There is only one “What” to weight loss, creating a caloric deficit. Without the deficit, you will not lose weight, simple as that. Your body is an energy system, energy comes in from food, and goes out in terms of activity. There are 3 basic ways that you can create the required deficit that 99% of all diets fall within, time, food and portion focused.
All three have advantages and disadvantages that I will cover in later posts, but the purpose of this post is to give an introduction to the three major categories. Our body functions in that it can gain energy from both dietary energy intake (eating) and stored energy utilization (body fat). If a person burns 2500 calories per day, and eats 2500 calories per day, their bodily needs are covered and thus they remain at the same weight.
If the person eats 2000 calories per day, their body will make up the difference with stored energy, deducting 500 from its energy reserves. If the person eats 2700 calories per day, the body will add 200 calories to the store energy reserves per day. This is simplified and it is a lot more complex, but this is how the body functions from an abstract perspective.
All the 3 diet paradigms, function based on the idea of consuming less calories than are required every day and thus over time reducing the amount of stored energy in the form of body fat.
A time based deficit is centered around food timing. Common examples of this would be intermittent fasting in all the forms, from Leangains 18-6, to The Warrior Diet, 5-2, and various others. The idea here is that by limiting consumption for periods of time, such as only eating for a total of 6 hours every day, you combine staying in fat burning mode longer, while you will have trouble consuming a full day’s calories in only 8 – 6 hours.
Most of the time, the proponents of these diets recommend skipping breakfast and in some cases lunch, then having 1 – 2 larger meals. The effect being that you are fasting for a longer period of time, where your body needs to get energy from your fat stores rather than food.
This approach focuses on eliminating certain foods from the diet, usually either fat or carbohydrates. The most well-known variant of this diet is the recommended food pyramid from most governments in the U.S.A and Europe, that limits saturated fat. The most well-known example of a low-carbohydrate diet is Atkins that limits dietary carbohydrate to varying degrees.
The idea behind these type of diets varies. The principle behind the food pyramid is based on the research of Ansel Keyes, into the dangers of saturated fats and cholesterol. Also, since dietary carbohydrate has 4 calories per gram, while fats have 9 calories per gram, you could eat about twice the volume of food if your diet is based in carbohydrate.
Some variants on low-carbohydrate diets include those that focus on carbohydrates with a low-glycemic index (GI) that cause less of a spike in insulin than other carbohydrates due to taking longer for the body to digest.
The principles behind various low-carbohydrate diets is that as fats do not raise insulin, in addition to being more satiating than dietary carbohydrate, a natural calorie restriction occurs when a person eliminates carbohydrates from their diet.
Another example of food based deficits are substitution diets, where one food is substituted for another. For instance, eliminating calorie-rich foods for foods with less nutritional value.
Portion-based deficits are exemplified by Weight Watchers, where the points system is used to determine your portion sizes. The promise made by these diets is that you can continue eating as you always have, just in smaller servings. From my experience these diets are the most dangerous ones, as the people on them are prone to experience portion-creep, I.E their portions slightly increase over time.
Proponents of these diets cite convenience, simplicity and making compliance easy as the major reasons why to select such a diet. It is especially attractive to parents, who frequently do not have time to make two separate meals for the family, or who do not want their children to be affected with their parent’s obsession with losing weight. It is also very attractive to people who do not want to give up their problem foods.
What is the Right Diet for Me?
In my experience, people tend to lean towards one approach. I know people who have successfully lost weight through limiting their portion sizes, through limiting their eating window and through restricting certain types of food. When you sit down to select your diet, you need to take a holistic perspective on your lifestyle to see what would fit the best.
There is no one-size fits all, despite what many would tell you about losing weight. There is also no “having your cake and eating it too“. To lose the weight you want, you will have to sacrifice some of the foods you love, or some of the meals you enjoy, or just eat less and be more hungry.