Welcome to my weekly feature covering ways us activists can lead healthier lives. For a full explanation, check out the inaugural edition here—in short, most of us do a terrible job of taking care of our minds and bodies. This is a science-based exploration of how to change that so we can be around for many years of fruitful activism. You can find other articles in this series here.
A few weeks ago, in “The basics of weight loss (and no, you don’t need to jog),” I talked about the importance of maintaining a healthy body weight. I linked to a bunch of studies highlighting the dangers of unhealthy weight, talked about how to determine whether your weight is healthy, then discussed a host of lifestyle changes that can help most people attain or maintain a healthy weight.
What I didn’t discuss? Structured diets. Dieting is tough, and for most people, unnecessary if you follow the lifestyle changes I discussed. I also didn’t discuss exercise beyond daily walks. For most people, those basics should suffice. But what if you do want to speed your fat loss? Or what if you want to go beyond merely “healthy” to “looking better”? So consider this the intermediate course, looking beyond lifestyle changes to more drastically alter your appearance. (There won’t be an “advanced” course. That’s for people who want to get into extremely low body fat levels, and there is no health reason to be there.)
Note that if I don’t explicitly state it, I’m always talking about fat loss. Weight loss isn’t desirable if you’re losing muscle mass. And weight gain isn’t bad if you’re gaining muscle or hydrating particularly well. The focus here is on any extra fat we might want to lose.
I very explicitly avoided talking about diets in the basics article. Dieting is difficult. It immediately conjures notions of scarcity and deprivation. Maintaining discipline is a daily challenge. Long-term compliance wears on your soul. And then, in the end, so many people binge away all those hard-earned results. It’s an exercise that lends itself to unhealthy binge-starve cycles that not only fail to achieve any results, but might actually do more damage than good. (And that’s before we get into eating disorder territory.)
But dieting doesn’t have to be so self-destructive. A truly successful and healthy diet requires two key elements:
I’ll discuss below how to set and count calories, but the key here is to realize that whatever extra weight you carry didn’t arrive overnight. It likely took years of unhealthy living to get to where you are, so you can’t expect to reverse course in days, weeks, or even months. You have to commit to a long-term effort to reverse course, but, here’s the key: You do so at a slight caloric deficit. If you cut too deep, you suffer too much, making compliance near impossible, and you’ll only binge in the end. If you cut slowly and methodically, your body isn’t starved for nourishment. Ultimately, you’re looking at losing 0.5 to one pound a week of fat, nothing more. That is a healthy, sustainable rate. And if it seems like too slow a rate, just imagine if you’d started this process three, six, or 12 months ago—that would be 12, 24, or 50-ish fewer pounds of fat.
2. Finding the right diet
If you take nothing else from this article, please take this:
The best diet is the diet that works for you. Period. The end.
People are too quick to jump to various fad diets, or the diet that really worked for your friend, or a Men’s Health or Vogue cover story. Yet we are all incredibly complex and unique creatures with personalities and preferences that respond positively or negatively to various stimuli. I’ll discuss some diet options, but note that they all restrict calories, they just do so in different ways. Some are low fat, some are low carb, and some restrict your eating windows. In the end, no one can tell you which one will work best for you. I tried low carb and felt like I was going to die. I didn’t even bother with low fat because I knew that I wasn’t surrendering my avocados. What worked for me was intermittent fasting—restricting the time I’m allowed to eat. I’m a busy person who forgets to eat and often skipped breakfast anyway, so this worked for my personality and lifestyle. It’s a “diet” that I barely notice, and that makes compliance relatively easy.
So don’t let anyone tell you that this or that diet is “best.” But be open about what drives and motivates you and give different diets a shot. See how you feel, always remembering to be measured and patient.
Setting your calorie goal
To lose weight, it’s important to get an idea of how many calories you’re burning. At that point, weight management is a matter of math—eat more calories and you gain weight (not always bad if you’re exercising and building muscle); eat fewer calories and you lose weight (not always good if you’re losing muscle mass). Eat at “maintenance” and you maintain equilibrium. So how do you determine your baseline calories? You figure out your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE.
There’s math involved, but it’s easier to use an online calculator like this one. All you need is your sex, age, weight, height, and activity level. I like to set my activity level as “sedentary” so I can account for my exercise separately, but you do what’s easiest for you.
For me—male, 49, 158 pounds, 5’ 8”, and sedentary—it tells me my baseline is 1,867 calories per day.
Very roughly speaking, a pound of fat is around 3,500 calories. So if you want to lose a pound a week, that’s a 500-calorie daily deficit. If your weekly goal is 0.5 pounds, then your daily deficit would be 250 calories.
Note that deficit can come from diet, or it can come from exercise. Or, ideally, both. That’s why I use the sedentary option, so I can precisely track my daily deficit depending on that day’s activity level.
It’s impossible to know if you’re above or below your TDEE without knowing how many calories you’re ingesting. Get yourself a calorie counting app like MyFitnessPal (what I use), Lose It!, or LifeSum (which I haven’t tried, but gets rave reviews).
This requires a new kind of discipline—taking stock of everything you put in your mouth, logging every bite, even measuring portions with a kitchen scale. You’ll find really quickly that a “serving size” is ridiculously, insultingly small. Like three-fourths of a cup for a serving of your favorite cereal, when your full bowl might have 3 to 4 cups. (I have big bowls.)
I’ll admit it, this wasn’t my favorite part. But it did have an additional benefit: The logging requirement made me think twice before sticking something in my mouth outside of my regular meals. Was that snack important enough to overcome my laziness in pulling out my phone to log it? Also, there’s no need to log any vegetables you eat. No one gained weight eating too much broccoli and lettuce. (Log any dressing if you must use it, however.)
These apps also allow you to log your exercise, so you’ll have a running tally of how many calories you have left before you hit your daily limit (or goal, if you’re trying to gain weight).
Also, once you do it religiously for two to three months, you won’t need to keep counting. You’ll get a good sense of how many calories you’re eating in any meal. And you’ll just need to check in occasionally if you come across something with unfamiliar nutritional stats.
Tracking progress and making adjustments
One of the frustrating parts of logging both your calories and your exercise is that neither is an exact science. Neither is your TDEE, for that matter. Not every avocado is exactly the same size, even if they’re all labeled “medium.” A perfect exercise calorie tracker doesn’t exist outside of a lab. And everyone has lightly different metabolisms. So while all this data that you’re logging might get you in the ballpark, it’s not an exact science. And this matters because a 350-calorie error one way or the other equals 0.10 pounds. That’s not a lot of calories for a relatively large impact. Over 10 days, that’s a pound.
Furthermore, your daily weight will fluctuate depending on so many factors: your hydration level, any food in your digestive system, even systemic bloat from something you ate or menstrual cycle. I’ve found my own weight can fluctuate 8 pounds in the course of a day!
So it’s best to ignore day-to-day fluctuations and look at your overall trend. Here’s my 2020 daily weight log:
The light blue lines are the actual daily measurements, and the solid blue line is the trend. You can see how dramatically the daily measurements spike and drop on a daily basis, so it’s important to filter out all that noise and give yourself a clear trend. Then you can see whether you’re going in the right or wrong direction.
(Incidentally, that initial weight gain spike was from breaking both my legs in an e-scooter accident, going from around 155 to 159 pounds. Then I started working out once out of my wheelchair and lost the weight, before, uh, losing the Battle of COVID-19.)
You can either get a scale that does this for you, or you can get a phone app for manual logging. If you get a scale, don’t pay extra for body fat tracking. Those features are trash and none of them works. Your basic weight logging is all you need. Another option is to only weigh in weekly. That is better than thinking you gained 3 pounds in one day, or celebrating losing four when the only difference might’ve been a carb-heavy pasta dinner the night before with its accompanying water weight gain.
Remember to always weigh in at the same time every day to maximize consistency. I weigh in every morning after I’m done going to the bathroom, before my first chug of water.
Once you see the direction you’re going, you can make adjustments. Are you not averaging your target weight loss for the week? Then adjust your target calories a little lower, or add to your exercise regimen. Wait a couple of weeks, see if you’re on track, and adjust again if necessary.
Remember, there is no best diet, just the best diet for you.
The one common thing you should see in any healthy diet is the preponderance of protein. Not only is protein necessary for key metabolic functions, and not only does it protect muscle (and the more muscle you have, the better), but it is also satiating, boosts metabolism, and—this is key—protein calories have a harder time converting to fat. So you’ll always want to maintain high protein calories. How high?
The basic standard for a sedentary person is between 0.36-0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Really, I’m hoping you guys aren’t sedentary and are doing at least some exercise, so I’d shoot for 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight. Eating extra protein isn’t bad for you; it’s satiating, it’s healthy. There are no downsides.
Once you dial in your protein, the balance of your calories will come from carbs or fats (or alcohol, but hopefully not much of that). Here’s a macro calculator to help set your levels.
Note that studies show low-fat and low-carb diets to be equally effective in weight loss. The biggest factors are caloric restriction and adherence.
You’ve likely heard of keto, Atkins, South Beach, paleo, and other such diets. What they all have in common is they achieve caloric restriction by limiting the intake of carbs to under 20 grams per day. In the case of keto, the intake is so low that your body shifts to preferentially burning fat for its energy during more strenuous activity.
Keto is beneficial in several ways beyond fat loss. It’s proven to reduce seizures in children, and has neuroprotective benefits that seem to help those with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Keto proponents claim that after a short adjustment period (which might include the “keto flu,” which is what it sounds like), they are more alert, have more energy, and simply enjoy a better quality of life.
For me, I tried it, suffered through the keto flu, and what greeted me on the other side (“ketosis”) was sluggishness, lethargy, and anger. Again, the best diet is the diet that works for you. I tried it! You never know if something might work until you try it, but it just wasn’t for me. I also missed my veggies.
But you know what did work for me? Periodic reduction in carbs to around 100 grams per day (from my usual 200 grams or so). I can’t stay there for long, but for a week or two, for a change of scenery, it works, and it doesn’t require me to go into ketosis.
Once upon a time, people assumed fat (the macronutrient) turned into fat (the stuff your body uses to store energy). So to lose weight, everything became “low fat.” Now we know nutrition and anatomy is far more complex than that, and when a low fat diet works, it has nothing to do with dietary fat and everything to do with caloric restriction.
It’s kind of interesting that it’s been a while since anyone has preached the gospel of low-fat diets, the Ornish diet in the 70s and Rosemary Conley in the 80s. Yet supermarket aisles are still full of “low fat” formulations, which have lower calorie counts than their regular versions. (A glass of whole bovine milk has 148 calories, 2% has 125 calories, and non-fat has 83.)
The catch here is that unlike carbohydrates, the body actually needs fats for proper hormonal function. As Harvard nutritional researcher Vasanti Malik says, “[Unsaturated] Fat helps give your body energy, protects your organs, supports cell growth, keeps cholesterol and blood pressure under control, and helps your body absorb vital nutrients. When you focus too much on cutting out all fat, you can actually deprive your body of what it needs most.”
You can still go low fat if that’s what works best for you, but just note that you can’t cut as drastically as you can with some low-carb diets like keto. You can get a good sense of how much you’d need with this macro calculator.
You can, of course, just lower all calories equally. This is what Weight Watchers does, among others. Even better, keep your protein high and lower the other two. I’ll keep repeating it: Do what works best for you.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is what it sounds like: The cycling of fasting periods versus feeding windows. By restricting calorie consumption to small windows of time, it becomes harder to overeat. There are several IF protocols:
16:8: A 24-hour day is divided into 16 hours of fasting and eight hours of eating. This is usually accomplished by simply skipping breakfast. You stop eating at 8 PM, and break the fast at noon. This can be adjusted myriad ways, such as 18:6 or whatever.
Once a day: Skip breakfast and lunch, eat as much as you want for dinner. It’s hard to overeat in one meal.
Every other day: Fast for 24 hours, eat normally for 24. Rinse, lather, repeat.
5:2: In any given week, eat normally for five days, do two 24 hour fasts.
There are other protocols, but you get the point. And IF has benefits far beyond weight loss, such as cancer fighting and prevention, the prevention of cognitive decline, the lowering of insulin resistance and risk of type 2 diabetes, lowers inflammation (which as we’ve discussed in previous articles in this series, reduces the risk of almost every disease), and many other benefits. My favorite? Fasting induces cells to repair themselves in a process called autophagy, allowing the body to clear out damaged cells and providing potential protection against cancer and Alzheimer’s.
It is theorized that we, as a species, understand all this as all major religions incorporate periods of fasting into the calendar year. Evolutionarily, of course, we weren’t designed for easy access to food 24/7, so it would make sense that we’d use regular periods of food deprivation to take care of some internal housekeeping when the body wasn’t otherwise occupied with digestive tasks.
In any case, this is my preferred method of dieting. I was already sketchy on breakfast, and no, it’s not the most important meal of the day. (That was a Kellogg invention.) And I really didn’t feel like committing to low-carb or fat diets. I want to eat what I want to eat. And I don’t like the small portions that a balanced regular diet offers. What I want is to basically eat what I want, and IF allows me to do so.
My protocol is 16:8 most of the time. Once every two weeks I do a 24-hour dinner-to-dinner fast. Once a month I’ll go 36 hours (dinner to breakfast two days later). It was tough at first to keep from snacking in the morning, but now I don’t get my first hunger pangs until 1- or 2 PM. You can literally train your hunger hormones.
Of course, this won’t work for many people, and that’s okay! The whole point of this article is to help you realize that there are myriad options for dieting, and most of them won’t work for you. Some people get hangry without a regular flow of bites. IF is definitely not for them.
But once you find the one that does work for you (or a combination of these—nothing says you have to stay in a single lane), it makes the entire process so much easier. Not easy! The body wants to eat at maintenance, and if you love food, far beyond it. But it doesn’t have to be the ineffective torture that most people do when dieting only to lose it all through epic binging.
I was going to get into exercising, but this has already gotten too long so I’ll save that for a future edition.
The key takeaways:
- There is no such thing as a perfect diet, only the perfect diet for you.
- Aim for moderate, sustainable weight loss, 0.5-1 pound per week, or a daily deficit of 250-500 calories.
- You’re going to have to count calories to maintain that healthy level of weight loss.
- Remember that when talking about weight loss, we really mean fat loss. You’ll want to build and protect your muscle mass as that’s the best kind of weight.
Remember, you don’t need to do all this to maintain healthy weight. Lifestyle choices can get you there. But if you want to accelerate your weight loss, or be thinner for whatever reason (such as endurance when knocking on those doors in 2022), that’ll require dieting. Just do so in a methodical, slow, healthy way, and not only can you accomplish that weight loss, but you can do so in a sustainable way that keeps that weight off.