LOW-CARB DIETS WORK IN THE SHORT TERM, BUT THEY ARE A FAR CRY FROM A SENSIBLE WEIGHT LOSS PROGRAM THAT IS SUSTAINABLE.
The wild popularity of the low-carb Atkins diet five or more years ago challenged conventional thinking on the simple rule of calories-in, calories-out for weight management. In fact, it appeared to break the law of thermodynamics – and seemed too good to be true.
A person undergoing hair loss might easily be tempted to take up this diet, with its quick results and license to enjoy the indulgences of bacon, rib-eye steaks, and deep-fried chicken. Why worry about a change in your appearance if you can quickly offset it with favorable weight loss? Subsequent research and empirical observation have given us a more nuanced view since then. In simplest terms:
Yes, low-carb diets work in the short run because adherents are generally taking a conscious approach to their diet. By cutting out most carbohydrates, they are actually making a positive change by getting rid of junk snacks, French fries, and desserts.
The law of thermodynamics – energy in equals energy out – also factors in friction, the lost energy from consumption and storage. Because fat and protein are harder to digest, they use more energy in that process alone (all in accordance with thermogenesis). Looked at in another way, every bit of protein and fat net out a bit lower in their caloric values than indicated. This is extensively analyzed and documented by the public health establishment.
But what worries most of us is how the elimination of an important category of foods, complex carbohydrates, is required of the low-carb diets (The South Beach Diet, which advocates the consumption of whole fruits, vegetables, and grains, takes a more reasonable approach). These provide uncounted numbers and varieties of nutrients, including antioxidants and fiber, increasingly recognized as essential to good, long-term health.
Further, very few people stick with the Atkins approach very long. Even rib-eye steaks get boring after a while. But this factor of friction, energy spent on digestion, favors a diet that includes unprocessed carbohydrates (roughage takes more work to digest), as well as healthier proteins and fats.
Sensible weight loss is not one thing, it’s many things
A sensible weight loss diet still requires three golden concepts: balance, variety, and moderation. Set these up against your own physical activity level and you should achieve weight loss in a long-term, sustainable way. There are several components in this process:
- Know thyself. Write down everything you eat for a week into a food diary. This is non-negotiable. You have to know the caloric total of what you’re currently eating – it’s your baseline for setting goals. If you can’t get calorie counts from food products and restaurants, several online resources are available.
- Know thy activities. How active you are establishes a baseline of calories you should consume in a day. Sedentary men require 2000 calories per day; guys who regularly exercise push it closer to 3000 calories per day; serious athletes might need 3000-4000 calories per day. For women, these numbers adjust about 25-35 percent lower.
- Do the math. A reduction of 600 calories per day will translate to a ten-pound loss over three months, 20 in six months and 30 in nine months – a reasonable rate of reduction.
- Inventory your kitchen. If a food found at home, such as processed snack foods, throws off-balance your intake vs. output levels, eliminate it. Replace it with lower-calorie, higher-fiber alternatives (apples vs. donuts).
- Reschedule. To kick in that digestion friction, thermogenesis, figure out ways to eat smaller portions four, five or six times a day instead of three meals. This is what agrarian, pre-Industrial Era people did anyway – they ate when they were hungry, not when their bosses permitted.
- Volume-ize. Those smaller meals will nonetheless make you feel fuller if you make them with lots of water and fiber. Brothy soups and fibrous produce work – just eat an apple 20 minutes before your meal and see how it takes a bite out of your appetite.
- Variety-ize. Those small meals work best when you have a good mix of macronutrients: protein (nuts, beans, fish, poultry or meat), fats (better the kind that don’t have feet, such as fatty fish, olive or other vegetable oil), along with unprocessed carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables, whole grains).
- Flavor it. Herbs and spices are smart ways to flavor food, so much healthier than salt, butter or mayonnaise – and with almost no caloric impact whatsoever. The heat from chilis (capsaicin) can even help burn calories.
Of course, none of these steps is a magic pill. What they represent are time-proven approaches to sensible, healthy eating. Most trim people observe these principles in their daily living – no calorie counting required.