Eat What You Like and Still Lose Weight: Too Awesome or Too Good to Be True? (Part 1)
Greetings! This article is a follow-up to my favorite post "Why 'Eating Better' Doesn't Work: The Truth About Diets and Weight Loss." I wrote this article earlier this year in response to something I kept seeing amongst my clients - a repeated claim that they were "eating better" yet still not seeing the desired results on the scale. Here's the take-home message in case you don't have a chance to click over (although I strongly recommend it as this is usually one of the most enlightening topics for my clients, not to mention I provide you with a handy dandy spreadsheet of every dietary approach I could think of!):
First, simply eating better (whatever that means to you) does NOT guarantee losing weight. In fact, for some people you might gain weight! ("What, Sarah, you're crazy! I am dousing my salad in heart-healthy olive oil and eating handfuls of almonds whenever I feel a twinge of hunger...I should be shedding these pounds in no time!"). If you don't get what seems weird about this, or you think I'm actually crazy, please promise me you'll read my article...I'm not being a jerk, I promise. :)
Second, having said that, in order to be successful, there has to be AWARENESS and a PLAN. This is where "eating better" fails on both accounts - there is no awareness ("You mean olive oil has 120 calories for every tablespoon and I probably just "doused" my salad in four tablespoons?!?!" - READ: 480 calories in just the "dressing") and second, there is absolutely no plan.
So what is the answer? Well, in my article, I mention a host of different PLANS, most of which also help to raise AWARENESS of what you are eating. In my opinion, most of these can work, as long as there is a caloric deficit (more on this later). So you might be asking, what is YOUR favorite plan, Sarah?
After many years of doing this both for myself first, and then for other people, I have learned that, try as I might, dictating to people what optimal foods will help them both lose weight (if desired) and obtain ideal health, IS A COMPLETELY FUTILE ENDEAVOR. Why? That's simple. People DO. NOT. LIKE. TO. BE. TOLD. WHAT. TO. DO. It's actually kind of amusing at times (no offense intended, I promise). People will approach me and ask me what exercise they should do to lose weight (there is no such thing, I'm serious), and what they should eat to lose weight. When I tell them the answer, THEY WANT NONE OF IT.
"Ewww, broccoli?!?!?!" (Um, yeah.)
"BAKED chicken??? No way, I fry mine, but I don't even use that much oil." (Surrrrrrre.)
"So you put butter on that brown rice, right?" (Um, no.)
At one point, I felt like giving up on helping people to lose weight via nutrition. I felt I had nothing to offer. But then I realized something: I WAS TOTALLY OVERCOMPLICATING THIS WHOLE LOSING WEIGHT THING...seriously! There are a lot of factors that go into healthy eating - the right balance of macro and micronutrients, consuming adequate water, taking advantage of foods that may have purported health benefits according to recent evidence, BUT, at the end of the day, there is one key factor in achieving weight loss...DRUM ROLL, PLEASE!
A CALORIC DEFICIT.
"Stop, Sarah, you are being so simplistic. I was listening to Dr. Oz the other day (*rolling my eyes*) and he said that in order to lose stubborn belly fat, which is my main concern, I have to take fish oil supplements and consume absolutely no refined sugar." (no harm to Dr. Oz in the writing of this article)
Please allow me to address this point by point. First, Dr. Oz has to fill an hour-long show every single day. That's a LOT of content. He even overcomplicates it, too. Just stop. Please.
Second, sure, there may be some factors that can affect where fat stores come from, but, in general, you cannot spot reduce via exercise or diet. In other words, you will lose weight according to a pattern that you probably know already. Again, you can have some affect on targeting certain areas with some small strategies, BUT this is (a) beyond the scope of this article, and (b) only one small factor that pales in comparison to actually being a caloric deficit. If you are NOT in a caloric deficit, all the fish oil and sugar-free eating will NOT magically burn fat from your belly. Sorry.
I digress. We left discussing my favorite strategy. I have come to find that, with regular folks (i.e., non-athletes, non-physique competitors), the strategy that works the best is FLEXIBLE DIETING.
What the heck is flexible dieting, you might ask? Flexible dieting is an approach to eating that allows you to eat the foods that you prefer keeping specific target numbers in mind (read: calories). Some people focus on calories alone and, to be honest, for most people, especially at the outset of their weight management journey, this is all you need to do. Other people focus on hitting certain macronutrient goals, that is, aiming to hit certain targets for the grams of carbs, protein, and fat (and sometimes throwing in fiber and sugar) they will consume, an approach often referred to as "If It Fits Your Macros." There are plenty of lovely sites and articles dedicated entirely to this principle, and I have absolutely nothing against it. I think it's awesome, it works, and it is also humorous in that it pokes a little fun at the idea that your body can differentiate between, say, Ben & Jerry's and other seemingly healthier fare. Check out this enlightening and thoroughly entertaining video from food realism genius Mike Vacanti over at www.ontheregimen.com:
"OK, ha ha, Sarah, that's really funny...I'll eat a diet that includes freaking Ben & Jerry's and lose weight...you've got a sick sense of humor."
I'm serious! I know it sounds too good to be true, but I've been witnessing this work client after client. They are eating desserts, appetizers, restaurant entrees, and even drinking alcohol - all the things that conventional approaches tell you straight out the gate to avoid, and STILL LOSING WEIGHT - LOTS OF IT!!!!
So what's the catch? How does this possibly work?
First of all, I want to preface by saying, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, promoting the idea of just consuming alcohol and ice cream to lose weight (as enticing as this might seem). You would be deficient on lots of key micronutrients - not cool. BUT, this is not to say that these items cannot be included, and relatively regularly, in your plan! The key word here is PLAN! You have to be aware of your caloric target and then make sure that you're eating right around that target most days. Sure, some days may be a little less, and others a little more, but, in general, you should be getting close to that target.
The best part is that research actually supports this idea. For example, researchers found that eating fewer calories is more important for weight loss than the exact distribution of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats . Additionally, enjoying a small treat, such as a sweet treat as some researchers found, can help to promote weight loss and body composition improvements as long as it is part of a reduced-calorie diet . Finally, studies show that self-monitoring is critical for weight loss. Individuals who monitor their eating and exercise (such as through a food and exercise diary) lose more weight than those who don't . Initial research suggests that, for some people, smartphone apps, such as My Fitness Pal, may be even better than paper diaries .
What these studies suggest is that the most important factors in long-lasting weight loss are establishing a caloric deficit, enjoying what you eat, and self-monitoring - in other words promoting AWARENESS and a PLAN!
Stay tuned for part 2 in which I tell you how Flexible Dieting actually works, but in the mean time please check out my article "Why 'Eating Better' Doesn't Work: The Truth About Diets and Weight Loss." If you know you'd love to try Flexible Dieting and want to get started today, I have you covered with my online meetings! I will "meet" with you virtually via FaceTime or Skype and help you navigate the world of Flexible Dieting. For more information, please click here.
In good health,
1. Ballesteros-Pomar, M., Calleja-Fernandez, A. R., Vidal-Casariego, A., Urioste-Fondo, A., & Cano-Rodriguez, I. (2009). Effectiveness of energy-restricted diets with different protein:carbohydrate ratios: The relationship to insulin sensitivity. Public Health Nutrition, 13(12), 2119-2126.
2. Piehowski, K. E., Preston, A. G., Miller, D. L., & Nickols-Richardson, S. M. (2011). A reduced-calorie dietary pattern including a daily sweet snack promotes body weight reduction and body composition improvements in premenopausal women who are overweight and obese: A pilot study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111, 1198-1203.
3. Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111, 92-102.
4. Carter, M. C., Burley, V. J., Nykjaer, C., Cade, J. E., & Eysenbach, G. (2013). Adherence to a smartphone application for weight loss compared to website and paper diary: Pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(4), e32.