7 keys to a successful diet
This is the second part of our two-part series about how to create a custom diet plan that you can live with long term. Last week we went over some common problems that sabotage people and cause them to give up on their healthy eating plans early. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you give it a look since understanding possible obstacles will help you avoid them before they can trip you up.
I tried not to recommend specific foods in this article because I don’t know what you like to eat, so how can I possibly know what foods you should pick for yourself? I’ll show you some general concepts that will help you succeed, but you need to find the foods you enjoy if you hope to stick to your plan for more than a few days.
1. Start with vegetables.
How many calories are there in one cup of spinach, one cup of broccoli, or one cup of kale? Wrong, the correct answers are “I don’t know,” “It doesn’t matter,” and “Who cares?” The thing that drives me the craziest about calorie-counting is that it gets people carefully measuring, and limiting, the amount of vegetables that they eat. A cow can get fat eating plants all day, but we can’t because we’re not herbivores.
Remember, that calorie value for broccoli was determined by setting it on fire and measuring the heat released. With that logic, wood is pretty high in calories too (except for the minor detail that we’re totally incapable of digesting it). Ignoring all the other vitamins and nutrients that will independently improve your health, metabolism, and longevity, the fiber in vegetables alone is a vital component of a successful weight loss plan. As I mentioned last week, slowing the release of sugar into the bloodstream is an important part of appetite control. It’s also important for storing or releasing fat from fat cells. When sugar (specifically glucose) enters the bloodstream, your body releases insulin to shuttle it into your cells to be burned as fuel. Insulin also tells your body to store any fat consumed in your fat cells and to not release any fat that is already stored. The more insulin in your system, the more you’ll store.
There is a bit of sugar in vegetables, but it is minuscule compared to what’s found in processed foods. Not only that, but it’s locked away behind difficult-to-digest walls of cellulose (fiber). This means that a lot of that sugar will actually go all the way through your system without being processed at all. Fiber also helps slow the flow of blood sugar by delaying gastric emptying, which is the speed at which food leaves your stomach and dumps into your small intestines. The physical stretching of your stomach is one of the components of your appetite-feedback mechanism, so slowing this down leaves you feeling satisfied longer. This slowed-down process also delays the speed that other sugars you’ve eaten with your vegetables can move on to the next step of digestion and enter your bloodstream. It’s a one-two-punch of appetite control that also limits the amount of insulin (and fat storing) that your body will be forced to do.
Finally, fiber feeds your microbiomes and helps your in ways that we’re now just beginning to understand. We may not be herbivores, but the trillions of bacteria that act as an additional digestive organ in your body can feed off of it to help themselves and you flourish. The Weizmann Institute of Science study, mentioned last week, found that just one week of healthier eating lowered the percentage of bacteria associated with obesity, glucose intolerance, and high plasma triglyceride levels, and it raised the amount of bacteria that were found to protect against type 2 diabetes, obesity, and prevented high resting glucose levels. Your microbiome can adapt to your meal choices within a week. Feed it healthy choices and it will help improve your weight and general health, feed it garbage and things quickly go downhill.
The big takeaway from all that should be don’t limit the amount of vegetables you eat. It doesn’t matter if they’re fresh or frozen, just make them the largest portion of each meal and you’ll start shedding weight and feeling better. It’s impossible to eat too many vegetables. I promise you will grow sick of them long before they could negatively impact your diet. Consider them free food and your go-to source to fill up on if you find yourself constantly hungry. If you don’t believe me, just look at Weight Watchers. Instead of counting calories, Weight Watchers uses a point system. The higher the points, the more the food impacts your weight and the worse it is at satisfying your appetite. Fruits and vegetables count as ZERO points as far as Weight Watchers is concerned. Fruit is a little higher in sugar than vegetables, and as the Weizmann Institute of Science study points out, some people may respond more to certain fruit than others, but I’ll get into how to deal with that in tip 4.
2. Add “some” protein.
Protein has many benefits beyond appetite and weight control, but the thermogenic effects of protein is one of the reasons why the food industry seems to be promoting added protein as the latest fad. A calorie is not a calorie, and a calorie of protein requires more effort to digest than a calorie of fat or carbohydrates. The effort required to break down protein into usable amino acids means it will not only fill you up longer (due to slow digestion), but some of the energy will be lost during digestion. Protein has also been shown to suppress the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and is another nutrient that slows gastric emptying..
The reason I say eat “some” protein is because I’ve noticed a lot of people try to do a low-carb diet by cutting out all the carbs and fat and basically trying to do an all-protein diet. The largest portion on your plate should come from vegetables (see above), about 20 to 30 percent should come from protein, and then depending on your diet, a good percentage should come from fat. I’ll get into the benefits of fat below, but people mistakenly think that if they restrict the two sources of fuel: fat and carbohydrates, then their bodies will have no choice but to tap stored body fat for fuel. That would be nice but unfortunately, the body has another trick up its sleeve, gluconeogenesis.
Your brain needs glucose for fuel or ketone bodies, which are derived from fat. When your body is low on glucose and the stored sugar called glycogen, it goes into ketosis and starts turning fatty acids into ketone bodies so that your brain has a ready source of fuel. It tends to take a few days to switch from glucose to ketones, and during that time you can feel pretty lousy. If your body gets too much dietary protein and not enough dietary fat after making the switch, instead of tapping body fat stores for fuel, your body takes a short cut and converts the excess protein into glucose. Unfortunately, it’s not very efficient at turning protein into glucose so the end result is you once again feel lousy because you’re not making ketones anymore, but you’re not making quite enough glucose either. Plus, creating an enzyme-environment skilled at digesting protein for fuel will also train your body to digest your muscles during your diet. Maintaining muscle mass while trying to shed body fat is always a problem. Eating enough protein actually prevents muscle loss while dieting, but eating too much can actually contribute to it.
3. Eat the right fats.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but you need to eat fat in order to get thin. We were all raised with the opposite logic that “eating fat will make us fat.” It turned out that this simplistic (and uninformed) concept led to rampant obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and a host of other health problems. Why? Because fat is satisfying and removing it from our foods left them tasting horrible. To fix this little problem, we poured a ton of sugar into everything we ate. Not only that, but we replaced those “unhealthy” animal fats with our “healthy” man-made soybean oils (which we had to fill with trans fats to help improve their shelf-life).
It took a few decades to understand the damage we inflicted upon ourselves, but we are finally starting to understand the difference between a good fat and a bad fat. Some fats interfere with your metabolic processes and lead to easy storage and damaging inflammation throughout your body, while other fats actually increase your metabolism, decrease your body’s ability to store fat, and improve your health. You need fats to maintain your cell membranes, manufacture hormones, transport fat-soluble vitamins into your body, and keep your nervous system running smoothly. Unlike carbohydrates, fats are essential and you need to eat them or your body (and brain) won’t function properly, so the idea of giving them up entirely just isn’t going to work.
When it comes to weight loss, plant-based unsaturated fats tend to be a better choice than animal-based saturated fats because studies have found that your body can mobilize 50 percent more stored fat during exercise when your diet is composed primarily of unsaturated fats, but there are some animal fats that I suggest everyone add to their diets.
I’ve already written a few articles on the benefits of CLA from grass-fed beef and omega-3 fatty acids from fish, nuts, and eggs, so I’m going to just quickly summarize their benefits here. CLA is an essential fatty acid that has not only been shown to help reduce body fat while maintaining muscle, but it also offers a ton of additional health benefits such as protecting against cardiovascular disease and cancer, improving bone mass, and reducing inflammation. It once was found in beef and dairy that came from grass-fed cows, but once farmers started feeding them corn as a cheap feed source, they stopped naturally producing CLA. If you’re a fan of beef, switching to the grass-fed kind will significantly improve your health and help slim down your waistline.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another type of essential fat found in some types of fatty fish, grass-fed beef, and eggs from flaxseed-fed chickens. It has been shown to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and decrease inflammation throughout the body. A recent study has shown how it helps protect against weight gain by increasing the amount of fat you burn through thermogenesis (even while resting). Omega-3 has also been shown to benefit the brain and nervous system for both the young and old and reduce the symptoms of depression, ADHD, and can protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia. There are plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids like flax seed, but the body doesn’t convert it and use it as well as omega-3 from animal sources. Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, I highly recommend that everyone add sources of both CLA and omega-3 to their diets to improve their health and longevity.
Even if you’re not going grass-fed, it’s OK to mix those vegetables with butter so that you enjoy your healthy meals a little more. It not only satisfies your physical appetite, but the emotional pleasure of the foods you eat. Fat is also another nutrient that delays gastric emptying (I hope you’re seeing a theme here) and reduces the speed that sugar consumed with your meal enters your bloodstream. It’s why full-fat premium ice cream is actually lower on the glycemic index than that supposedly healthy low-fat frozen yogurt.
While I do recommend cooking with butter or coconut oil (even though they’re saturated fats), I still suggest trimming the fat from the meat you eat and focusing on unsaturated fats from plants to make up the bulk of your fat content. Dairy contains other vitamins and nutrients (like calcium) that limit your body’s ability to store fat, and coconut oil contains MCT oil which is a type of fat that your body preferentially turns into energy-providing ketones rather than storing as body fat. Fat is still calorically-dense and eating big chunks of it along with the butter or oils you added for flavor will drive your calorie totals higher than necessary. Fat is filling, you just need to trust it to do it’s job. People are so afraid that they aren’t going to be satisfied after a meal and fill their plates with unnecessarily large portions to make sure they won’t be hungry later.
Bottom line: Keep your meats lean and increase the amount of plant fats you eat. Butter and full-fat dairy are also fine because of the fat-clearing nutrients that they also contain. I didn’t want to make specific food recommendations, but when it comes to fats and oils for cooking, your best bets are olive oil, coconut oil, and grass-fed (or regular) butter. For salad dressings, extra virgin olive oil should be your first choice.
4. Experiment with your sugars.
I’ve focused so much on the negative aspects of sugar (and rightly so) that you’re probably assuming I’m going to say no sugar is allowed at all. I’m a big fan of low-carb diets, but they aren’t the only way to succeed. Plus low-carb doesn’t mean no-carb. Sugar isn’t going away any time soon, so thinking that you can avoid all sugar, all the time is not only unrealistic but it’s also unnecessary. You need to learn to live with sugar in your life. Like I mentioned above, fiber, protein, and fat will lesson the impact that consumed sugar has on your body and your weight, but you’re still going to need to eat less sugar if you hope to have long-term success.
The two things that make sugar so problematic is that it tells your body to store any fat you eat and not release any body fat until all the sugar in your system is dealt with, and high blood sugar spikes fires your appetite back up soon after causing you to overeat. It’s why we joke that you’re hungry again an hour after Chinese food. It’s loaded with simple carbs from the rice and sweet sauces which spikes your blood sugar and your body’s insulin response. High levels of insulin then do too good a job at removing blood sugar which causes your glucose levels to fall too low. The easiest solution to get your levels back up is to eat more sugar, so your body fires your appetite back up and the whole vicious cycle repeats.
The key to living with sugar is picking foods that slow the speed that sugar enters your system. This lowers your insulin response and starts a new cycle, one where your body becomes more sensitive to insulin. This is a good thing. As your body needs less and less insulin to remove blood sugar, you will find it easier to control your appetite, and you will go into storage mode less often (and for shorter periods of time).
Even the order that you eat your carbohydrates can affect your blood glucose and insulin levels. One study looked at a group of type 2 diabetics and fed them the same meals in a different order to see if the simple act of changing the order that carbs are eaten could slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. They found that blood sugar levels were as much as 37 percent lower when the carbs were eaten 15 minutes after the protein and vegetables as compared to beforehand. That’s actually as big an improvement as you’ll find from many diabetes medications. It may seem bizarrely easy (and it is), but if you consume your carbs last, you’ll improve your appetite control and reduce your body’s ability to store fat.
For those that don’t understand which foods cause higher blood sugar spikes, their glycemic index value and glycemic load is a good place to start. If you don’t have that chart handy at the time, a way you can make an educated guess is by thinking about how “locked away” the sugar is. Foods rich in fiber like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains trap the sugar behind difficult to digest walls. Plus they improve the health of your gut microbiome and improve your blood sugar control the next day.
The sugar in a glass of soda or orange juice isn’t locked away at all and it will quickly flood your system. When you’re looking at different kinds of whole fruit, the juicier it is, the less locked away that sugar is. The sugar in an apple is more locked away than that of an orange, and berries are even lower on the chart than both of them. It’s not always the case, but it’s a good starting point until you learn more.
Fruit also contains a lot more fructose, which does not raise insulin. It has other types of sugar in it as well which is why it has some effect, but in general, if you’re looking for something sweet, whole fruit is a much safer bet than anything else.
If it comes in a box or bag and can sit on a shelf without requiring refrigeration, assume that it’s loaded with simple sugars and ranks pretty high up on the glycemic index. Have you ever noticed that you can leave table sugar sitting out indefinitely without it ever spoiling? It’s because sugar naturally absorbs water, so when bacteria contact it, it sucks the water right out of them and kills them. Most foods sitting on those unrefrigerated shelves in the center of the grocery store have been loaded up with sugar (even if they don’t taste sweet) to act as a natural preservative.
The Weizmann Institute of Science study did show that not everyone’s blood sugar reacts the same to healthy foods like fruit, but their unusual reactions did become more normalized after a week of consistent healthy eating. That’s why you need to experiment with different fruits and different high-fiber carbs like brown rice, whole grain bread, quinoa, etc. to see how it effects you personally.
Like with any experiment, you’ll be able to figure out your own sensitivity to foods by writing down the results. In this case, the easiest way to figure out what foods cause you problems is by tracking how soon they cause you to eat again. If you’re hungry 30 minutes after a banana, then maybe it’s one of your trigger foods. Another important piece of advice we will get into in tip 6 is how to document not just what you ate, but your motivations and feelings so you can determine if the food is triggering physical hunger or if you’re reaching for foods to satisfy emotional needs.
5. Always have a plan (and start with a boring one).
Last week, I wrote about how decision fatigue exhausts your willpower and that meal variety increases your overall consumption. For the first few weeks of your new diet, there should never be a point when you’re asking yourself, “What am I going to eat?” Every time you ask yourself this question, you not only introduce the possibility of giving into temptation and reverting back to your old habits, but you increase the likelihood of your willpower slipping later in the day.
I suggest having the same meal every day for breakfast and/or lunch for at least one week. This may sound boring, but we’re already creatures of habit and we tend to eat the same things routinely anyway. If you want a little variety, have it at dinner when you’re more likely to be eating with family or friends.
Eating the same meal (or meals) each day minimizes the decision fatigue, limits the variety that increases your total calories, and it allows you to really monitor your diet. Is the overall plan working? Am I seeing any obvious trigger foods? Am I doing well during the day and then binging at night? This is a common problem that plagues a lot of new dieters. Decision fatigue is one of the causes, but if you’re already controlling for that, then you can look at other possible problems. Maybe you’re not eating enough during the day. Maybe you’re more stressed out than you realized. Maybe you’re not getting enough sleep (which has been shown to cause more late-night eating the next day). Controlling the variables with a consistent diet gives you better insight into your conscious and subconscious motivations.
You don’t need to eat the same breakfast or lunch for the rest of your life, but it really does help jumpstart a successful plan. Try it for a week and realize that boring isn’t always bad.
6. Track what you ate and why.
Pretty much every trainer, website, diet book, and anyone with the slightest idea of how to succeed at weight loss suggests starting a food journal. The basic idea is that a little bit of self-reflection will make you more mindful about what you ate and hopefully get you thinking about what you should eat instead. The problem is that most people suggest that you just focus on what you ate as opposed to also noting why you ate it.
Tracking what you ate has its merits as well. Like I mentioned above, tracking your snacks and meals will help you see if certain foods trigger your insulin response more than others, causing you to eat more. It also lets you see your habits and eating patterns. Maybe you eat more on days that you workout (which is a sign that you may be working out too much actually). Perhaps you snack a lot more throughout the day than you realized. A food journal gives you a great deal of insight into things that you likely never bothered thinking about before. Like I said, we’re creatures of habit and that includes bad habits.
To really get to the bottom of your habits (and to help you change them), you also need to look at what motivated them in the first place. As I mentioned last week, many people ignore the emotional side of eating. Sugar and salt (two plentiful ingredients in a lot of junk food) has been shown to suppress the stress hormone cortisol, which is one reason why comfort eating works. We also have many positive associations with food (birthdays, parties, etc.), and reaching for rich food is often a subconscious way to try and reach for those same good feelings. Not to mention the fact that good tasting food is a joy in itself.
A simple yet powerful way to bring your subconscious motivations to the front is to add a space in your food journal describing why you ate your meal in the first place. If everything is on track, the answer should always be “I was hungry” or “It was time to eat” (it’s perfectly all right to eat scheduled meals before you’re starving), but you’ll be surprised by the variety of responses you’ll get in the beginning. “I was bored” and “I don’t know” are two answers that you’ll really need to think about when you see them. Seeking food for comfort and eating to avoid unpleasant feelings can often be the same thing, and is frequently the subconscious answer to these two questions. If you really want to shut down that habit, write down your motivations before you eat it.
Our modern world is a stressful one and the abundant junk food around us at all times is an easy way to respond to stress, but there is another proven stress reducer in tip 7 that could help some of those “I don’t knows” appear less frequently in your food journal.
7. Exercise your stress away.
We’re meant to move and quite frankly, our bodies fall apart if we sit still for too long. Since our minds are part of our bodies, inactivity not only contributes to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, but it also worsens mental conditions like depression and anxiety. When it comes to weight loss, I do recommend exercise, but not for the reasons people expect. Part of the calorie-counting mindset believes that all you need to do to lose weight is reduce your calorie totals each day by around 500 calories (through diet, exercise. or both) and you’ll lose about a pound a week. It’s simple math and simple logic, but for some reason exercise alone never seems to be as effective for weight loss as diet (or both). It’s because burning 500 calories is hard, and eating 500 calories (and more) to compensate for everything you burned off is easy. Like I mentioned last week, people are impatient when it comes to weight loss and tend to push too hard in the beginning in order to speed up the process. Unfortunately, your body thinks weight loss is a sign of disaster and pulls out all kinds of tricks to prevent it. When you burn a ton of calories, you’ll not only be subconsciously driven to eat more, but your body will also compensate for that new exercise routine by subconsciously making you move less throughout the rest of the day.
So why am I still recommending exercise? I never said exercise doesn’t help, I just said that starting off your new plan by going overboard causes compensatory behaviors most people don’t even realize are happening. If you already exercise routinely, then you’ll probably be better served adjusting your diet anyway (as opposed to trying to double or triple the amount of exercise you do). If you don’t exercise, then adding reasonable amounts of movement to the mix will cause your diet to not only be much easier to stick to, but far more effective as well. Among the other physical benefits of exercise, it has been shown to be a great stress reducer. Exercise itself actually is a stressor, but it’s a short acting one. Frequent exercise teaches your body to more efficiently deal with stress. In the same way that exercise improves your insulin sensitivity so that you use less insulin to deal with sugar in your bloodstream, it also teaches your body to release less cortisol in response to stress. This will reduce overall feelings of anxiety and depression, improve your mood, and even boost your immune system.
It’s one of the big reasons why high intensity interval training (HIIT) works so well for weight loss. Cranking up the intensity really teaches your body to endure stressors with ease, even with a short workout. Calorie-counters look at the low total calories from an HIIT workout and assume it couldn’t possibly help with weight loss, yet studies show it is often more effective at reducing body fat and improving fitness than a longer yet lower-intensity workout like jogging. You don’t need to run marathons to lose weight, but you do need to move. If time is short, we have plenty of apps that will show you effective workouts that only take minutes a day. If exercise in general sounds like a bridge too far, just start walking. When people ask me how to sum up how to lose weight in just one sentence, I tell them stop drinking soda and walk every day. Start with something and make sure you pay attention to how it effects your appetite later. Starting too hard can cause a lot of compensation, so don’t just focus on the numbers, pay attention to the behaviors.
We’re here for you
I hope this gives you a decent starting point to craft your own diet plan, but we’re here to help if you ever have any questions or difficulties with your new plan. Just post your questions in the comment section or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d rather ask in private.
For the past few years, we’ve kicked off the New Year with our annual 10 Pound Challenge Event throughout the month of January. It was something we previously did locally, but we’re going to expand it this year to the entire lolo community. It’s another great way help motivate your new habits, and we’ll have more details in the coming weeks.