Let’s talk about why diets “work”.
Wait…what? If you’ve been around this space for a while, you might be wondering if you stumbled into an alternate universe…but hang with me for a sec while I explain…
We’ve all known people who have had some success on this diet or that diet, at least for a short time. Maybe it’s even us. So for this month’s blog, I wanted to dive into why diets work* and what we CAN learn from them to help us on our nutrition journeys – particularly if part of that journey includes weight loss.
*Keep in mind that I’m using “work” loosely here – I’d argue that if it’s miserable or unsustainable in its implementation or results, it doesn’t reeeeally work.
And now: let’s move on to the good stuff!
How diets work
In the beginning, almost all diets will work.
In the first few weeks of a diet – practically any weight loss-focused diet – most people will lose some weight. We can count and restrict our calories. We can use Intermittent Fasting to fit a full day of eating into a shorter eating window. Keto guidelines can help us limit the number of carbs we’re allowed to have. We can decide what to eat by the number of points assigned to a particular food or meal. Or we can replace a meal or two with green juice or detox tea. In the end, all these methods come down to the same thing:
That’s right – there is no real magic to be found in any one of these strategies. The process to get there is different, but the result is the same. These methods all create a simple calorie deficit.
What is energy balance?
“Energy balance” is the relationship between our “energy in” – the calories taken in through food and drink – and our “energy out” – the calories used for our daily energy requirements.
This, in its most simplistic form, determines whether weight is lost, gained or remains the same. If you eat more than your caloric needs, you’ll be in a positive balance and are likely to gain weight. If you eat less than your caloric needs, you’ll be in a negative balance and are likely to lose weight.
There are a couple of different factors that impact our energy balance. Our Basal Metabolic Rate is our body’s basic energy needs at total rest, the calories we need for brain function, for our hearts to beat and for our lungs to breathe. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT for short, are the calories we need for all of our non-intentional movement, things like walking upstairs to get a book or fidgeting with our hands as we sit in a waiting room.
From there, we add Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, all the intentional exercise we get in the day, like choosing to bike to work instead of driving or the energy we burn at the gym. Finally, we consider the Thermic Effect of food, the calories we burn through digesting food and absorbing the nutrients from that food.
Together, these add up to our Total Daily Energy Expenditure. And once we know what that is, we can determine how our current intake aligns with our goals. Are we in a calorie surplus if we want to be putting on muscle? Are we in a calorie deficit if we want to lose some weight? And most importantly, are the intake and the strategies we use to get there ALSO aligned with our body and lifestyle so that it gets us to our goal in a way that is sustainable over the long term?
What we can learn from diets
And now here’s the Rebel kicker you’ve come to expect: research tells us that most intentional weight loss doesn’t last in the long run. And that’s because the methods to get there are usually based on high levels of restriction and our physiological ability to keep that us is ALWAYS time limited.
But when we can identify that common thread, we know about energy balance to filter out the too-inflexible aspects of pre-fab diets. By building our own set of nutrition guidelines that better fit our unique body, lifestyle and goals, we can hack the diet game. And in choosing a strategy to get there that really *fits* our everyday lives, we can keep it up without sucking the joy out of everything. (ps: we’re really good at that around here!)
It doesn’t so much matter if that means you choose to emphasise extra exercise, follow a lower carb diet or only eat between 12:00 and 18:00 so long as it is something you work into your everyday behaviours without feeling a ton of deprivation or restriction.
In the end, it all comes down to energy balance.