Low carb. Keto. Paleo. IIFYM. Flexible dieting. Intermittent fasting. Calories in-calories out. *insert branded diet name here*
OF COURSE you can eat donuts. OF COURSE avocados have magical fat burning qualities. OF COURSE grains will murder your pets in their sleep. OF COURSE you need to buy this disgusting shake.
Dietary approaches are incredibly varied, and many have a dogmatic following, but with so much conflicting information available, what’s the RIGHT one?
This topic has been floating around in my mind for a few months as I’ve gone through my contest prep diet this season. I’ve always been a proponent of flexible dieting- I spent my entire first show prep fitting Oreos into my daily macros as sort of a “fuck you” to the clean eating bodybuilders surrounding me- but as I’ve gone through this season, I’ve found myself employing tactics I never had before. I found myself planning out meals days in advance, eating the same salad for lunch each day, and prepping a few days worth of baked eggs at a time. I realized I was nearly on a meal plan for a while, just for the simplicity of it, repeating up to 3 meals each day just to not have to think about them. Of course this was all within the confines of flexible dieting- all planned my specific macros- but it changed my perspective on dietary approaches just a bit.
Then, in perfect timing, as I’m pondering this subject to myself, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) released their position stand on diets and body composition, by some of the biggest names in sports nutrition research today, including Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld as the lead authors. The ISSN is a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to promote the science and application of evidence-based sports nutrition and supplementation. They are regarded as the world leader in providing information in this field- so you could say they’re a pretty big deal. A position stand is a comprehensive look at a subject that detail the official stand of the organization on a topic. They are thoroughly researched and take many years to write, as they approach a topic from as many viewpoints as possible in order to come to specific conclusions and recommendations. And THIS position stand is a really, really big deal. This answers the question that millions of people have been searching for for years, decades, maybe centuries: What is the best dietary approach for optimal body composition?
Before we get into the science of it and look at the paper, I want to show you what’s actually happening, nutritionally speaking, through the experiences of a group of self-reportedly fitness-minded people. I recently took a poll, collecting data from over 400 people in an online fitness group, to see what their experiences in dietary approaches were. Because let’s face it, evidence based practice is more than just what the research says- it’s also about experience and application. I knew I wasn’t the only person trying approaches on for fit, and I wanted to see what other people were up to.
I asked only 5 questions, and provided a several response options for each, as well as leaving an “other” option to fill in. Once my data was collected, I sifted through all of these “other” responses and found that many of them fit tidily into other categories. Lesson learned- if you want easy data, don’t leave an “other,” because everyone will take that option so they can fully explain the nuances of their own approach to the other options which you have provided. Those responses I placed BACK into the category to which they belonged. I want to be honest about that, so that when people don’t see their specific responses reflected, they know I didn’t just ignore them. It’s just that “16/8 time restricted eating” fits precisely into the category of “periodic fasting,” and “strict paleo” goes right into “eating only specific foods,” and having those singular data points outlying only served to make the information less usable, so it made sense to put it BACK where it belonged.
First, I wanted to know what the most successful nutritional approaches had been. Responses were limited to one on this question.
Given the nature of the group that I had polled, I was not particularly surprised to see that flexible approaches had dominated, comprising over half of the responses. I was heartened to see that 18% were using intuitive eating- a practice that I believe to be the most realistic for… being human… in the long run.
Next, I wanted to know what other approaches had been used successfully. Just because one approach had been found to work best, doesn’t mean that other approaches didn’t also work to varying degrees. Respondents were able to select multiple options on this question.
Once again, flexible approaches were found to be overwhelmingly successful, but with meal plans or partial meal plans coming quite close in terms of numbers.
This was precisely what I had suspected, based on my own experience. I found success by planning out a few meals and repeating them, removing the work of having to plan each meal’s macros into a day. I already knew these things worked, so why reinvent the wheel? It seems that approximately 270 people agreed with me- sometimes, simplicity is key.
I then wanted to know the opposite side of the story- what nutritional strategies had been employed without success? Not every story has a happy ending, after all, and diet is one of those things where the first attempt is rarely the most successful. I mean…I can’t be the only one who has tried something and failed… right? Respondents were able to choose as many approaches as were applicable.
Annnnnnd I was right. Nearly HALF of the respondents had attempted to use intuitive eating unsuccessfully. This, to me, was mind blowing. I was less surprised to see that 31% had unsuccessfully used meal plans, given that many meal plans found on the internet or in books are “cookie cutter” plans, and not tailored to the individual, which is a recipe for failure. I was also not surprised that, even though they had been shown favoritism previously, almost a quarter of respondents had NOT found success using flexible approaches. Some people require a bit more structure than others- and that’s totally ok.
My next question was slightly smaller in scale. Rather than discussing dietary approaches, I asked about behavioral practices that respondents had found to be beneficial in sticking to their chosen approach. In terms of overall success, it is these daily habits and practices that indicate the largest outcomes. Respondents were able to choose as many responses as applicable.
Overwhelmingly, the number one practice employed for successful dieting was using some method of tracking food intake. This does not mean, necessarily, using a macro counting app, which I know can become overwhelming or cause fixation for some. It could be as simple as writing down your meals in a journal (I know several people who utilize bullet journals and include this information), or taking a photo of your meals (hello, food porn!), but simply having that medium of reflection seems to be a pretty strong indicator of success. Combining those who said they use a tracking app with those who reported using a food journal, nearly 100% of respondents found this to be a useful practice.
Close behind, we see practicing food avoidance- with nearly 78% reporting this practice. This one surprised me a bit, seeing as the questions above had indicated a small minority of respondents were restricting food options. On the other end of this, 45% reported that not avoiding foods, and allowing themselves bites, tastes, and small portions to satiate cravings helped them to stay on track. I’m curious about the specifics between these two responses- whether many people simply avoid “trigger foods,” or only allow small indulgences outside of the house (going out for ice cream as a special treat as opposed to having ice cream in the house), and I may explore this more closely in the future.
Nearly three quarters of respondents said they found prepping meals in advance to be a useful tool- and anyone who has seen tidy rows of portioned boxes filling their social media feeds on Sunday would know this to be a likely accurate statistic. Meal prepping is a new practice to me, and I definitely don’t do it like some people (holy cats have you SEEN people prep an entire week of eating in advance?! That’s batch cooking skills like a caterer!), but having a frittata to split up throughout the week and eat as my first meal was both a sanity and a time saver this season.
The last question ended up being a bit heartbreaking, as the responses poured in. I asked about negative experiences that people had had with dieting- experiences that were common enough occurrence in a person’s life that they felt like a regular struggle.
I strongly suspect that the number of people reporting habitual undereating is severely underreported, perhaps in many cases because respondents are unaware of having been doing so for lengths of time. Membership in The Sisterhood of Perpetual Deficit Eating is common among those surveyed, and it is often not considered to be a concern. In our society, it is somehow acceptable for a woman to always be on a diet, always trying to lose weight, so this problem often goes unnoticed.
My heart breaks over the number of respondents who reported feeling guilty about food choices- I’m absolutely wrecked over this, though I find myself among these people. How awful is it to feel guilt over such a fundamental act as eating? Nearly 2/3 of respondents admit to feeling preoccupied by food regularly enough to feel it is a disruption for them, 52% bravely take ownership of binge eating, and just over half of all 427 survey takers feel frustrated by their nutritional approaches.
So let’s talk about this position paper.
It focused on studies that examined several dietary approaches in combination with body composition data. Studies included both trained and untrained individuals, as well as those looking at people in caloric deficits, caloric surpluses, and those eating at caloric maintenance levels. Dietary approaches included are low-energy diets (that is, severe calorie restriction), low fat diets, low carb diets, ketogenic diets, high protein diets (defined as having protein reach or exceed 25% of energy intake or 1.2-1.6 g/kg for the purposes of this study), and intermittent fasting.
I won’t go into the details of each type of diet, and what the paper says about each specifically for the sake of pointedness and brevity, but I encourage you to do so. It does present (and neatly compile in a handy table!) the strengths and limitations of each approach, and provides a phenomenally cohesive discussion of calories in-calories out (CICO) that I would recommend to every person, simply because we both consume and burn food, and calories in their simplest terms are not the entire story when it comes to body composition changes. Later sections of the paper also address physical adaptations to both overfeeding and underfeeding (remember when I wrote about the extreme end of contest prep and how my body adapted to such low body fat?)
But you’re here for the answer. You’ve read all the way to this point and looked at all of my beautiful graphs and charts just waiting for this moment.
Here we go.
“The various diet archetypes are wide-ranging in total energy and macronutrient distribution. Each type carries varying degrees of supporting data, and varying degrees of un- founded claims. Common threads run through the diets in terms of mechanism of action for weight loss and weight gain (i.e., sustained hypocaloric versus hypercaloric conditions), but there are also potentially unique means by which certain diets achieve their intended objectives (e.g., factors that facilitate greater satiety, ease of compliance, support of training demands, etc.).”
There is no right answer.
There is no “right” approach.
For every person, something different will work best. As long as the basic idea of caloric surplus and caloric deficit exist, the specific macronutrient breakdown of your food, the hours in which you consume food, the foods that you choose to eat or not to eat… they don’t actually matter when it comes to body composition.
It all comes down to adherence: right now, what helps you to stick to your goals? If it’s prepping meals a week at a time, do that. If it’s keeping the Oreos at the store and out of your cupboard, don’t buy them. If it’s going loosey-goosey and playing macro Tetris every meal, by all means, do that. If you want to cut out all of the carbs in your life, go right ahead send them my way.
Where some may have found the conclusions of this paper to be disheartening- they just wanted a goddamn answer- I find it freeing. If one approach isn’t working for you, this is great news. That approach is NOT the “right” one, or the “only” one, despite what someone may have told you. There are countless others you can try that just might be the right one for you. This is scientific license to experiment with any approach that follows basic nutritional principles (that is, no magic foods, calories DO matter, diet “gurus” are bullshit, etc.) until you find what works best for you. Right now. At this point in your life, at this point in your journey.
The paper goes on to make application recommendations, which I strongly advise you to take a look at, regardless of the approach you decide to take, or have decided on, or may decide to test out in the future. The ISSN has made it available for free download, and it’s only about 20 pages long, but it’s packed with insight. If you don’t want to do that, the two lead authors went on one of my favorite podcasts to discuss the paper just after it came out as well, and it’s a great listen. Even if you’re not a scientific journal reader or a scientific podcast listener, even if you skim past a lot of the numbers, there are some really important takeaways for us as humans who consume food… and as humans who sometimes struggle with our relationship with food.