Diet & Nutrition 101: The Basics
While there are many nuances and vectors of exploration within the field of human nutrition, for the purposes of weight management we only need to understand some very simple basics. We’ll start by covering the 3 main macronutrients that make up our food; Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats, as well as some of the processes that affect our body composition. After that we’ll dive into some dietary strategies, how they work and when and how they should be applied. Please do not be intimidated or confused by any scientific terminology. In fact I encourage you to really embrace the following information, as it is so vitally important to your body and health.
Macronutrients: Carbohydrate, Protein and Fat
We’ll start here, examining carbohydrates. This is generally the “troublesome” nutrient for most individuals struggling to maintain or reduce body weight. Most popular snack foods (outside of jerky and nuts) will consist primarily of carbohydrates and fats (chips, crackers, popcorn, etc.). This combination, especially when layered with sweet and/or salty flavors, creates a genuinely addictive reaction to the human palette. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for the body, and through survival evolution we’ve been trained to crave them. So stop kicking yourself so hard for your lack of control, we're programmed to eat these foods when available in abundance. But it's important to understand them and how they should be included in your diet.
Carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules and can be found in many foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and sweets. They are the body's premier and preferred source of energy. Carbohydrates are classified into two types: simple (HIGH GLYCEMIC) and complex (LOW GLYCEMIC). A single gram of Carbohydrate contains 4 calories.
Put unelaborately; simple carbohydrates, as the name implies, have a “simple” molecular structure. They are broken down faster by the body, cause an intense blood sugar and insulin spike and are generally counterproductive to weight loss. They do however have an important role in performance and athletics as a means of quickly accessible energy. Complex Carbohydrates have a larger molecular structure and are often “packaged” in whole foods that take longer to digest and contain other vital molecules and nutrients. Complex carbohydrates should be the primary source of carbs for any weight-loss protocol. But let's dive a little deeper:
Simple carbohydrates are made up of one or two sugar molecules and are found in foods like fruit and sweets, soda and juice. Anytime you see “added sugar” this is most certainly simple carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates, especially in liquid form (carb-containing beverages like fruit juice and soda) are broken down and absorbed faster by the body, generally leading to a quick spike in blood sugar and INSULIN. Insulin is an essential hormone produced by the pancreas to shuttle these newly broken down carbs (sugars aka GLUCOSE) from the bloodstream and into the body's cells. For the purpose of weight management it is IMPORTANT to note that when insulin levels are especially elevated such as after ingestion of simple carbohydrate, the body process of lipolysis (FAT BURNING) will not occur and the body DOES NOT USE STORED ENERGY (BODY FAT) FOR FUEL. More on Insulin and Lipolysis later.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of three or more sugar molecules and are found in foods like grains, vegetables, and legumes. Complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to process, and thus create a slow release of these glucose molecules into the bloodstream. This generally results in more sustainable energy (rather than a spike and crash) and also decreases the resulting insulin spike. Steadier blood glucose and insulin levels will result in more efficient and steady energy utilization, as well as a higher rate of lipolysis (the utilization of stored body fat for energy).
Generally, these glucose molecules we obtain from eating carbohydrates are shuttled into our muscles and liver for storage, however when unused (by body or brain activity) or in great excess, they undergo the process of LIPOGENESIS are turned into glycerin and stored as additional adipose body fat. Thus, in order to reduce stored body fat, it is important not to eat more carbohydrate energy than your body will need.
In summary and as it pertains to weight loss; carbohydrates are an essential nutrient both for energy production and hormone regulation. They are all composed of sugar molecules, however the “packaging” or “form” that they are consumed in matters greatly. The most simple and digestible carbohydrates are found in sugary liquids (juice and soda) that are very easily digested into the body. SIMPLE CARBS, ESPECIALLY IN LIQUID FORM SHOULD PRIMARILY BE AVOIDED FOR WEIGHT LOSS. This is dramatic, but hopefully you get the point. Complex carbohydrates, that have chains of multiple glucose molecules, and are packaged in whole foods (whole grains, vegetables, etc.) should indeed be a part of most nutritious diets, albeit consumed with strategy and care (more on that later).
*Fiber falls under the category of Carbohydrate but because the body does not digest it, it has no caloric value.
Nutritional fats are a type of nutrient that our bodies need for various functions, including energy production, hormone regulation, and cell growth. Fats are a concentrated source of energy, with each gram providing 9 calories/gram, more than double that of carbs and proteins (which each contain 4 calories / gram).
There are different types of fats, including saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats. Saturated fats are typically found in animal products like meat and dairy. Unsaturated fats are typically found in foods like nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Trans fats are found in processed foods and are considered unhealthy (and even OUTLAWED in some places) due to their negative impact on cholesterol levels.
Because fats are not readily converted to glucose for energy, they do not cause the same insulin spike that you’d get from carbohydrate consumption. They are digested at a slower rate and can potentially provide a lasting, albeit inefficient source of energy. Just like excess glucose (carbs) however, fat will be converted into stored adipose tissue when in abundance. In fact, excess nutritional fat is converted into stored fat very easily. For this reason, and because of its high caloric value, it is important to be very aware of the fat content within the foods you are consuming. To reiterate; healthy fats are required for many bodily functions and thus, in moderation are an essential part of a well-balanced diet. However even healthy omega fats found in olive oil, nuts and fish, when consumed in excess, can quickly reach unhelpful levels. For these reasons fat content should be recognized and accounted for when consumed.
Because of the current popularity of demonizing carbohydrates and the promotion of low-carb, Atkins and Ketogenic diets (more on these later), fat is not getting the respect it deserves as a culprit in the process of weight-gain. Fat has a way of sneaking into nearly every type of processed food, especially those carb-heavy snacks. Most, you’ll notice, list canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower and/or vegetable oil as one of the primary ingredients. This is because fat is used as a medium for cooking and preserving food, just as you’d oil a pan before stir-frying or sauteing. In fact, MOST fats incorporated in processed foods are not derived from quality sources like olives or avocados. Please don't be fooled by the term “vegetable oil,” this is a discreet way of using low quality oils derived from canola and/or soybean, which in fact were initially used as INDUSTRIAL LUBRICANTS (I'll let that sink in for a moment).
In summary, Fat is AWESOME and ESSENTIAL when obtained from quality sources such as salmon, nuts, seeds, olives and avocados and even dairy. But it should also be held in high regard as potentially detrimental to health and bodyweight when consumed excessively and sourced poorly. If you were to simply avoid all processed foods, or at least pay close attention to the ingredients within these foods, it's likely that excess fat, nutritional and bodily, would never become an issue for you.
Nutritional protein is a macronutrient found primarily in foods such as meat, dairy, eggs, beans and nuts, to name a few. It is made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids. Protein is important for a number of different functions including building and repairing muscles, producing enzymes and hormones, and supporting the immune system. It's important to get enough protein in your diet to support your body's needs. The recommended daily intake of protein varies based on age, sex, and activity level, but in general, most people should aim to consume 0.5-1 gram of protein per pound of LEAN body weight per day. So perhaps you weigh 220 lbs but are trying to lose 30lbs, bringing you to 190 lbs; you should base your protein intake off of the latter, lower number and eat approximately 100-200 grams/day depending on age, sex muscle mass and activity level.
Protein is certainly the most “helpful” nutrient when it comes to fat loss, for several reasons. Primarily, as previously stated protein is responsible for generating and maintaining LEAN BODY MASS i.e. MUSCLE. It is almost always better to have more muscle tomorrow than you do today. Muscle mass is what gives us strength and ability, tones and shapes our bodies, and provides us with higher metabolic (fat-burning) rates. Muscle mass burns calories. When a lean, muscle laden 185 lb individual goes for a walk, they will certainly burn calories at a higher rate than someone of the same age, sex and weight who does not have the same LBM (lean body mass). Also of note is the enormous correlation between healthspan (lifespan spent in good health) and muscle mass and physical strength. Most people should ALWAYS strive for more muscle; fear not, it's highly unlikely you'll ever have “too much.”
Protein ingestion promotes healthier body composition in other ways. When you eat a high protein meal, your body and brain increase the number of satiety hormones and decrease hunger hormones like ghrelin. This theoretically will lead you to feeling satisfied faster, with less calories, for a longer duration of time. When we ingest food, it actually requires calories for our bodies to break down and process the incoming food. Protein actually requires significantly more calories/gram to be digested than either fat or carbohydrate. This is called the “thermic effect.” In other words, if you consume 100 calories of protein, it will actually take 30 calories to digest that, netting you only 70 calories. Whereas 100 carbohydrate calories ingested would net you nearly 95 and fat 97-100, because the thermic effect of the latter two nutrients is notably less.
It should be noted that while protein offers much to those looking to recompose their body, it too should be monitored within the diet. High protein intake can put an extra load on the kidneys, so those with preexisting disorder with that organ should be cautious. It's unlikely that a healthy individual is going to reach this level of intake without intentional overconsumption, but the risk should be recognized. Also, just like carbohydrate and dietary fat, excess protein can be converted into fat and stored in adipose tissue. Meaning, even if you eat a caloric surplus of only protein, you're still likely to gain fat-mass, however to a significantly lesser degree than with carbs and dietary fat.
In Summary, protein should be the foundation of any well-structured meal plan whether for promotion of fat-loss, muscle gain, or body maintenance. The “dieter” (you) should try to formulate meals and snacks around a protein source, and include the other two macronutrients secondarily.
All three macronutrients are essential for healthy bodily function and none should be demonized nor should the process of storing body fat. This process is and was essential for our ancestors to survive long periods of unintentional fasting and starvation. In-fact, only in 1st- world countries, and only for the last 100-200 years has excessive calorie consumption even been an issue. Only in our world of great abundance, easy access and sedentary lifestyle, does the process of body-fat accumulation become an issue.
All Three macros can and will be converted into fat when in excess, so it's important to monitor not only how much of each you are ingesting (at least have a very rough idea) but also to be aware of your total calorie consumption. As you’ve heard many times; weight management depends on CALORIES IN VS. CALORIES OUT (energy balance). While this saying can be challenged, nuanced and dissected, it rings largely true.
Alcohol is actually somewhat of a 4th macronutrient. It stands alone and is processed separately (and primarily) by the body. Alcohol can be a great indulgence, stress reliever and social lubricant. But it has MANY negative effects when it comes to weight loss. The foremost being the “empty calories” that it provides, i.e. calories with ZERO nutritional value. We learned earlier about liquid-simple carbohydrates and how they are quite possibly the worst culprit when it comes to weight gain and lack of weight loss. Alcohol is almost worse, save that it is generally (hopefully) consumed in moderation and in lesser amounts. When alcohol is introduced to the body, it is viewed as a toxin and takes processing precedence over all other nutrients. So even when you drink “healthy” red wine with your pasta dinner, your body will primarily burn the alcohol as it fuel rather than the incoming carbs, proteins and fats. Thus leaving the excess nutrients to be stored away for later use as BODY FAT.
I'm sure you’ve experienced alcohol's liberating effects. That's why so many of us indulge in it from time to time, or too often. Along with this mental and emotional liberation comes a lack of inhibition. This can lead to excessive eating, which as we’ve learned, has a compounding bad effect in the presence of the alcohol itself.
Another significant impact of alcohol is its propensity to disrupt sleep cycles. Ever found yourself feeling quite restless halfway through the night after 3 or 4 cocktails? In layman's terms, the alcohol, a depressant, signals your body into sleep like states upon consumption earlier in the evening, resulting in wakefulness during the hours that you’d actually like to be asleep. Good sleep habits and hygiene are essential for proper body function and optimal metabolism, making sleep a vital component to every weight loss strategy.
Use alcohol in extreme moderation, especially when you have aspirations of body recomposition.
Dietary fiber, also known as roughage or bulk, is a type of carbohydrate that cannot be fully digested by the human digestive system. Unlike other carbohydrates, which are broken down into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream, dietary fiber passes through the digestive tract relatively intact and thus has no measurable caloric value.
There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract, which helps to slow down digestion and regulate blood sugar levels. Good sources of soluble fiber include oats, beans, apples, and carrots. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve in water and passes through the digestive tract largely unchanged. It adds bulk to stool and helps to promote regular bowel movements. Good sources of insoluble fiber include whole grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Dietary fiber is important for maintaining good digestive health and preventing a variety of health problems, including constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, and colon cancer. It can also help to lower cholesterol levels, regulate blood sugar levels, and promote a healthy weight by keeping you feeling full for longer periods of time. Fiber should be sought out and incorporated into the diet intentionally. Very few processed foods contain significant fiber so look to whole food sources and even dietary supplements (like metamucil) to meet or exceed your recommended daily fiber intake. The recommended daily intake of dietary fiber for adults is between 25-30 grams per day, although this can vary depending on age, gender, and other individual factors.
BODILY PROCESS’ FOR WEIGHT LOSS/GAIN:
Insulin, Lipolysis and Lipogenesis.
Insulin and Glucagon
Insulin is a hormone that helps control your body's blood sugar level and metabolism, the process that turns the food you eat into energy. Your pancreas makes insulin and releases it into your bloodstream. Insulin helps your body use sugar for the energy production and storage, both in muscle and liver cells as well as adipose fat tissue.
After you eat, your intestines break down (primarily) carbohydrates from food into glucose. That glucose then enters the bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise. Your pancreas (an organ that sits just behind your stomach) releases insulin to control the level of glucose in your blood. Your body makes and releases insulin in a feedback loop based on your blood sugar level. At its most basic level, it’s similar to your home's heating and cooling system, which releases cool or warm air as the temperatures rise or fall. High blood sugar stimulates clusters of special cells, called beta cells, in your pancreas to release insulin. The more glucose you have in your blood, the more insulin your pancreas releases. Insulin helps move glucose into liver, muscle, and fat cells where it can be stored for energy. As this shuttling of glucose occurs, your blood sugar levels go back to normal. Low blood sugar prompts a different cluster of cells in your pancreas to release another hormone called glucagon. Glucagon makes your liver break down the stored sugar, known as glycogen, and release it into your bloodstream. Insulin and glucagon alternate their release throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels steady.
As it pertains to weight management and in layman’s terms; when insulin levels are elevated, your body is generally “building” storage and/or tissue, and has very little ability to tap into its existing energy stores (body fat). Thus, ideally we’ll follow a dietary plan that promotes steadily low blood glucose and insulin levels.
Lipolysis is the body’s release and utilization of stored BODY FAT for energy. This, for most of us, is the process we are so hoping to stimulate and encourage when “losing weight.” It only occurs to the degree needed for weight-loss under certain conditions. Lipolysis occurs when insulin levels are low, and muscle and liver glycogen (glucose/sugar generally from carbohydrate) levels are diminished, such as during exercise or prolonged periods of fasting (abstaining from caloric ingestion). During these times, the body is burning through blood glucose and stored glucose from muscle and liver cells. Once those departments become significantly diminished the body revs-up the process of lipolysis. Breaking down stored triglycerides (FAT) into free-fatty-acids that enter the bloodstream to be converted BACK to glucose and used as energy for movement and bodily function. In other words, fasting and exercise promote lipolysis (DUH!).
Opposed to Lipolysis is the cycle known as LIPOGENESIS; the creation of adipose fat tissue. After a meal, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, an immediate source of energy. Excess glucose gets stored in muscle and liver as glycogen or, when muscle and liver glycogen are topped off (they do have a hard limit) and with the help of insulin, excess glucose is converted into fatty acids, circulated to other parts of the body and stored as fat in adipose tissue. As previously noted, this is a miraculous process that allows our species to survive during periods of scarcity and famine.
Now that we have a general understanding of nutrition and the bodily process of weight gain and reduction lets explore some popular dietary strategies and how they are applied.
As declared in our previous segment on nutrition, the ultimate determiner of weight fluctuation, up or down, is the caloric balance. Calories consumed vs. calories expended. Every living creature has what’s called a BMR, or BASIL (base) METABOLIC RATE. This is the amount of energy your body consumes while at rest, in a neutral temperature environment (because we burn calories to keep warm). Your BMR is calculated by specific equations:
Female: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
Male: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
It is important to understand your BMR because this will give a rough foundation of the amount of calories you ought to be consuming each day. Generally you will need more calories than the equation suggests, because it does not account for activity or temperature. These variables will certainly be considered, but the BMR is the starting point. Once BMR is calculated, we’ll factor in your activity levels and any other pertinent information to determine (roughly) the amount of calories you’d need to consume to maintain your current weight. It is from here that we reduce, add or tweak our nutritional plan to promote the desired results (weight gain or fat loss). So with that knowledge, let's explore some well-known ways of programming your diet to meet your goals.
I always like to begin by introducing my clients to intermittent fasting. In my opinion, it is the easiest (and potentially most sustainable and effective) way to set dietary rules and regulations and manage body weight.
Fasting, also known as “Time-Restricted-Eating,” is defined as abstaining from caloric ingestion for prolonged periods of time. It is a situation that we were physiologically designed to handle. You’ll recall WHY we store body fat in the first place? It is to keep us alive and moving during these fasting periods (which historically were unintentional and undesirable). Hopefully, with the knowledge you've already gained from our lesson on nutrition, you can clearly see the connection between Fasting as an intentional dietary strategy and its effectiveness for fat loss.
Everyone fasts at least once a day during sleep. While you’re sleeping you ought not to be consuming any calories (right?). This presents us with an excellent opportunity to expand this naturally occurring period of fasting. I highly recommend harnessing these 6-8 hours of overnight fasting, and leveraging it into a longer window of caloric deprivation by waiting to “break-fast” until some time has passed in the morning. Additional benefits come from expanding this window on the evening side. Very often, any food consumed after our dinner-time meal is not going to be beneficial for our bodies. It’s generally nutrient-void snacks, high-sugar desserts and/or alcohol. All of which we’ve established are counterproductive. So I encourage my clients to begin their intermittent-fast as soon as the silverware comes to rest after dinner. From that point on, water or unsweetened tea or coffee only.
Often, fasting schedules are described in terms of hours spent in “feeding” and “fasting” windows and will be notated as 12/12, 14/10, 16/8 or 24(!). Yes you can absolutely not eat for 24 hours and you'll potentially be better off for it! But for most individuals, starting with a 12/12 experiment is a great idea. You may even already, unintentionally follow such a schedule. I think it is wise to move towards a 16/8 split. This allows you to spend significant time in your fasted state, and almost certainly promote elevated levels of lipolysis (fat-burning), especially when combined with pre- or intra-fast exercise or activity.
So let's imagine you’ve settled up a healthy dinner at 6:30pm and begin your overnight fast. After waking in the morning you are allowed and encouraged to consume calorie-free coffee or tea (avoid milk & sugar for optimal results), and begin your day on an empty stomach. To achieve a 16/8 split, you'll wait until 10:30am to break your fast. Not unreasonable, right? This will hopefully allow you to spend several waking hours moving your body or perhaps exercising and burning calories derived from stored fat. On the flip side, the condensed “feeding” window should naturally restrict calorie consumption.
There are many additional strategies, tactics and “hacks” that can be applied within an Intermittent fasting protocol and it should go without saying that ANY dietary strategy ought to be based on intelligent consumption of vitamin and nutrient-rich whole foods.
Tracking calories and nutrient intake amounts is an incredibly powerful and eye-opening educational tool. It may not be best suited for the long-term as it can be quite tedious at times. But those inclined to statistical analysis and data might even find this strategy fun!
Tracking involves keeping an accurate record of everything with caloric value that you ingest during the day. From the minute tbsp. of cream in your morning coffee up to the 6oz. Salmon filet at dinner and everything in between. It has been shown time and again that without proper accounting, people will misestimate their caloric intake by 500 calories or more, even when educated on nutrition. A 500 calorie swing in either direction (+/-), over time, can cause significant weight loss or gain.
I highly recommend that my clients, especially those aspiring to significantly modify their body composition, spend at least several weeks tracking their food and beverage intake. Tracking allows you to determine how much you regularly consume, and build fundamental knowledge of what foods contain what nutrients and in what amounts. The truth is, once you’ve tracked a few days you’ll have an existing record of the nutritional value of common foods you include in your diet, and can easily reference back or even recall the nutrient profiles for recording present and future days. The practice has a way of streamlining itself. And sometimes you’ll eat meals that are just about untrackable; multiple ingredients, some being unknown, prepared by someone else. But if you know what the rest of your day has looked like nutritionally, and you've developed an accurate intuition about food through tracking, you'll be far better off to manage this situation and stay within range of your calorie and macro targets.
So how does one actually track their food? There are many digital platforms out there that will assist you through a vast database of food and corresponding nutrients. Some will have the food journal’s built in or can simply be used as a reference to get the information and record it elsewhere. Packaged foods will always have nutritional information available, along with a corresponding serving size, so just make sure you’re paying attention to quantities. There are simple hacks to learn how to estimate portions such as ounces and tablespoons, and “eyeballing” quantities can be an acceptable practice once the skill has been developed. But sometimes it is best to measure and/or weigh food until you’ve got a firm handle on it. My personal method is: I will write down what I'm consuming, including amounts, to the best of my ability and take 5 minutes in the late morning and early afternoon to actually input the nutritional values, most of which can be found online (or referenced from previous days or from packaging). I’ll notate the macronutrients next to each food as Fat/Carb/Fib/Prot. Then I can run down the column of F/C/f/P, totaling these numbers up and applying the appropriate calorie amounts for each nutrient. Just don't get too far into your day before you add up your nutrients and calories, and make sure you account for dressings, condiments, some cooking oil, etc. Also be sure, when notating the carbohydrate value of a food you always subtract the fiber (because it is non-digestible and supplies no calories) to get the “net carbs.”
Feeling overwhelmed by this idea? Let me remind you that this is a highly successful strategy that will absolutely keep you on top of your intake, educate you on nutrition in general and lead to fundamentally better eating habits for the rest of your life. So putting in a little effort here for a short while is WELL worth it in the long run.
High Carb/Low Fat
We’ve established that both carbs and fat are necessary for a healthy balanced diet and proper bodily function. They are however, especially in combination, largely responsible for weight gain over time. We now know that a gram of fat contains 9 calories, compared to a gram of carbohydrate’s mere 4. On top of that, carbs are the preferred energy source for the body, are easily processed and digested AND have a higher “thermic effect,” meaning they actually take more caloric energy to digest than fat. Nutritional fat is quite easily converted into stored fat in the presence of carbs and when calories are in excess.
With all of this information you’d have to wonder why you shouldnt immediately decide to eliminate fat from the diet. Well, we've learned that fats are essential for certain bodily processes such as hormonal production and regulation (which plays an integral role in weight management), vitamin and mineral absorption (certain vitamins can only be digested and processed in the presence of fat), and development and renewal of some bodily tissues like skin and brain matter. So it must be consumed to some degree. In-fact it would be nearly impossible to avoid fat altogether, as it has a tendency to “sneak” into cooking and food preparation, salad dressings, and will be found in many dietary animal products. Additionally, fat tends to satisfy you faster and keep you feeling satiated for longer periods of time after meals and snacks, as opposed to carbs alone.
With that said, let's acknowledge the notion that perhaps it is not a bad idea to avoid excess fat intake. It can be a successful way to immediately reduce your calories, and you're likely to get adequate amounts while still consciously avoiding high fat foods. Contrary to common knowledge,I’d say there is still a debate as to what the effects of low, medium and high fat consumption are on heart health. It largely depends on lifestyle, genetics and other dietary considerations.
High Fat/Low Carb, Keto & Atkins
Ketosis is the process by which your body utilizes fat as its primary energy source, rather than glucose. Ketosis is a rather inefficient energy pathway, at least initially, and generally only occurs during “glucose starvation.” In other words, in the complete absence of dietary glucose derived from carbohydrates. When glucose stores have been depleted, the body will begin gluconeogenesis, and convert fat into glucose for energy. It is a miraculous and vital process that coincides with our ability to store fat in the body for periods of scarcity (fasting). In fact, carb-deprivation diets are often referred to as “fasting-mimicking” because they encourage the body to rely on systems designed to get us through times of starvation.
“The Ketogenic Diet” is an extremely strict protocol of eating very high levels of fat, moderate levels of protein and nearly zero carbohydrates. Some argue that 20 grams of carbohydrates in the course of a day or several hours, is enough to disrupt ketosis and “kick you out” of the energy pathway. So carbs must be nearly completely eliminated. This means ZERO grains and fruit, barely any vegetables aside from leafy greens, and only dairy products such as cheese that contain no sugars. Most condiments and dressings are excluded here as well, although with all of the hype as of late, more and more food manufacturers are creating keto-friendly options.
It’s helpful to track your food when beginning a Keto diet. This will encourage you to look at nutrition labels, ensure carbs are not being incorporated and account for fats and proteins that can add up quickly. But because this diet is relatively “extreme” in its mechanism of function, dieters may experience fat loss even when in caloric surplus. To that end, some proponents praise this strategy for being friendly towards lean muscle tissue, offering the ability to stave off losses in muscle mass while burning fat, a trick hardly pulled off by other dietary protocols. Often, but not always, some degree of lean body mass is catabolized during caloric deprivation when following other diets (especially those low in protein and when not accompanied by resistance training).
A ketogenic diet tends to be high in fatty cuts of meat such as ribeye steak, chicken thighs, bacon and salmon. Copious amounts of olive oil, avocados and walnuts should be incorporated to keep “healthy” omega fats as the primary source, as well as incorporating fiber into the mix. This diet can be hard to adjust to as the meals tend to be extremely “heavy” and satiating. Oftentimes there is also a “keto flu” associated with initiating this diet. This tends to be 3-10 days of a sour mood, low energy, headaches and other bodily malfunctions. We’re so accustomed to having a constantly replenished supply of glucose that as you deplete and maintain a status of low-zero stored glycogen your body is forced to ignite the process of ketosis, something it is hesitant to do. These symptoms will pass and while unpleasant, offer a clear indication that you are doing the diet correctly.
Once in ketosis it is imperative for success that you remain strict on the diet for at least some significant amount of time, to the point that your body “settles in” and becomes a fat burning machine. One slip up and reintroduction of carbohydrate and glucose will almost certainly shift you right back to “carbs-for-fuel” because this is what your body is accustomed to and prefers. That said, after having spent some time in ketosis your body becomes more aptly able to switch back and forth from a generic glucose diet to a ketogenic one. This is called “metabolic flexibility” and is a very useful adaptation when it comes to weight management and energy production.
Some might disagree, but I do not think that a ketogenic diet is a reasonable long term solution. I do however think that it can be a phenomenal tool for allowing the body to “relearn” this energetic pathway and become more “metabolically flexible,” making you more efficient at using fat as fuel when other dietary strategies are pursued. This is called a “Keto Reset.” Follow Keto for 4-6 weeks then slowly transition back into carbohydrate incorporation. This is essentially what the Atkins Diet promotes. An initial Strict ketogenic phase followed by the slow reintegration of carbohydrate into the diet, ultimately resulting in a carb-restricted diet rather than a carb-absent diet, which is likely a better long term option.
The Paleo Diet protocol seems to have come into popular awareness along with the emergence of Crossfit, in the early 2000’s . Although, and as the name implies, it's been around for a long time. The Paleo Diet is fairly simple, and it doesn't strictly prescribe any specific macronutrient profile or caloric limits. It does, however, limit what foods you can eat. Specifically any foods that wouldn't have been found and eaten by our ancient ancestors. This precludes dairy, grains, legumes (no more peanut butter [sad face]), high-starch veggies (like corn and potatoes), and of course all processed foods. The protocol, if strictly followed, will naturally cut out all artificial ingredients, loads of added sugar, as well as added salt and alcohol. What you are left with is meat and vegetables as well as some fruit, nuts and seeds; arguably the most healthy foods. So The diet protocol really has hardly any knocks against it. Aside from the fact that you must maintain serious willpower not to cheat here and there. But unlike “Keto” that requires you to be strict or else the diet simply does not work, Paleo can be very flexible.
“Eat a diverse diet of high quality meats and vegetables with some fruit nuts and seeds,” is perhaps the most sound diet advice anyone could give or receive. So why doesn't everyone eat this way and look like super athletic hunter-gatherers? Well honestly, it's not very fun. But it should almost certainly be looked towards as the ideal foundation for a healthy diet. As previously mentioned, if the occasional glass of wine, square of chocolate or peanut butter and jelly sandwich slips in, no worries. As long as you can recover and get back on track, sourcing the majority of your meals from paleolithic-style whole foods.
You can still get fat on Paleo! But honestly it's highly unlikely. You’d have to really try. So tracking during this diet is not required, as long as you are getting enough protein to suit your needs. I highly encourage everyone to aim for “Paleo” and do your best, you’ll end up somewhere fairly good.
There are many other dietary strategies and everyone will respond differently to each. You likely have an idea of what healthy foods YOU enjoy and make you feel your best, so I encourage you to lean into those and find how they can fit into your healthy eating plan. Nearly every strategy will work for every individual if tailored appropriately and applied consistently.
I hope this knowledge proves valuable in your pursuit of lifelong health and wellness.