As a trainer and health coach, people aren’t asking me “What should I eat?” anymore. They are asking me “What can I eat?” Restrictive diets are everywhere, especially those that heavily restrict carbohydrates. They reach broad audiences through books and the internet, and on a smaller scale through “21 day challenges” or similar short-term programs hosted by workplaces or gyms, tricking and teasing us to believe there is a shortcut to success.
We can all agree that our bodies are better off with less sugary, fried, salty, and processed foods. Through eliminating supposedly “wholesome foods,” however, today’s restrictive diet fads are leaving us with more questions than answers about how to eat healthy–and possibly long-term health consequences that could seriously hinder your performance. I’m not going to specifically answer the question of what you should eat (watch out for a future post on this), but I will call these diets out on some of their biggest tricks and how these shortcuts can actually do more damage than good when taken to the extreme.
The search for order and routine
If you were an athlete in your younger days, you might miss the structured discipline of training, which is why many people are drawn to the aforementioned diet programs or food challenges.
Yet, each diet – its rules, restrictions, and “scientific evidence” – becomes a flavor of the week as they try to one up each other in a race to the top. It is nearly impossible for the everyday person to leave the grocery store feeling successful with all the conflicting information from various diets and “experts” about how to eat. Wandering aimlessly through the aisles, trying to read labels and separate fact from fiction from marketing, we find ourselves scratching our heads wondering if anything is really healthy anymore. Even more importantly, we are left wondering how to fuel our bodies for optimal performance, physically and mentally.
Weight loss and healthy eating was once a fairly simple concept: lay off the decadent desserts to keep the scale happy. Over the past few decades, as we have learned how to engineer food, society has become obsessed with finding the magic bullet for physical perfection (thank you Instagram and #fitspo) through a nauseating roller coaster of diet fads, cleanses, supplements, and miracle superfoods–typically accompanied by nutritional pseudoscience to “prove” that they all work. Middle of the road is no longer enough and, in our desperate attempt to achieve the body of a Greek god, we have become less healthy and more confused than ever.
Taking the restriction road
At the root of this confusion is the “restrictive diet.” Although basic nutritional science tells us that your weight is simply a function of calories consumed vs. calories expended, mankind has developed the audacity to try to outsmart our own physiology.
Going beyond the simple calories in/calories out equation, we started blaming entire food categories for our predicament. The debate recently swung 180 degrees from villainizing fats to making carbs and sugar the ugly enemy standing between us and six pack abs. Restriction of macronutrients, from the low fat days of the 1980s and 90s to the low carb days of South Beach and Atkins, have morphed into the era of superfoods in which kale, acai, and apple cider vinegar reign the kingdom. Buzzwords like “antioxidants,” “omega 3s,” “gluten,” and “probiotics” casually roll off our tongues like we actually know what they mean and how they impact our bodies.
Yet we still aren’t happy. Now, super-restrictive diets like Whole30, Paleo, and the newly emerging Keto diet are touting the ability to give you superior health and an ideally lean physique to boot.
So are these restrictive diets just the latest fads? Have we finally figured out the yellow brick road to nutritional perfection? Or are we dangling from one arm off a nutritional cliff?
There are a variety of reasons that people might follow a restrictive diet: weight loss, disease management or prevention, allergies or intolerances, stomach or digestive issue, athletic performance, ethical or religious beliefs, social conformity, or even an eating disorder. Sometimes people will even use a restrictive diet as a crutch to avoid “bad” foods in social situations.
Another layer is the many different types of restrictive diets. Some focus on overall calories or on macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins). Others might limit or completely restrict meat and dairy or specifically restrict certain grains, fruits, or vegetables in addition to a macronutrient.
Following a restrictive diet for a medical, allergy, ethical, or religious reason is not the topic of this article. I am concerned, however, that highly restrictive diets for the purpose of weight loss or performance will have devastating consequences and that we are blindly following some very bad and short-sighted science.
Food science under the microscope
Solid and effective nutritional guidelines exist, yet they are tossed aside like the brownest banana of the bunch. It seems absurd that I even have to write this article because we are not in unchartered waters in terms of food science. We actually do know what works for the majority of the population. Yes, science changes rapidly and there are many complex factors involved the ecosystem that surrounds us, but eating a balanced and comprehensive diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, lean proteins, and good fats has been proven over and over again to lead to a desirable weight and health status – if you actually follow this advice consistently and over a long period of time.
I have to pause here to anchor the discussion and remind you that being “healthy” goes far beyond being fat, skinny, or lean. You can have a higher BMI yet a low percentage of body fat, meaning you are mostly lean muscle. Don’t take this to the extreme, though. It is, in fact, possible to be too lean. A certain amount of body fat is essential for your hormones, brain and organ function, immune system, etc.
Just like there are tried and true guidelines for nutrition, there are similar healthy ranges for body fat percentage, HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, etc. These numbers should be much more important than the number on the scale because they actually indicate health (and they can all be improved through diet and exercise). If you don’t know your numbers, get yourself to the doctor!
Believe in boring
Now, back to what we know about food. “Eating patterns” such as the DASH and the Mediterranean diets have been endorsed by many credible nutritional institutions and experts and are widely available. You can look up lots of information on these plans and follow them quite easily. They promote everything we know to be “healthy” through quality of food consumption: fresh fruits and vegetables, good fats, lean proteins, grains, etc. However, they are neither compelling nor sexy and have no provocative marketing or celebrity behind them. You don’t have to buy the materials for a premium, and they make no promises of a “flatter belly in just three weeks.” In short, they are boring.
These “boring” eating patterns, in addition to exercising regularly and taking care of your sleep and stress over a sustained period of time, will lead to a healthier you and probably help you keep weight off for the foreseeable future. So why aren’t we all following them religiously? Why does the health of our society continue to spiral? The problem is not lack of information or lack of a viable and effective diet option. For those of us that have access to the healthy foods recommended by these plans, it is simply our impatience. We are getting in our own way, seduced by the emotional high of false hope that you are one diet away from a perfect body.
Quick results suck you in
What deeply disturbs me most about these highly restrictive and low carb diets is that they very quickly deliver exactly what people are so desperately searching for. You will absolutely lose weight by following an extremely low carb restricted diet. Because most people who try these diets tend to eat a lot of sugar, carbs, alcohol, and processed foods in the first place, removing these “bad” foods brings dramatic results in just a week or two.
The quick drop is, however, water weight. Water is retained when your body stores carbs. When you restrict carbs, the “weight” will seemingly disappear. You will look and feel “lean” and will think that you have found the cure for your perceived physical flaws. The issue is that this isn’t really sustainable weight loss. You haven’t lost fat weight and you haven’t changed your metabolism. When the pounds don’t continue to drop beyond the first few weeks (your body can’t and won’t sustain the same rate of water weight loss), people get frustrated, give up, and run into the arms of a new fad and its novel promises.
Jumping on the bandwagon
Even more disturbing is how “experts” have gotten wind of this sick cycle and cash in with the latest and greatest diets backed by shaky pseudo-science. All I can say is shame on them for taking advantage of people’s confusion and desperation to look and feel better. Many of them are doctors and have impressive credentials attached to their name, yet writing the next bestselling diet book has become more important than promoting the safe and proven nutritional guidelines that we all know to be true.
It’s no surprise that removing processed food and the accompanying excess sugar, salt, and trans fats could benefit us all. One particularly concerning and common set of restrictions among the aforementioned diets, however, is the common restriction on fruits, grains, and legumes.
I’d like to reveal that the real reason that these foods are restricted is because they are high in carbohydrates and, if these restrictive diets eliminate the “bulkiest” sources of carbohydrates, people will lose a dramatic amount of water weight in the beginning. Because people lose weight immediately, the diets will continue to “work” in the short term and thus sell books and make money. Period. The end.
Any credible nutritional source will tell you that you should get 45-65% of your calories from carbohydrates and that your macro intake should match your activity level, yet one version of the Keto diet actually suggests that only 5% of your calories come from carbohydrates. Can excess carbs cause you to gain weight and thus impact your performance? Absolutely. Should you limit your carb intake to 5% of your caloric intake? Absolutely not.
Here’s the juicy catch and why diets create millionaires, not healthy people. Logically, you probably know that your body simply cannot function properly on such a low carbohydrate consumption. However, dropping 5-10 pounds within a couple of weeks sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Why not give it a shot and hope that the weight will somehow stay off? Maybe this is just the kick in the butt that you need? These quick “reset” diets hook people in by helping them eliminate sugar, alcohol, caffeine, carbs, etc. The problem is that people become dependent on these “resets” and don’t actually change their lifestyle.