Keto. Paleo. Mediterranean. Low carb. Atkins. Vegan. Weight watchers. Carnivore. Intermittent fasting.
When you compare these popular diets, they’re all different with certain guidelines to adhere to. If you follow a Paleo or Mediterranean approach to eating, you can certainly enjoy your fair share of carbohydrates, whereas if you follow the ketogenic diet, this isn’t necessarily the case. To the average Joe, all these approaches to eating are wildly different, each with their own unique methods that will yield dramatically different results.
…and that’s where you’d be wrong.
While these diets do differ in their methods, they all follow the same foundational principles.
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And when it comes to overall health, there are a few things that will remain universal, regardless of whatever diet tickles your fancy.
#1. Total calories matters most.
There are a few absolutes in this world of ours: you’re gonna die one day, you’re gonna pay taxes, and if you eat more calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight, you’re gonna gain weight. Conversely, if you eat less, you’ll lose weight. This is a fact. It doesn’t really matter what your hormones are doing or if Mercury’s moons are in retrograde throwing off your chakras…. total calories will always trump all. Let’s look at an example.
Take the ketogenic. Most people think it works wonders for fat loss because you’ve removed all the evil carbs from your diet. But it’s simply not the case.
While fewer carbs might indeed be a part of reason why some people see success, the true reason keto works in terms of weight management has more to do with the type of carbs people ate before switching to keto. Many people who switch to keto tend leave behind a diet rich in overly processed, highly refined foods. These same foods also happen to contain tons of added sugar and simple carbs which are terrible at keeping you satisfied and full (and to boot are often hyper palatable because food companies pour millions of dollars into formulating them to be as addictive as possible… seriously).
As a result, these folks find themselves eating one or two hours after munching away on processed foods because they’re hungry again. And what do you ingest when you eat more food?
So when the keto approach has you swap these fiber-less, protein scarce, highly processed foods for whole food sources rich in fat and protein, (the best combo for creating the sense of fullness), you tend to eat less over the course of the the day. Eating less, or eliminating mindless snacking results in fewer calories consumed.
Then wouldn’t you know it, the weight just melts off! Keto is a life saver! EVERYONE SHOULD BE DOING IT!!!!!!
The truth of the matter is that if you swapped the processed carbs with quality sources of carbs like veggies, fruits, beans, oats, potatoes or quinoa, you’d still probably lose weight. The quality carb sources are lower in calories while containing tons of fiber, vitamins, minerals, water content, and do a waaaaaaay better job of leaving you satisfied and full compared to highly processed foods.
But before this turns into a full dissertation about the ketogenic diet, let’s steer back on track. It’s key for you to realize that different foods make consuming more or less calories much easier (more on this coming up). However, the foundational principle on which you build your eating strategy off of is still total calories.
So knowing this, you can technically eat nothing but Oreos and mayonnaise sandwiches and lose weight… as long as your total calories are in check. This is obviously not a good idea for many reasons, but we’ll cover that with our next two principles.
#2. If calories are King, protein is Queen.
We’ve already established that total calories matters most when it comes to nutrition. So once you’ve mastered this, it’s time to ensure you’re adhering to the next big principle, which is consuming adequate protein.
Sure, carbs and fats matter a whole lot. But to the overly eager nutrition novice, sometimes these macronutrients can mistakingly take priority over protein when it comes to your health.
Let’s be clear… your low carb diet doesn’t mean jack if you’re not getting enough protein.
For starters, protein is the building block of lean muscle mass. This is super important because lean muscle mass is the equivalent of the fountain of youth when it comes to your health. It helps fortify your joints, enhance your sex appeal, and even helps you burn more calories at rest. You see, muscle burns calories by simply existing. So, the more you have, the more you burn.
In addition to all that, protein has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients, meaning your body literally burns calories by breaking it down and digesting it. The thermic effect of fat and carbs? Not even close to protein. 20-30% of the calories consumed via protein are burned off in the digestion process, whereas carbs and fat sit around 5-15%. Numerous studies have shown time and time again that high protein diets are excellent for maintaining healthy weights, as well as shedding excess body fat. This is probably due to the fact that protein positively affects satiety (how full you feel), more so than carbs or fats do.
It’s for these reasons that protein should be your number one concern when it comes to the three macronutrients. Once you hit your daily requirements, then you can worry about how many carbs and grams of fat you should or shouldn’t be consuming.
A good rule of thumb is to consume 1g of protein per pound your ideal body weight. You’ll be ok with around 0.8 grams if you’re not particularly active, and maybe even a touch higher than 1g if you’re an avid exerciser.
#3. Focus on whole, real, foods.
You could have probably pieced this rule together for yourself based on everything that was just laid out for rule #1. Buuuut incase you have the memory of a goldfish, let’s recap.
Highly processed foods:
- contain tons of calories relative to their nutrition value (lots of calories, very little good-for-you micronutrients)
- are often rich in sugar, simple carbs, and fat (which makes them SUPER delicious, therefore beyond easy to over eat)
- rarely, if ever, contain fiber (which is beneficial for making you feel full and satisfied, not to mention highly beneficial for your gut health)
- never contain the trace minerals and other compounds found in real food
- can often be easily identified as they come in packed in cardboard and plastic, and are mass produced by big corporations
Whereas whole, real foods:
- contain TONS of nutrients compared to their low caloric value
- (depending on the food) are rich in fiber, complex carbs, and heart healthy fats (which makes them very difficult to overeat unless you drench them in butter, sugar, or salt)
- contain things like phytochemicals, polyphenols, and antioxidants that do all sorts of wonderful things for your body
- are grown, picked, or hunted in nature
Real foods are, always have been, and always will be the best way to improve your health, fortify your immune system, fight against disease, and of course, manage your weight.
No processed food or supplement will ever replace what real foods do for your body.
Not even the digestion and absorption of real foods versus processed foods and supplements is the same. For example, the fiber supplement you see your granny drinking is not the same thing as the fiber found in oats, chia seeds, or vegetables. In fact, those 3 foods all contain vastly different nutrients, different kinds of fiber, and different kinds of compounds that all have different benefits within your body!
Whole real foods provide your body with everything that it needs in order to keep itself running like a well oiled machine. It’s no wonder why tons of pharmaceutical drugs are in fact, derived from plant sources. You know, kinda like the plants you eat.
Whole foods also do a tremendous job of essentially governing themselves when it comes to portion sizes and calorie control. Because of the fiber, water, and nutrient to calorie ratio of these foods, you can basically eat until your belly is quite content without over doing it on the calories. Go ahead, eat some mixed vegetables until you literally puke. There’s a real good chance you’ll still consume less calories than had you eaten a Big Mac with fries and a Coke.
So when it comes to your next meal, ask this question: “Is what I’m about to eat grown, picked, plucked, harvested, or hunted in nature?”
If you find yourself answering ‘no’ more often then not, you might wanna reconsider your approach to eating.
#4. Is your eating style sustainable for years to come?
You ever hear one of your friends talk about a fad diet they’re trying? Something that’s aaaaaall the rage among celebrities?
“Oh it’s just two sticks of celery and a lemon juice cayenne smoothie 3x a day. It’s great, I’ve lost 5lbs already!”
While this might be a fast track to quick weight loss (because total calories matters most), it most certainly will not be a dietary approach that can be done for probably more than a single week. Your friend’s body will eventually start to revolt because it’s not receiving the nutrients it needs to even carry out day to day cellular and bodily functions.
Soon they’ll start to feel run down, tired, lethargic, weak. And right before they’ve transformed into a full on moody asshole, they’ll revert right back to their old eating ways because they just can’t thrive, let alone survive, living off their super cleanse stupid smoothies.
Now obviously that was an extreme example, but the same rationale applies to all the major dietary strategies.
Does keto interfere with your ability to simply go out and enjoy a night out with friends or family?
Does intermittent fasting have you feeling like a ravenous, irritable zombie towards the end of your fasting window?
Is eating low carb interfering with your ability to perform higher intensity workouts?
How about eating 6 small meals per day to ‘keep your metabolism high’? Is it a pain in the ass to eat every two hours while working, commuting, attending meetings, or taking care of your kids?
Your diet should be something that you can see yourself doing for years, not just a month or two. Sustainability and consistency, much like with all things, will play an incredibly important role when it comes to determining your success with nutrition.
When you’re considering your overall health, diet is always a long term game. So when you create your particular eating strategies, consider a few questions…
- Does this way of eating fit my daily schedule? (sometimes smaller more frequent meals can add stress to your daily routine, or perhaps intermittent fasting adds stress to your social life because drinks and a meal with friends falls outside your fasting window)
- Can I still eat the foods I enjoy? (if you loooove carbs, a keto approach might not be the best long term approach for you)
- Can this way of eating align with my personal preferences? (Some people aren’t too hungry in the morning and prefer to skip breakfast. Certain folks love snacking while others enjoy less frequent, larger meals.)
- Do I actually enjoy eating like this? (Does tracking points like in weight watchers make you giddy with joy? Great, keep it up! Does shunning bread make you cry yourself to sleep? Why are you doing it then?)
So putting everything together….
What you eat matters, very much so. But in terms of maintaining a healthy weight, how much you eat trumps it. Depending on your particular goals, make sure you’re hitting your daily calorie needs. If you’re under it, you’ll lose weight. If you’re over it, you’ll gain. Simple as that. Don’t let social media or the internet overcomplicate things. This is principle #1.
Not sure how many calories you need on a daily basis? Click this link for a simple, ballpark figure.
Knowing this fact, shoot for an 80/20 split of how you eat. 80% of your daily, weekly, or monthly calories should come from whole, real, food sources. This means veggies, fruits, lean meats, nuts, beans, seeds, legumes, etc. This is principle #2.
For the other 20%, enjoy yourself. Eat some ice cream, or a donut, or a burger. Who cares.
80/20 is a general recommendation for overall health. If you’re looking for a more “see my abs” approach, consider a 85/15 or 90/10 split.
Now within your 80%, make sure you’re getting enough protein. It should be the main focus with all your meals. Some examples are chicken, turkey, steak, fish, and eggs. Or if you’re vegetarian, tofu, tempeh, edamame, chickpeas, beans, and protein supplements can be good sources.
Before you eat a meal, ask yourself “Where’s my protein?” This is principle #3.
And lastly, for whatever approach you try (paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, etc), make sure it fits your lifestyle, your preferences, and is something that can be done for years to come. Hell, you can even try a hybrid approach of several popular eating styles. Make it fit you.
All of the popular diets out there fall back onto these same principles. It’s just a matter of finding what works best for you with a little trail and error.