Recently I’ve been approached by a lot of people that want to get in shape for summer. Oftentimes questions revolve around dieting and weight loss.
There’s one question that really gets me off-guard, namely “what’s the best diet for weight loss”.
Is it low-carb? High-protein, high-fat? Ketogenic? Atkins? 90-day diet, paleo, fruitarian diet, vegan… the list goes on and on. The truth is that every diet can be effective in the short-term.
If you can establish and sustain a caloric deficit for long enough, you’ll see your weight dropping. The problem is when you cannot sustain this lifestyle after the diet and you regain back everything.
In my opinion, the best diet is the one you can sustain long-term and hence maintain the results that you have achieved!
This diet is not one and the same for everyone. There are many factors that may affect what diet you can and want to adhere to.
With this article, my goal is not to find the one-size-fits-all diet, but to list all the characteristics of a balanced and sustainable diet. That is by default THE BEST diet for weight-loss.
Before I move on, it is important to note that dieting with the goal of fat-loss can be desired for a few reasons. Most often people do it for health-related reasons. But yet many are looking for the best diet to get them to their desired body composition.
In this article I will consider the latter, namely, how can we diet down to a low body-fat percentage, while maintaining or increasing muscle mass.
Let’s dig in – shall we?
1. It’s muscle sparing
The goal of every diet is to improve our outer appearance.
Let me explain why the most important success factor of a weight-loss diet is to preserve muscle mass!
First of all, I would like to clarify that people oftentimes get stuck into a semantic trap when they state that they only want to burn excess body fat.
The reason is that we get too hung up on scale weight. We trust that every pound we lose consists of fat tissue.
Of course, that's not always the case. Usually, it's a mixture of muscle mass, fat mass, water and etc.
Much to my surprise I’ve heard the following sentence quite a few times:
“Oh, but I’m not interested in preserving muscle, I just want to get rid of the fat”.
Actually, there are two significant reasons to focus more on preserving your muscle mass on a diet!
Muscles are essential for “shape”
Contrary to what you may have heard, our bodies don’t get their shape from fat mass. Unless you consider the muffin-top to be an acceptable or aesthetic form for a human being.
No matter how much fat you will burn. If you don’t have muscle mass, you won’t have an amazing set of abs, nor an admirable physique.
In fact, even with normal levels of body fat, you can end up being skinny-fat. Especially, if you're lacking enough muscle mass.
Men are more aware of this phenomenon and usually our fitness goals are to get friggin jacked.
This is more problematic with women, who are scared they will become too muscular.
Ladies, it will take a long time of sustained muscle-building before you end up looking like a she-hulk.
If building this much muscle was that easy, all it would take for males would be a slight pump up 2-3 times a week and all of us would look like fitness models.
Muscle is your friend and without it, you won't look “toned” and “slim” like those cover models.
Muscle mass is active tissue
The caloric cost of sustaining muscle mass is larger than that of fat mass. In contrast to fat, muscle is active tissue that burns more calories.
In essence, each movement we perform is impossible without activating a certain muscle. And that is regardless of whether it was conscious or unconscious.
That’s partly why the amount of muscle mass a person carries has a large effect on energy expenditure.
If you have more muscle mass, you will burn more fat at any given moment. Sitting in front of the computer, at work, when you exercise and even when you sleep.
This also means, ceteris paribus, that if you can burn more fat while eating more food!
That also happens to be the most effective way to battle hunger and sustain the diet for a longer period. Long-term this will lead to better results in the end.
Muscle mass has a dual role in the context of a weight-loss diet.
It's what defines our shape. Without it would be impossible to reach that aesthetic body stereotype.
Also, having more of it will increase resting energy expenditure. This will allow us to diet on a higher caloric intake.
Hence, the best diet is the one that is optimized to preserve muscle mass.
2. It contains sufficient protein
If the goal of a diet is to preserve muscle mass, having enough protein is essential.
This is a mandatory condition for every diet, regardless if the goal is to build muscle or burn fat.
There’s quite a lot of research showing that high-protein is beneficial of weight-loss diets. In fact, the evidence is so overwhelming that I can’t even fit it in one article!
For that reason, I’ll just cover all the positives associated with a high-protein intake:
- Protein has the highest Thermic Effect out of all the macronutrients. The TEF of protein usually amounts to 20-30% of its caloric value.
- All else equal, people that follow a high-protein diet will lose the same amount of weight. But yet, a higher proportion of it will come from fat and less of it from muscle mass! In case this isn’t an obvious advantage, go ahead and refresh point 1 of this article.
- Last but not least, protein is the most satiating macronutrient. This is important, especially for people who follow an ad libitum diet. (Ad libitum means “eating at will” without calculating macronutrients)
But yet, the question remains – how much protein do we actually need?
A short detour for those of you who aim at photoshoot level leanness. We still lack evidence about the optimal, protein intake for serious athletes in sustained caloric deficit.
The academic world is still divided on this matter. It appears that 1.8gr/kg is enough for the average joe and jane. Potentially more genetically gifted individuals can benefit from a larger protein intake.
Bearing this in mind, another characteristic of the best diet would be to not have excessive protein.
High-protein diets have been established in the literature as being safe for most everyone. Of course, that excludes those with pre-existing kidney impairments. But yet, this does not justify the maxima of “more is better”!
When we are in a large caloric deficit, consuming excessive protein has little to no benefit. But so, the extra calories from protein have to be compensated by a lower intake of carbs and fat.
The end-result is an imbalanced distribution of macronutrients. This is restrictive to food choice and composing nice, balanced meals become a challenge. In my experience, this leads to a poor diet adherence.
3. The best diet has the best adherence rate
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times. There’s one thing everyone in this industry can agree on.
It is that long-term adherence to a diet is the most important success factor.
Let me use the low-carb diet as an example. In practice, the excellent reputation of this diet is well deserved in my opinion. There are many success stories of people that have achieved great results with it.
The reason is that low-carb diets usually prohibit processed foods. Instead, they rely more on protein sources, veggies and fruit. These are also the most satiating foods.
Most people won’t even need to count calories, while on a low-carb diet. That’s only natural since the increased feeling of satiation will lead to a lower caloric intake.
But yet, there are still those that regain all the fat they’ve lost. It might be because they cannot thrive on such a diet, due to all the restrictions. In effect, they revert back to their old diet. And by default also to their old caloric intake and ultimately their pre-diet weight.
The best diet leads to a sustained change in habits!
If you cannot survive without carbs and you cannot imagine following a low-carb diet your whole life then it’s definitely not the best choice for you in particular. At least not long-term.
Other popular examples are fruit based diets, the 90-day diet, the lunar diet and etc.
There’s no way you can survive your whole life relying only on fruit. Also, for the average person, overcomplicated diets are hard to follow in the long-run.
Well, it may be possible to thrive only on fruit for the rest of our lives. Yet that still doesn't sound like the most pleasant experience.
In the end, it's not even in the best interest of your personal health.
Forget about charlatan fad diets that promise fast results. Instead, focus on reinventing your habits and experiment to see which diet you can adhere to with ease. All that's left is proper food choice and results will follow shortly!
4. It’s not overly restrictive
Reinforcing point #3 – it’s impossible to adhere to a diet that only brings us suffering. That’s why there’s no one-size-fits-all diet! We’re all too different for this to hold true.
Some people love sweet food, others salty and savoury, third cannot exist without carbs.
I’ve never been a fan of junk food, for example. I like sweets, but I’ll choose savoury foods over sweets anytime! I can survive my whole life eating veggies and fruit, with the occasional piece of chocolate. Or a slice of pizza in case I feel like it.
But that’s not the same for everyone. Some people just crave chocolate, pizza, ice-cream and etc way too much.
Now imagine what will happen if you forbid someone from eating sweets. Especially for those that habitually have a piece or two.
The first thing that happens, when you restrict a certain food is to increase your desire to eat it.
If some fitness guru comes and tells me that to reach my goals, I can never eat chocolate in my life, in two weeks he’ll find me passed out in a chocolate-induced carb coma in some dark corner.
What's interesting, though, is that when I'm free to choose, I go for “clean foods”.
But yet, If I get too restricted, I can't think of anything else, but the foods I'm not allowed to eat.
The best quote that comes to mind in such situations is Layne Norton’s classic:
“It’s better to be 80% optimal with your diet 80% of the time, instead of being a 100% but only 50% of the time”
Let me elaborate on Layne’s brilliant quote:
Overeating from time to time is normal for most everyone. After all, we have limited willpower.
When we allow moderate amounts of tasty treats on our everyday menu, binging occurs much less. On top of that, it's also less extreme!
Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare? In the long-run following, a more flexible diet will lead to better results.
5. It takes minimal effort
What differentiates a good diet from a perfect one? What can you improve if your diet already satisfies all of the above?
In my opinion, the next most important factor is the amount of effort that's needed to follow the diet.
That’s determined by the foods we enjoy most, as well as our social and personal lives. I’ll continue using the low-carb diet as an example.
For myself, I’ve found that’s the perfect diet!
I love salads, low-carb veggies, served fresh, all fatty cuts of meat and smelly cheeses.
Besides that, I go out for dinner with my friends quite often. I’ve found that if I follow this type of diet I can find something tasty and filling in most every restaurant!
Baked goat cheese salad with some walnuts? Oh yeah.
Grilled salmon with grilled garden veggies? My mouth's getting watery.
Tomato pesto and greens salad with toasted hazelnuts? Ok, bye, I'm going for a bite.
These are all standard dishes for most restaurants nowadays.
For me, these foods are treats. They’re my chocolate. I crave a nice piece of fatty cheese, not the pizza dough under it. I don’t need to have rice, bread or pastry in my diet.
In rare occasions, I do feel a craving for something sweet. Only 2-3 pieces of extra dark chocolate are enough to please me for weeks.
In essence, when I adhere to a low-carb diet I don’t need to think what I’m going to eat next. Even If I don’t count calories my weight is quite stable and I can maintain a six-pack year round.
In the same time, this diet is consistent of my favourite foods and I’m not feeling restricted in any way.
Yet, it’s still not the diet I choose to follow.
6. It’s specific to your goals
For the average person that just wants to look good, following the suggestions above is enough.
Serious athletes have to take into consideration the goals that they want to achieve.
This extra step is necessary to ensure that your diet is supportive of your performance!
Pro-athletes are notoriously well-known for undereating. Yet, their caloric needs are extreme!
Imagine what it would feel like to cram 5000 calories worth of brown rice and salad! It would be hard to cover dietary needs without a proper plan in place.
If you do not follow a diet specific to your goals, you will fail.
In the context of natural bodybuilding, precision and adherence are of utmost importance.
That’s why I follow a flexible dieting approach, to ensure my caloric intake is constant. My coach and I have devised a macro distribution that ensures I perform well in the gym.
Last but not least I have a plan for social occasions, that ensures I don’t go overboard. Yet it's flexible enough so I can enjoy myself with friends and family.
This is the only way I can achieve a low body fat percentage. If you look at the distribution of macronutrients, it’s not low carb.
There's a high amount of fats, but also a decent number of carbs. Otherwise, I fade away in the gym.
Keep in mind that this was not some educated guess or a hasty conclusion. We did many tests to check what my specific needs are. Only after that, we formulated the final version of my nutrition plan.
- Includes an active lifestyle
On first glance, this point doesn't seem to fit into this article. But yet, I cannot stress enough, how important it is to have an active lifestyle.
Although resistance training is my mantra, that’s not what I mean by “active lifestyle”.
The human body is designed to move, not sit in a chair for 10 hours a day, completely immobilized.
Let me quote my previous coach and one of the greatest natural bodybuilders Jeff Alberts.
“Nutrition and resistance training are like the front and back wheels of a car. If you’re missing a pair of wheels, you’ll barely move. You need both sets of wheels operating smoothly to travel to your destination.”
From what I’ve read, resistance training is still the undisputed king in this area. Yet, adherence is the most important factor.
What’s the point of doing “the optimal workout” two times a month, when you enjoy rock climbing 5 days a week?
For the average person that just wants to look and feel good, finding YOUR sport is the most important thing. You have to enjoy it.
Swimming, climbing, football, volleyball, tennis, yoga, tracking, winter sports, and etc. The options are endless!
Go even beyond sports.
What are you doing in your spare time?
Everything and anything that makes you move more is going to be beneficial to your diet and wellbeing. The only rule is that you have to enjoy what you’re doing.
For example, at work, I use only the stand-up desks unless my legs are tired. Not because I want to burn 10 extra calories per hour – I just genuinely enjoy working upright.
It's summer now and one of the best things you can do is taking a long walk in the park with your friends. It's the same as walking on the treadmill in the gym, yet it's 1000 times more enjoyable.
All these little movements throughout the day amount to a larger number in the end.
The best diet differs from person to person
Everyone wants a ready answer. A template or a plan that they can follow by the letter, to achieve their goals.
If you work with a personal trainer, he may as well take on that role. What's left for everyone else is popular diets and advice from internet forums.
I admit the title of this article is a little misleading. I couldn’t and can’t give a diet template that will work for everyone.
Yet, I’ve tried to compile the most important, in my opinion, factors that can help you choose the best diet. For yourself that is.
In case you jumped straight to the conclusion (</3), here’s the TLDR version:
- The best diet is muscle-sparing
- The best diet contains sufficient protein
- The best diet is the one you can adhere to
- The best diet is not overly restrictive
- The best diet takes minimal amount of effort
- The best diet is specific to your goals
- The best diet incorporates an active lifestyle
If your current diet is missing one of these points, go ahead and incorporate it straight away. I promise it will help you in the long-run!