When it comes to health and fitness, there simply is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach that everyone can adopt. There are, however, some underlying principles that can be applied across the board. Here I want to share six dieting principles with you and offer some practical advice to ensure your weight loss journey is a success. This is Part I - Part II will follow next week.
*Please note: I am using the terms ‘weight loss’ and ‘fat loss’ interchangeably here.
Principle 1: You Must Obey the First Law of Thermodynamics
“Obesity is a problem of imbalance between energy intake and expenditure” (Speakman, 2004)
Human Physiology complies with the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transformed from one form to another but cannot be created or destroyed (Hall et al, 2012). Energy used by the body is derived from the macronutrients found in food (protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol). Absorbed carbohydrates, proteins and fats are transformed in the body into substrates that can be used immediately for energy or they may be stored as mainly as adipose (fat) tissue. The body is continually going through a process of storing and releasing energy. The amount of storage and the amount released will vary throughout the day (e.g. storing fat after eating a meal, burning fat when asleep at night).
Put more simply: you must pay attention to the QUANTITY of food you are eating on a daily and weekly basis. Does this mean everyone should rush out and buy a set of food scales so they can ensure they get precisely 38g of nuts in their afternoon snack? Definitely not. Does this mean that it would be prudent, at least for a short period of time, to monitor and track food intake? Most definitely. Why would this be a good idea: -
- You can gauge what your current intake is, and how this affects your weight and other measurements.
- You can spot patterns in your eating behaviours
- You get an understanding of how many calories are in certain foods you regularly eat
- You get an understanding how large your portion sizes should be, given a set caloric goal for the day.
Principle 2: Pay Attention to QUALITY As Well As Quantity
So, from Principle 1 it should be clear that food quantity matters. A lot. The amount of food you consume every day has a major bearing on your body composition. However, sometimes the nature of the food you consume is over-looked.
So what do I mean by food quality? Here I take it to mean food that is as minimally processed and as nutrient dense as possible. That means that without exception, the bulk of your food should be comprised of the following: -
- Fresh meat and fish (organic, grass-fed meat wherever possible) - include organ meats in your diet from time to time - cuts like liver are some of the most nutritious food you can eat. Obviously not applicable to vegetarians - vegetarians should focus on seeds, nuts, legumes and dairy to get the majority of their protein sources.
- Fresh vegetables and fruit - I cannot overstate how important it is to try and get at least 1 portion of fruit and/or veg with EVERY meal you consume. Why are they so important? Well, for one, they are highly nutritious, containing a large amount of vitamins and minerals. Secondly, they are high in dietary fibre, which is extremely important for gut health. Thirdly, they are extremely satiating. They will leave you feeling full after a meal, reducing the likelihood of snacking on non-optimal food in between scheduled meals.
- Fats - Particularly mono-unsaturated forms of fats that come from nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil etc
Food quality also matters because minimally processed, nutrient dense, whole foods will have a higher thermic effect than processed foods. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the amount of energy required by your body to break down, digest and absorb a particular food. On average, the TEF accounts for around 10-25% of overall daily expenditure. So, for an individual consuming 2,000 kcal per day, this accounts for between 200-500 kcal daily. The TEF of mixed meals consisting of processed foods is lower than that of whole foods. Whole-grain bread with cheddar cheese has a TEF of 19.9%, whereas white bread with more processed cheese (you know, the rubbery kind) only has a TEF of 10.7%: a nearly 2-fold difference in energy expenditure for meals with the same macronutrients.
Processed foods make it far easier for the body to harvest energy from food. So, from that example you can see how focusing on minimally processed foods has an effect on the body, not only from the amount of nutrients you will receive from the food, but also from the amount of calories needed to break that food down. This is also another reason why I dislike people drinking too many of their calories. Relying on shakes and smoothies minimises the TEF as the body doesn't have to do a great deal to break down and digest food in this form.
So wherever possible, try to eat real food, that is minimally processed as often as you can.
Principle 3: Prioritise and Execute
When it comes to dieting, everyone has different areas of weakness. Some people struggle with portion control. Some people struggle with consistency. Some people struggle with eating at weekends or holidays. Some people struggle with organisation and food preparation. The important point here is not that you have something you struggle with, it’s that you identify the weakest link and try to solve that problem FIRST. You identify your priority and try to execute the problem.
The term ‘prioritise and execute’ is borrowed here from Jocko Willick, where it is used in the context of the military. However, this principle can be utilised across all aspects of life. Tackle the one problem that in doing so will automatically make many other problems disappear.
And that's all for Part I. To summarise so far: -
1) The quantity of the food you eat is THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR WHEN IT COMES TO CHANGING BODY COMPOSITION. If you are struggling for weight loss/fat loss, this is where you should look first for answers.
2) Focus on the quality of your food. Avoid processed junk. Feed yourself highly nutritious food. Ensure you feed yourself better than your pets! See here:
3) Identify where you struggle (nutritionally speaking) and focus on eliminating that problem. Find it difficult to find time to prepare your own food? Invest in a food delivery service. Struggling with portion sizes? Cut down on meals out and start to track your intake.