Gaining a large amount of fat can take years, so it should come as no surprise if losing it isn’t a quick process. Leaning out requires long-term changes in lifestyle, from stress management to exercising to eating properly. But what is eating properly? To this multi-headed question, we need to bring more than one answer.
Do Calories Matter?
Whereas water is the main culprit behind daily fluctuations, the weight you gain or lose in the long run depends primarily on your caloric intake. If you eat more than you burn, you gain weight; if you eat less than you burn, you lose weight. But is this weight fat or muscle? Most often, it is both, but how much of each depends on both exercise and diet composition (fat, protein, carbohydrate, and alcohol).
Do Diets Work?
Hypocaloric diets (diets based on caloric restriction) all promote weight loss. Yet they often fail. Why? Because most people quit. Either they find the diet to difficult to continue or, having reached their goal, they decide they don’t need to diet anymore. In either case, they return to their old eating habits.
Unfortunately, fat cells have a slow turnover rate. They don’t immediately die when you starve them; they just shrink. Feed them again and you’ll find it quite easy to regain whatever weight you lost.
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Which diet is the best for me?
The one that works for you. Some people swear by intermittent fasting; others will tell you that you should eat many small meals. Both are valid options. What matters, at the end of the day, is how much calories you have consumed. The best diet for you is the one you’ll stick to.
Of course, it is easier to stick to a diet that doesn’t make you ravenous. To promote satiety, you should favor foods rich in protein or with a high water content (fruits and vegetables). Although fat also promotes satiety, it has the downside of being calorically dense: A tablespoon of olive oil has the same caloric content as small potato!
Another benefit of protein is that it helps build muscle (when you eat more calories than you burn) and helps preserve muscle (when you eat fewer calories than you burn).
What about the latest fad diet?
Most fad diets have two things in common: They restrict food choices, which makes it easier to count calories, and they’re very low in carbohydrate, which results in rapid weight loss—in the form of water.
How does that work? Very simply. Our body first stores carbohydrate in the form of glycogen. Only when our glycogen stores are full does the spare carbohydrate we consume get stored as fat. But what happens when we don’t supply our body with enough carbohydrate to replenish our glycogen stores? The water that was used for storage gets excreted.
Shedding several pounds in a couple of days can be exciting, but don’t be fooled: It’s only water. On a reasonable, healthy hypocaloric diet, you can expect losing one or two pounds of fat a week.
If I’m restricting calories, how do I stay out of starvation mode?
When a body enters “starvation mode,” its resting metabolic rate drops. It uses less energy for its most basic needs, and fat loss slows to a crawl. This could be scary, except that it largely doesn’t happen.
Starvation mode is something of myth, which started after a notorious experiment that literally starved its subjects. If your diet has you fasting for several days, then yes, you may experience a sharp drop in resting metabolic rate. You will also lose a lot of lean mass as your body starts cannibalizing your muscles for the protein it needs to insure its most vital functions. The smaller changes in energy expenditure resulting from caloric restriction, however, don’t have such a drastic effect.
Eating for weight loss is a bit of an iterative process: You estimate your caloric needs, then you adjust your estimate according to how your weight evolves from one month to the next (or one week to the next, but certainly not one day to the next!).
Finally, a weekly cheat meal isn’t going to ruin your diet. In fact, such a “refeed” may even help you stick to your diet by making it more bearable.
Is saturated fat bad for me?
There is some evidence that saturated fat may be less than ideal. Not a really strong statement. There is stronger evidence that unsaturated fats are beneficial, though, so if your diet is limited in fat, better eat less saturated fat and more unsaturated fats.
Are carbs bad for me?
It depends on your goals. If you are trying to lose weight, you need to eat less, and it is better to cut on carbohydrate than on protein or good fats. That said, and contrary to what some people would like you to believe, none of the macronutrients (protein, fat, or carbohydrate) are intrinsically bad for you.
So what is eating properly?
There is more to eating properly than what we’ve discussed here. Eating properly also means getting enough fiber and micronutrients (notably vitamins and minerals) through a wide selection of mostly unprocessed foods. But when it comes to gaining or losing weight, the answer is simple. If you want to gain weight, eat more than you burn. If you want to lose weight, eat less than you burn. In either case, consume 1.0–2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (0.45–1.00 g/lb/day). And don’t forget to exercise!