There are a lot of different types of diets out there (and no I don’t mean fad diets like shake diets or miracle diets). You have the typical 1-2-3 approach, zig-zag dieting, you have carb-cycling, low-carb/high protein, low carb/high fat (keto), reverse dieting, intermittent fasting… So many different diet approaches. Choosing a diet that is right for you depends on your current diet, your activities, and your goals. Sometimes, you might switch from one approach to another. I personally have done all of these at different stages in my training. Some I failed at, and some worked great for me. Let’s briefly discuss these…
1-2-3 Approach- This is the most common, easy to follow plan. It involves balancing out your meals so they are 1 part fat, 2 parts protein, and 3 parts carbohydrates. While many people believe carbs are the enemy, they truly are not. Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of fuel. They are required for brain function, many metabolic processes in the body, energy, etc. It’s not the carbohydrate that is the problem, but rather the type of carbs we eat and the way we eat them that causes problems. Carbohydrates can vary in complexity based on their molecular structure. If you over consume carbohydrates and your body does not need them, then your body converts these to fat and stores them. Balancing out your meals and portioning them properly, coupled with spacing them out throughout the day – will regulate insulin levels, energy levels, and keep your metabolism in check. This diet is usually easy to follow and involves little you have to “give up” since you still get to enjoy foods like breads, pasta, potatoes, etc.
Zig Zag Dieting involves eating a set, structured weight loss meal plan (balanced out macros) for a period of time (such as 3-5 days), then increasing your overall caloric intake to normal for a short period of time (1-2 days) and returning to the diet plan, then repeating this process. The idea and studies behind this plan show that the participants lost weight on the diet plan, gained a little weight back on the increase, but lost more weight each time they returned to the diet plan – thus overall achieving their goal weight without A- depriving themselves of the foods they love, and B- while training their body to adapt efficiently to the fluctuations. So your BMR is adjusting to the changes, rather that adjusting to just the new lower caloric intake.
Carb-Cycling is not for everyone. But before I even get into this, let me say that there is a difference between carb-cycling and carb-loading and right now we are talking about carb-cycling… So Carb Cycling is great for vigorous training… But I wouldn’t recommend it to someone that leads a more sedentary lifestyle. This diet involves reducing your carbohydrate (and often overall caloric intake) for typically 1-3 days, then increasing your carbohydrate intake for 1 day that follows, then repeat the process, reducing again for 1-3 days, increasing again for one day, etc. Long term this is not really an efficient method of dieting as the former two are. In short it can prevent plateaus in weight loss/progress. When I did carb-cycling, I found the more low-carb days I had, the more effective it was. I did this in two programs- one was 2-3 low carb days followed by a high carb day, and the other was every other day was a high carb day. In the diet where I was every other day high/low carb, I wasn’t burning the carbohydrates fast enough. My low carbohydrate day was still 75g of carbohydrates on a reduced calorie diet (1200 calories) and 187.5 carbohydrates on my high carb days. I found my stomach was crampy and uncomfortable and it was effecting my overall performance in the gym and my energy levels. So again, great technique for athletic conditioning, not recommended for everyday lifestyle, and not recommended long term.
Low Carb/High Protein Diets are very popular. Protein is the building block for muscle and a metabolic staple in the diet world. There are so many different types of protein sources available, so this diet can fit many different dieters (vegetarian, vegan, carnivorous, grain-free, gluten free, etc.) The downside to a low carbohydrate diet however, is protein is not typically used as a fuel source for energy. In the short, this is a great program to burn off some excess body fat. Because the body is deprived of carbohydrates it will tap into fat stores for energy when carb sources are low or depleted. However, long term studies show that it lacks proper nutrition, and people were reported with fatigue, muscle weakness, headaches, cramps, diarrhea. The other downside to long term, is most people can’t stick to it forever! They miss the carbohydrates and want to enjoy them, and there is nothing wrong with that, other than when the carbohydrates are being re-introduced into the diet (often too rapidly) people put the weight right back on. If the rate of carbs are increased too quickly the body doesn’t have a chance to adapt to the change and naturally stores them as fat thinking it is a temporary supply.
Low Carb/High Fat Diets, also known as the Ketogenic Diet are typically high fat, moderate protein and low carbohodrate. This diet is designed to use fat for fuel as opposed to carbohydrates. When the body is low on it’s main fuel source, carbohydrates, it will use fat for fuel (whether provided or stored). Protein is typically a last resort for fuel for the body, as it is required for more important processes in the body – like building muscle, repairing tissue, growth and development, etc. A Ketogenic dieter should use healthy fat sources, and try and choose nutrient dense vegetables with their meals that provide fiber. There are always cons to every diet, and it is important to remember that nutrient deficiencies are common in diets like this. Some side effects could include constipation (because the diet is low in carbohydrates, it may be lower in fiber which is why it is important to pay attention to the nutritional makeup of the foods you choose), nausea, bad breath and hair loss. Women also sometimes struggle with this diet due to hormonal imbalance. Again, every person will have different results and effects with a diet. Risk of side effects can be reduced if the dieter is aware of their nutritional needs and what the diet lacks. Supplementation of vitamins and minerals may be required. Ketogenic diet is not for everyone and can be dangerous for people with type 1 diabetes. It is important to consult with a physician and dietitian if you are unsure if this or any other diet is right for you, and especially if you have any health conditions.
Reverse Dieting can be done on any diet plan. The process involves starting yourself at a set number of calories and slowly increasing your caloric intake over time to adjust your metabolism to be able to burn more calories more efficiently. So for example, if I started my diet at 1600 calories for a week or two, the follow week I may increase it by 100 calories to 1700. If no weight is gained, my body has successfully accepted the change and I can attempt in the following week to add another 50-250 calories (depends on size of person/diet/etc.). If weight is gained, the following week I may reduce it to only 50 calories, so 1650 instead of 1700. Everybody’s bodies react differently to changes in the diet. So the results will vary and it may take one person 5 weeks to go from 1600 calories to 2500 calories, and it may take another 10-12 weeks to get comfortable with that same adjustment to caloric intake.
Intermittent fasting is the last diet I would like to mention on here. This diet has been around for a really long time and can be coupled with other diets/methods. This process involves fasting for an extended period of time, typically in the beginning of your day to allow the body to tap into carb and fat storage for fuel. It is not for everyone. Some people prefer eating every 3-4 hours starting from the time they wake up. People that work rotating shifts may not like this diet. It really just depends on the person. On intermittent fasting you should still consume water during your period of fasting, some people also incorporated BCAA’s or a BCAA /Electrolyte Blend. Staying hydrated will keep your metabolism in check, so you don’t confuse the body into thinking it is starving. When the body feels starved, it slows down your metabolic rate, to preserve energy.
An important outlook on any diet…
It is important to understand not only your body, but the diet you choose. Every person is going to react differently to different diet techniques. What works for some, does not always work for others. There are so many factors that play into the results and success (or failure) of a diet. Things like lifestyle and habits, climate, allergies, body type, digestion, stress, genotype, etc. Just so many things that play into your results. This is especially important to know when you read about research studies that involve dieting. If it works for 75% of a control group, it still might not necessarily work for you, and that is okay! No reason to be discouraged, you will find what diet approach IS best for you! The body doesn’t understand what you’re doing, it’s like a machine or vessel, constantly running all these metabolic processes, chemical reactions and building and breaking down compounds to efficiently run and survive. It’s like when you’re driving your car… If you’re two minutes from a gas station and out of fuel, the car doesn’t know “hey I’m only two minutes away I can make it”…It just knows it’s missing a component of what it needs to run…Fuel. The body is very similar. It doesn’t know what you’re doing, it just knows how to use what you provide it with. So having a nutrient rich, healthy diet is important. If you choose a diet that may have vitamin or mineral deficiencies, consult with a doctor or specialist and find what supplements you will need to nourish your body so it does not feel deprived.
Lastly, the idea of dieting shouldn’t be torture. Find an approach that will help you be successful. Be comfortable with it. Embrace the change and the challenge. Believe in yourself. And love yourself and your body. Fuel it right, no matter what the diet approach.
ISSA Text: Sports Nutrition Fourth Edition – Daniel Gastelu MS, MFS; Frederick C. Hatfield, PhD