Posted on February 16, 2022 by Harry Edwards
It’s really tricky nowadays working out what kind of diet is right for you. There is so much information, accurate, bogus or contested, that circulates all over our social media, the TV and in our conversations with others. Today I’m going to break down some of the essential information for you to make an informed decision on what kind of foods to include in your diet and whether joining the bandwagon of a particular diet, like going vegan, veggie, or keto, is right for you!
Calories in VS Calories out
The most important thing to address about diet, particularly as it relates to weight management, is that your bodyweight comes entirely down to the calories you consume balanced against the calories you expend doing activities during the day. As crazy as it might sound, so long as you were in a caloric deficit, you could have a diet consisting entirely of crisps and chocolate and still lose weight! This would have some consequences for your body composition and athletic performance that we will discuss later, but if your goals are weight-orientated, the first thing you need to do is work out your caloric maintenance. This is super easy to do, there are lots of apps like MyFitnessPal that have very good algorithms to work this out or you can hop onto google and use an online calorie calculator to work out your numbers. Once you’ve worked this out, you can begin setting your targets according to your goals. In general, rapid weight loss or gain is not advised so if you’re looking to lose weight, a calorie deficit of 200-500 calories is ideal, and conversely if you want to gain weight, a calorie surplus of 200-500 calories is also ideal. This way you will gradually lose or gain weight without shocking your body with a radical change in diet. However, while what determines your total bodyweight is simply calories-in VS calories-out, the composition of your body (body fat percentage, lean muscle mass, etc) and how you perform from an athletic and health perspective depends on what specific foods you consume. This is where we take a look at macronutrients.
What are Macros?
Macronutrients, colloquially known as Macros, are the nutrients that provide calories in your foods. They are found in three types: Carbohydrates, Fats and Protein. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy and are found as sugars, starches or fibres. When we have an excess of them, carbohydrates are stored in the liver as glycogen and/or converted into body fat. Fats are a secondary source of energy for the body and are responsible for the production of hormones and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Excess fats are also stored as adipose tissue. Protein provides the building blocks for the structures of the body, being responsible for the growth and repair of everything from your muscles to your bones and organs. Your foods consist of different proportions of these macronutrients, which can all be found on food labels alongside their calorie content. To affect the desired changes in your body, not only do you need to be consuming the correct amount of calories, but also the right proportion of these macronutrients to build the body composition you want. Imagine you’re building a house, you need to have the right amount of bricks, insulation and other materials in order to build the house you want. With this information, we can now start looking at different diets and how they would suit your goals.
Diets – What’s best for you?
There are so many different diets out there that it can be baffling to work out what route to take when prioritising your health, weight and athletic performance. Most diets are effective, at least in the short term, because they reduce the amount of calorie-dense foods you are consuming. As such, it is actually the reduction of calories rather than the specific foods you’re eating that gives you initial fast results in terms of weight management and how you feel. However, to maintain progress and consistency, you need a diet that gives you the macros you need for your individual requirements. Lets have a quick look at some different types of diet and their pros and cons.
Under a vegetarian diet you don’t eat any meat. This means that food items that are derived directly from the killing of an animal are off limits. Depending on the specifics of one’s diet, this may also preclude you from having certain other animal products like eggs. Vegetarian diets are good because they increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables that are much more voluminous, meaning you can consume more of them without consuming as many calories. For example, you can fill your entire stomach with lettuce and only have eaten 200 calories, whereas a small chocolate bar can contain more than 200 calories by itself. This makes vegetarian diets very good for weight loss. Additionally, the consumption of more fruit and veg means that you’re likely increasing the amount of minerals and vitamins in your diet, providing many long-term health benefits. However, by cutting out many animal products there are a number of minerals, hormones and, of course, protein macronutrients, that you are not getting access to or only get in limited amounts. This can largely be addressed through good nutritional knowledge or supplementation but it can become expensive and in general vegetarians will struggle to gain muscle mass and bodyweight when compared to someone consuming meat regularly. Overall, vegetarian diets are a good choice, offering lots of nutrients and low calorie options, however they do somewhat lack protein sources which are vital for your athletic development. This said, vegetarian and vegan fitness supplements are improving all the time, making the normalisation of long-term vegetarianism almost guaranteed, especially in the context of reducing meat consumption for environmental reasons.
Vegan diets are very similar to vegetarian diets except they preclude you from having ANY products that are derived from animals. This means as well as not consuming meat, you can’t have any animal milks, eggs, cheeses or other such products. This is generally because of an ethical commitment by vegans to not contribute to processes of food production that exploit and harm both animals and the environment at large. The benefits of vegan diets are much the same as vegetarian diets but pushed to a further extreme. By completely eliminating animal products, many processed foods are removed and replaced with nutrient-dense, low calorie alternatives which can give you very fast initial results for losing weight and feeling fresher and detoxified. As with vegetarianism, the emphasis on consuming more fruit and vegetables has major health benefits, increasing your consumption of fibre, magnesium, potassium, vitamins A, C and E, and other beneficial plant compounds. This has been associated with a reduction in blood sugar levels as well as improved kidney function and a reduced risk of cancer. However, vegans can be susceptible to being deficient in nutrients that are usually obtained from the consumption of animal products, like iron, omega 3 and vitamin B12 to name a few. It is very important if choosing to adopt this diet to make sure that you have all the necessary dietary knowledge and supplements in place to avoid any negative side effects. So while this is certainly up there as the most ethical diet to be taking part in, if done incorrectly this may not be optimal for you from a health and performance perspective.
The Ketogenic diet, or Keto diet for short, is a diet in which the vast majority of your carbohydrates are replaced with fats. This forces your body to adapt. After depleting any remaining stores of carbohydrates, the body begins breaking down fat for energy and releasing ketone bodies which provide energy for the brain. The reduction in carbohydrates lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as promoting fat loss. There are different versions of the Keto diet. The standard Keto diet would have you consuming 70% fat, 20% protein and 10% carbs, the high-protein version is similar but with a higher intake of protein (60% fat, 35% protein and 5% carbs) and other Keto diets have cycles in which you may be fully Keto for 5 days and then refeed with carbs for 2 days or where you consume carbs before workouts. One benefit of Keto is that by having different versions, it has a great deal of flexibility to cater to your specific needs. Additionally, while fats are more calorie-dense and so high fat meals can be less voluminous, fats are much more satiating that carbs, making adherence to the diet much easier. Finally, ketogenic diets have been found in several studies to be extremely effective at helping people lose weight, as well as offering other health benefits like reduced blood pressure and improved insulin sensitivity. Overall, this is a diet I would highly recommend considering, regardless of your fitness and health goals, as its benefits are so broad and can be suited to whatever you are pursuing.
Recently popularised by the likes of Joe Rogan and other social media personalities, the carnivore diet is essentially an extreme version of the Keto diet. It is a high protein/high fat diet in which the only foods one can consume are animal products; meats, eggs, butters and some hard cheeses and creams. The effects on the body are very similar to keto diets, causing the body to convert to fats as a fuel source, promoting weight loss, reductions in blood pressure and offering other potential health benefits. Much like keto, the high consumption of protein and fat is much more satiating than carbohydrates, leading to a reduction in overall calorie intake that is largely responsible for the benefits in terms of weight loss. However, completely eliminating a food group from your diet is not recommended as there are nutrients you will be unable to obtain. Furthermore, the restrictive nature of the diet, for example, only being allowed to drink water or bone broth, makes long-term adherence very difficult. Finally, there has not been much research done into the long term effects of this diet, with contradicting accounts and anecdotes of its pros and cons for both health and performance. As such, I would not recommend adopting this diet to pursue your fitness goals, especially when taking a long term view. It is perhaps useful for a short period, and I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from giving it a try. But there is simply too much we don’t know for me to give it a full stamp of approval. As more evidence comes forward this may become a more accepted approach, however the jury is still out.
On the opposite end of the spectrum to Keto, some advocate a high-carb/low-fat diet to achieve their fitness goals. This involves a similar macro split to Keto but reversing the roles of fats and carbs. This means greater consumption of wholegrain breads, rice and pasta, as well as fruit and vegetables. A common trend in health and fitness is to treat carbohydrates as evil, but as we discussed at the beginning of this article, your bodyweight is entirely determined by calories in/calories out. While carbs may cause changes in insulin levels that increase how hungry you feel, it is only overeating that will cause unwanted weight gain. And actually, there are a number of significant benefits to a high carb intake. Your body uses glycogen for energy, which it prefers to obtain directly from carbohydrates. This is the fuel for all our activity, especially our exercise. When on a low carb diet, your glycogen stores become depleted, promoting fat loss to convert into glycogen, but leaving you eventually feeling drained and weaker. On a high carb diet, these stores are maintained, meaning your performance isn’t impacted by your diet in the same way. This translates to both short duration activities like weight lifting and long duration activities like cycling or running, and is often why athletes will “carb load” before a competition. Additionally, by increasing your insulin and testosterone production, carbohydrates aid in your recovery from exercise by promoting muscle growth and repair. The obvious drawback would be satiety, with carbs generally not being as filling as fat or protein and triggering insulin spikes that can prompt you to crave more food. Additionally, by not triggering ketosis in the same way, weight loss results may be slightly slower and less drastic. However, if your goals are orientated toward muscle building and high athletic performance, this is definitely an option to consider.
Finally, the ever-cherished but elusive balanced diet! What exactly do we mean when we say “a balanced diet”? Do we need to refer to a food pyramid or graph? Is it a complete 33% split between macronutrients? What does it mean and entail? A balanced diet is simply a diet that gives your body all the nutrients it needs in order to function properly and healthily. In order to achieve this, most of your daily calories should be obtained from fresh fruit and veg, whole grains, nuts, legumes and lean protein sources. This leaves a lot up to interpretation but actually that is how your diet should be, an open canvas on which to try out the full range of healthy options available to you. For a bit more guidance, I would say anywhere from 15-35% of your calories should come from protein, emphasising those lean sources like chicken, turkey and eggs, with the rest of your calories coming from healthy fat and carb sources. The specific macronutrient and calorie profile of your diet will depend on your goals but overall a diet in which you are not restricted from having anything is better for your performance, health, consistency and mental state. If you find adopting one of the aforementioned diets easier to maintain discipline, establish a framework, and potentially even build camaraderie with likeminded people pursuing similar goals, that is fantastic! But never feel dread at the thought of having a carby meal or eating a brownie on the weekend, fitness and health are lifelong pursuits and the only approaches that work are the ones that you can stick to for a lifetime. There is no single way to achieve the goals you want, so try things out and don’t be afraid to ask for help!
In summary, the key to getting the optimal diet is working out how many calories you need to be consuming each day and finding a macronutrient split that suits your body and needs. This may mean adopting one of the set diets or freestyling and doing your own thing. There are no wrong answers! A lot of fitness is about trial and error, and diet is no different. Try lots of things out and don’t be afraid to ask for help! We here at motive8 are committed to helping you achieve your goals and can offer you lots of different perspectives on the challenges you’re looking to tackle. I hope you found this article useful and I look forward to helping you smash your goals for this year and beyond!