Note: This post is going to be quite ranty, as I sort of used this as an outlet for some pent up frustration, and I felt like it would make an interesting blog post.
In the light of some of my previous posts about my approach to diet and why I eat the way I do, I feel like I need to help clear up some of the main misconceptions regarding dieting in general.
In the past I’ve written a ton about why adherence and individualization are absolutely crucial aspects of a successful diet. But there is one aspect that will make or break your dieting aspirations: calories.
It’s pretty crazy that people constantly overlook the importance of calories in favor of dietary approaches that focus on minute details, rather than the fundamental principles that make any diet successful.
The fact is: if you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain fat. If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose fat. It’s that simple.
People who try to say that calories don’t matter, and that the only thing that matters is food quality or some magical combination of different nutrients, are fooling themselves.
Demonizing Specific Nutrients
The idea that calories don’t matter most often comes from someone trying to promote a product.
They will say you can eat as much of so-and-so as you want and you won’t gain weight. For example, the Atkins diet allows people to eat as much fat, protein, and vegetables as they want. This approach has been a success for some, and a complete failure for others. Why?
When someone completely removes carbohydrates from their diet (which typically takes up a good chunk of their overall food intake), they automatically decrease the amount of food they eat, which results in a caloric deficit. A caloric deficit equals weight loss.
However, those who fail miserably on diets such as the Atkins Diet are the ones that take it to the extreme and eat a huge surplus of calories. It doesn’t matter if the calories are from protein, fat, and vegetables; if you’re eating a surplus of calories, you will gain fat.
In Defense of Carbs
I get so frustrated with nutrition “gurus” who make money demonizing certain macronutrients and hormones, claiming they are the only reason we are fat and that calories and context of the diet as a whole have nothing to do with it. The most common claim that I hear today is that carbs make you fat.
This is completely ignorant, and scientifically, the concept doesn’t hold any weight. Carbs don’t make you fat, insulin doesn’t make you fat; an excess consumption of calories make you fat.
Your body can store fat without carbs or insulin. You store dietary fat as body fat very easily if you’re in a caloric surplus. Fat storage can also be due to something called Acylation Stimulating Protein, which will promote fat storage, even in the complete absence of insulin.
So to those who say you can eat as much fat and protein as you want, you are right in some cases. Protein and fat are extremely filling (protein being the most filling), so when you eat as much protein and fat as you want, you’re often not eating as much as you think.
This means you are in a caloric deficit and you will lose weight. You aren’t losing weight solely because you cut out carbs, you’re losing weight because you’re in a caloric deficit.
Gary Taubes has made a fairly large splash in the nutrition field when he released his book Good Calories, Bad Calories, along with the somewhat condensed version Why We Get Fat, both of which suggest that the obesity epidemic in our country is caused by excess carbohydrates and insulin.
For a summary of some of the actual reasons we accumulate fat, I recommend reading an article by Lyle Mcdonald titled “How We Get Fat”.
Diet Should Fit You and Your Goals
As I’ve talked about endlessly in past posts, the diet you follow should fit your individual needs and preferences, not the claims of some guru telling to avoid this and that or you’ll fail.
The reality is that everything will work. If you’re in a caloric deficit, and protein intake is high enough, you will lose fat and maintain muscle mass. If you’re not in a caloric deficit, you won’t lose fat.
Find something that fits in your lifestyle, and realize that there is not a dieting approach that works for everyone. Also understand that no dietary approach is magic. Anyone who claims otherwise is most likely trying to sell you their “groundbreaking” new product.
Find what works for you, find what fits into your lifestyle, find what you like best, and stick to it.
Food Quality Matters, But Not in the Way You Think
Something that has always been a topic of debate is whether or not food quality matters. In other words, does eating “clean” or “healthy” food give you better results than “dirty” or “unhealthy” food?
Strictly in terms of body composition and fat loss (not health), I am of the opinion that food quality does not matter.
All things equal, if calories and macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) are the same, you will see the same results, regardless of the quality of the food you eat.
A common argument is people say that when they cleaned up their diet (cut out all “bad” foods) they began to lose weight. This is not because the “bad” food was making them fat, it’s because they were eating too much of it.
So, if you use carb sources as an example: sweet potatoes are much harder to overeat than greasy French fries. But, French fries are often wrongly accused of being fattening.
This is flat out incorrect and ignorant. It’s not the French fries that are making you fat, it’s the amount of French fries you’re eating.
Comparatively speaking, if you eat the same amount of calories from sweet potatoes vs. the same amount of calories from French fries (assuming they have the same macronutrient ratios), the result will be the same (regarding body composition).
Are sweet potatoes healthier? Yes. Can they be just as fattening as French fries? Absolutely, if you eat enough of them.
The main point is this: we need to stop deeming certain foods as fattening. The amount of food consumed is what’s fattening, not the quality of the food.
I know many will disagree and possibly get angry, but it’s the truth.
For more information on the misconceptions revolving around the idea of “clean eating”, I would recommend that you check out JC Deen’s series of posts on “Why Clean Eating is a Scam” (here and here). Also, check out Lyle McDonald’s review on a study that examined the hormonal responses of organic food vs. fast food.
In reality, food is a means to an end. It’s an aspect of your life that helps you meet your goals, and there are many different ways to approach it.
Your diet structure should not be based on the demonization of a specific nutrient or hormone, it should be based on whether or not the diet is sustainable and whether or not you enjoy the diet.
If you function better on low carb diets and it is sustainable for you and you get results, by all means stick to it. If you like high carb diets, awesome, have at it. As I said before, as long as the main principals are intact (calories, protein intake), everything else is individual.
Also, don’t this post as me advocating eating all fast food because “food quality doesn’t matter”. That’s not what I’m saying, but in moderation, it’s perfectly fine to enjoy yourself, even when you’re “on a diet”. There’s no need to feel deprived.
Don’t allow the dogmatism in the industry skew your vision.
Stick with what works for you.
I figured that since I linked out to and referenced so many different articles in this post, I should compile a list for you if you’re interested in expanding your knowledge of basic nutrition principles and some of the ideas I touched upon in this post.
Here you go:
Lyle Mcdonald’s Research Review (here)
Lyle McDonald’s “How We Get Fat”
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