in weight trouble via one little issue/cause and are usually overweight for a long period of time and therefore the quick, easy, simple and comfortable interventions very rarely work.
Additionally, many of these diets are less lifestyle oriented and more short term interventions so many people don’t learn much about food and how to improve their nutritional knowledge, which is ultimately one of the best tools for long term health and weight maintenance.
Take Home Point: The less restrictive diets are easier to follow but typically stimulate less change and often don’t teach people much about food.
Another question: how many of them work long term?
Once again, this is nearly impossible to figure out and the most accurate and truthful answer is that we don’t really know. With a bit of research we can make a few guesses such as estimating that the diets around the longest have the best potential to work long term (even though there are many diets that still exist because they offer short term weight loss as a primary function and aren’t really good for long term weight loss). We can also scour the diet science research database for that answer but there’s really no good answers there either. What both real world and science suggests is that some diets seem to work better in the long term but the longer the period someone stays on a diet the less likely they are to continue working, across the board.
Take Home Point: We don’t know what diets work long term (if any do) but the longer people stay on a diet the less likely it is to keep working.
We also have to ask ourselves: should diets be long term or short term?
Diets are interventions, not lifestyles. They need to be thought of as such. Some people don’t like the word “diet” but I don’t mind it and I think diets have value as a tool, used for a job. Use diets for a specific purpose and to transition yourself to a healthier place and teach your body and brain how to live better. Visit Diet-Land, even for a long vacation if necessary, but don’t move there.
There are small percentages of people that are lifetime dieters and do well. This is a minuscule amount of the people that try these diets. The lifetime vegans and low carbers you hear about are the smallest of the original sample. They are the outliers, not the norm. Most people do not do well the longer they endure a particular diet, particularly the more intensely they follow it.
Take a given population and apply a given diet to them:
The longer you restrict meat, the more people in that group will drop out.
The longer you restrict carbs, the more people in that group will suffer.
The longer you eat like Okinawans, the more people you will see head for anything but rice, fish and seaweed.
The longer you eliminate bread, the more people will start to plan mutiny.
Take Home Point: Diets are not lifestyles, they are interventions/tools and need to be used appropriately.
The bottom line is that all diets work initially for many people, some diets work short term for some people and few diets work long term for the rarest of folks.
Weight loss happens when your body provides the fuel to fill in the energy gap you don’t eat. Some people say it’s all about the numbers- eat less than what you need- and the trick is to find the diet that helps you cut your energy intake back, whatever approach or style that might get you there.
What are we to do? Two options: 1) Find a diet you can connect with and actually do and see it through until it stops working or you need something different or 2) Don’t try to diet and simply slowly make your lifestyle better all the way around. Both will work so it’s up to you to decide the best path for you. You can always change so feel the freedom of flexibility.
My suggestions usually center around limiting your sugar and food products and spending a little time hungry. If you’ve been eating a lot of sugar lately then cutting back on your sugar will likely result in weight loss. If you’ve been eating a lot of processed food then eating more whole foods will result in weight loss. If you’ve been eating all the time then simply eating less often will result in weight loss. Weight loss isn’t a magic act, even if it often seems like it. It requires time, effort and a change. Whether it’s in the form of a diet or simple lifestyle adjustments is less important than the big picture concept of making a change and sticking with it.
Anything that you will actually do works so keep that in mind when planning your New Years weight loss.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. We also can’t presume that since Okinawans are long lived it’s the diet that causes this, that cavemen were strong and healthy because of their diet or that you can apply a “Mediterranean diet” to an obese and sick American and it will have the same impact as the people living on a remote island in Greece who haven’t been unhealthy and have eaten that way their entire life. It might be so but we need to be careful of our presumptive nature. When it comes to health, particularity diet.