Why do "Diets" get such a bad rep... especially if they work?

Monday, December 4, 2023 - 15:00


We've all been there... You have a friend who lost weight on keto and who swears it's the answer to your problems. All you have to do is eat exactly 5 avocados before every meal and your body will FINALLY learn how to burn fat!

Then your brother tells you that his coworker's cousin only eats for two hours every three days and can't believe how fast the weight is coming off! Amazing right? That fasting actually works! It's a miracle! Just be sure to pair it with over the counter methamphetamines, Diet Coke and cigarettes to battle those pesky hunger cravings between those infrequent meals and you'll do great... promise!

At dinner, your best friend's new gym-bro boyfriend is all about that IIFYM life. "If It Fits Your Macros," you're good bro. Just track your food and hit your macro targets and the fat will melt off. It's the lost piece of the puzzle called weight management. As he's saying this, he's ordering his third dessert because he purposely cut his carbs all day to save up those macros since he knew he was going out to dinner. Perfectly healthy and reasonable.

There's just so much information... why do these outlandish things seem to work for the general public? How can all these different diets work so well for so many? How can you have so many friends who’ve made progress using so many different methods? Which one really works? Which one will work for you?

The answer is all of them... or maybe none. Why? Insulin.

This is a complex subject but I'll do my best to keep this simple. If you are REALLY interested in this subject, watch this video. (It’s a 50-minute lecture and I watched it twice in one night. That's the nutrition nerd I am.)

TLDR; our conventional wisdom about weight gain/obesity is a hypothesis that: “The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended" [In other words Calories in vs Calories out] is based on initial research in the field done in the early 1900s. Without considering that: "our ideas are dependent on the technologies we have to observe the universe". So knowing that we have far greater technology now than in the early 1900s, how can we still be basing our hypothesis on this overly simplified equation?

Going back to our friend Insulin... How do all of the above mentioned "diets" influence insulin, and why does that lead to fat loss?

When insulin is present in the bloodstream, it’s impossible for your body to pull fat out of your fat stores for energy. Insulin is the regulator of fat metabolism. If you want to get fat out of your fat storing tissue, you have to keep your insulin levels down.

Why does your body produce insulin? To control your blood-sugar levels.

What causes your blood sugar to rise? Carbohydrate consumption (can you see a correlation to why carbs got a bad rep?).

Do you remember our food pyramid? You know, the one you learned about in school where the base is grains, rice, cereal and pasta? The first food pyramid was created in the 1970s in Sweden. Following numerous street protests resulting from the high price of foodstuffs, the government decided to create a special committee given the task of evaluating if it were possible to put together nutritionally balanced meals at a reasonable cost. It was introduced to the US in 1992 and it's been stated that the base of the pyramid being a “grain” group was heavily influenced by lobbying efforts from the grain industry, which led people astray into thinking carbs were separate from fruits and vegetables. When did we see the dramatic increase in heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity? No need to guess, I'll tell you... 1990 to 2000 marks the largest increases in chronic disease, childhood diabetes and obesity, and obesity in both men and women in the U.S.

What do you think... Correlation or causation? Is there a connection between the two? 

Let's circle back to the original question at hand. Why do all these different diet trends work for so many people? Let's break them down individually... 

Keto: The goal of the ketogenic diet is to reduce your carbohydrate intake to less than 30g per day and replace those calories with moderate protein and slightly higher fat. What happens when you reduce your carbohydrate intake? Your blood-sugar levels decline. What happens when your blood-sugar levels decline? Your body stops requiring insulin as frequently to manage that blood sugar. Less insulin = less fat storage

Intermittent fasting: The most common IF practice is 16 hours of fasting (no food or calorie-dense drinks) with an eight-hour feeding window. Most people start fasting at 8pm after dinner, sleep, don't eat breakfast, then start eating around 12pm at lunch time. If we fast for 16 hours we clearly are not taking in any carbohydrates in the form of bread, rice, cereal, pasta, or sugar in our drinks. If we're not consuming carbohydrates, we’re inherently managing our blood-sugar levels by managing insulin thereby allowing the body to start using fat for energy. See where this is going and how insulin and blood sugar levels correlate to fat storage?

Tracking macros: The idea of "flexible dieting," made popular in body building and hardcore fitness realms and by the popular app MyFitnessPal, teaches its followers to balance their macro intake (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) typically with a specific percentage of each. With this increased awareness of what their caloric intake is made up of, most people start to balance their diets, reducing their carbohydrate intake from 65-80% to 20-40% and filling in the rest of their diet with a more appropriate balance of protein and fat. Can you guess what kind of hormonal change this causes in the body? I think you can. (spoiler, it sounds like "lower insulin")

Hopefully this brief breakdown makes sense and sheds some light onto these diet trends. We know calories are still important, we can't rule out the "calories in vs calories out." Though some will argue that nothing else matters as long as your calories are controlled, we now know that isn't at all true. Thermodynamics and macro trackers are useful tools, but don't be fooled into thinking they are the magic pill when it comes to losing fat. If it were that simple, anyone who could eat 500 fewer calories a day would lose a pound a week forever. Until they weighed zero pounds. Which we know isn't quite how it works. 

There are SO many variables including your individual make-up, your age, gender, family history/dna, lifestyle choices, environmental factors, hormone health and much, much more. The QUALITY of our calories matter greatly. Though macro counting fans would lead you to believe that the ONLY thing that matters is the ratios of macronutrients, we now know that eating 2000 calories of processed, nutrient deficient foods vs 2000 calories of whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods makes a critical difference not only for overall health, but also for weight loss. 

The takeaway here is that the popular diet du jour is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to losing weight that will work for everyone. Nor are most of them sustainable, which will lead to returning weight once abandoned. Yes they may work for many, but just like all people are different, there are many paths to the same goal; what truly matters is which path is best for you and what you can sustain long term. One thing is clear... the "right" path is going to involve limited "man made" foods, adequate protein intake and more whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods if you're chasing weight loss paired with health. That is an indisputable fact. This is also why the word "DIET" is taking on such a negative context. Rarely does anything hear the word and think "the way I'm going to eat to support balance and health for the rest of my life"... am I right?!

Do you feel you have a solid handle on your nutrition intake? If you are carrying excess weight that you haven't been able to lose even using some of these diet strategies and want to discuss it in person with a professional, we offer a FREE Nutrition consult whether or not you're a member here at Chalkline. We see it as an opportunity to educate, inform and help answer your questions. There's no catch and you are not required to sign up for Nutrition counseling (though I won't lie, most do). We just want to help answer your questions. CLICK HERE to schedule if you want to learn more about how you can balance your nutrition to lose weight, gain muscle or just feel better.

P.S. You don't have to start your weight-loss journey with exercise. It's just more fun and more effective if you do.


Inspiration provided by Coty Bradburn at CrossFit Mountain Island.