Your diet is the ladder that helps you to reach your health and fitness goals. Whether you want to lose weight or put it on, you won’t get there unless you address what you’re putting into your body. To rely on old clichés, food is fuel. But what they don’t mention is that it’s hard to ignore your taste buds no matter how many times you try to tell yourself that your body as a machine. Luckily, with the right diet, you can have your cake and eat it too (well, sometimes).
When it comes right down to it, you need to pick something that works for you. It doesn’t matter if one diet worked for your neighbor or your friend because, at the end of the day, you are your own unique person. When navigating the tumultuous waters of diet plans, you can use these basic guidelines to help you decide if a plan is right for you.
First, you need to make sure that any diet you take on allows you to have food from all of the major food groups. If a diet wants you to completely cut out a food group or, even worse, a macro nutrient then run away! Any diet telling you to avoid all fat, protein, or carbs does not have your best interest in mind. It will work because it causes you to have a huge caloric deficit, but at the end of the day you cannot live without them. If you are at the point that an extreme diet is starting to sound like a good idea, please go and talk to your doctor.
Next, make sure that any diet you choose allows you to eat the food you want to eat. This does not mean you want to look for a diet that allows you to eat an entire cake, but if cake is your favorite food you can’t avoid it forever. Your diet plan should not be temporary, it is a lifelong commitment to your health. Choosing a plan that will let you have your favorite cheat food occasionally and in moderation will help you achieve success. Restricting yourself from what you love will only result in failure. You will lose that fight.
Can you find it easily? There are plenty of diet fads out there that want you to eat some crazy exotic food you’ve never heard of in extreme quantities. It’s not going to happen. You’ll never maintain something like that. Diets are difficult as is, why set yourself up for failure? Not to mention yo-yo dieting is terrible for your body, your emotions, and your physical appearance.
Can you afford it? Yes, there are a lot of phenomenal diets out there, but some are downright expensive. You can be healthy on any budget- it’s all about the calories anyway. So be honest with yourself when you are looking for a new plan to start.
Does it fit into your lifestyle? There are plenty of great diets that want you to eat every two hours or to eat all three of your meals within an 8 hour timespan. They sound great, but for most of us who have 9-5 jobs it will never happen. Also, if you ever eat out with friends and family your diet plan probably won’t be able to account for it. Make sure what you choose is realistic for you and the life you want to live.
Does it give you what you need? The only time you’ll have to worry too much about vitamin deficiencies is if you are using prepackaged meals or want to take on a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle (all are addressed below). Otherwise, as long as you are not restricted from any particular food, you should get all the nutrients you need. However, it never hurts to take a multivitamin to be sure. So if you can afford one by all means take it.
Yes, they do work. The simple fact is, if you’re looking to lose weight you need to burn more calories than you eat. But what does that actually look like? A pound consists of 3,500 calories. The absolute minimum amount of calories you can eat per day is 1,200, otherwise you are considered to be fasting and that can come with a whole myriad of health problems. Do you really need to drop that low? Probably not. The maximum amount of weight you can safetly lose is two pounds per week (the opposite is true for putting it on).
If you are considered morbidly obese your body may shed pounds faster to try to get you to a healthy weight quickly, but make sure you consult your doctor if you consistently lose more than a few pounds per week. For the rest of you, a daily deficit of 250 calories will help you lose 1 pound per week whereas a daily deficit of 500 calories will allow you to lose 2 pounds per week (again, the reverse is true for gaining weight). It’s a good idea to track how much you’re eating now and decide what is best for you.
A word about “vanity” weight. When you approach a healthy weight (usually where your reproductive health is maximized) you will notice that it’s hard for you to both gain and lose weight. I joke that your body will always be smarter than you are- if you starve yourself it will slow your metabolism and if you’re eating a few extra calories it will burn them off. Your body is pretty amazing that way. If you’re already close to the 1,200 calorie mark and you still want to lose an extra few pounds, you can do smaller daily caloric deficits to lose as little as .25-.5 pounds per week. You will still see results. Just be patient and be kind to your body- it wants you to be healthy, too.
Counting calories can be time-consuming and even obnoxious sometimes. You may choose to opt for prepackaged meals. If you want information on meal replacements see our article Diet Supplements: All You Need to Know. In general, prepackaged meals work on the same principles as restricted calorie diets (you will eat 1,200 calories per day) only they can be more convenient for your lifestyle. You only need to be concerned if they don’t consider fruits and veggies to be “free” foods that you can eat at your discretion. Again, if a diet ever tells you to cut something completely out, run.
The other problem with prepackaged plans is that they are difficult to maintain. You will not want to eat frozen meals for the rest of your life and it can be costly besides. Some people who have trouble getting over the initial weight loss hurtle can benefit from a prepackaged plan at first. Just make sure to have a transition for yourself. You don’t want to pack the pounds back on just because your package is over. Use the time that you’re taking the meals to make a realistic plan for yourself that you will be able to keep.
Another diet plan that can be more convenient for you than counting calories is a point program. Make sure any point program you look at has nutrition classes or education options and make sure you utilize them! The biggest problem with points is that a cookie may be 1 point while peanut butter is 3. Eat the peanut butter!
Nothing is more infuriating than seeing someone eat junk food and them thinking they’re being healthy. Absolutely not! The classes/education options will teach you that. However, these programs do allow you to learn how to plan for your calorie splurges and gives you a realistic system you can maintain for life. As always, make sure fruits and veggies are free. Systems like this help you to learn to love them!
… Only if you have an allergy. The end. Gluten often gets mistaken for glutton and I assure you they are not the same thing at all. Gluten will not hurt you one bit and cutting it out won’t do anything but make your life more complicated and expensive. If you have an allergy, avoid it. If you don’t, enjoy.
Just in case the point hasn’t been drilled into your head enough, food elimination diets work but in the end the only thing they will end up eliminating is your willpower. Now, some people are capable of cutting certain foods out of their life without remorse and if you’re someone who can live the rest of your days without potato chips then more power to you. However, I am not that person so I don’t expect you to be either. Sometimes, though, a happy medium is to find an alternative that is healthier that still allows you to feel satisfied.
So let’s talk about the big one- diet pop. Yes, some people are sensitive to artificial sweeteners. If they give you headaches, you might just want to avoid them and enjoy the real thing in moderation. However, there is no cancer risk. I repeat, there is no cancer risk to humans with artificial sweeteners (although, you might want to keep it away from your pet mouse because that’s where the idea came from). This, of course, does not mean that you have to embrace diet drinks. However, if you were hesitant before because you thought it could be harmful to your health, don’t be.
Remain skeptical when ads and people do try to tell you that artificial sweeteners can be harmful, too. There are people in the sugar industry facing their biggest fear- a substance that is sweeter than sugar without the guilt. Don’t let their lies stop you from making the best decisions for you. If you’re ever in doubt, talk to your physician or you can go on the National Cancer Institute’s website to find the truth.
Veganism and vegetarianism has increased in recent years. It is now becoming easier to adhere to both lifestyles because you can find options for both at most chain restaurants. Most people choose these lifestyles because of beliefs rather than their health and I would never deter someone from doing what they believe is right. However, you need to do it the right way.
Studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancers. Pretty awesome, right? This is because vegetarian diets are naturally low in saturated fats and cholesterol. The main concern is usually a B12 and iron deficiency depending on how vigilantly you adhere to the diet (some vegetarians opt eat eggs, drink milk, and eat fish). Regardless of what you choose, try to find for low-fat versions of any animal product you eat.
Vegans enjoy all of the same health benefits as vegetarians. They usually enjoy good health due to the high fiber, magnesium, folic acid, iron, and phytochemicals found in common vegan foods. However, they need to be much more diligent to get omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and B12. It’s a lot of extra work, but if it’s what matters to you then don’t let it stop you! That’s what vitamin supplements were made for.
No carbs, no way! First, let’s establish that no carb is different from low carb. No carbohydrates will result in weight loss; however, it will also cause your body to develop ketones. Your body needs carbohydrates for its metabolic pathways. When carbs are missing, your body will develop ketones that can lead to ketoacidosis and death. It’s extremely dangerous! Low carb diets aren’t as bad. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you get about 45-65% of your calories from carbs. Living on the lower end of this spectrum won’t cause adverse side-effects to your health.
High protein diets are usually paired with low carb and they are relatively safe. Keep in mind that you will never be deficient in protein as long as you are not starving yourself. You can only absorb so much protein per meal so taking 100g in one sitting probably won’t do anything for you. Also, remember that any additional calories you take in can be converted to fat- even if they are from protein. So no, you do not need to eat a ton of protein unless it’s something that you enjoy doing. Also, try to opt for lean meats whenever you can.
Now to address one of my least favorite topics- Paleo diets. Leaky gut is a lie. There is absolutely no such thing. If your gut is leaking, it’s going to be blood because you have an ulcer that requires medical attention. Your body is a beautiful piece of merchandise, nothing leaks that isn’t supposed to when you don’t have a diagnosable medical condition. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Also, not to sound like a broken record, but any diet that tells you that bacon is healthier than fruit deserves to be burned at the stake of reason. Nothing vexes me more than when I hear people brag about how they are healthier than everyone else as they drench their chins with artery-clogging saturated lard from their bacon-wrapped burger patty. If it sounds crazy, it is.
It can be overwhelming to choose a diet plan. If you’re not ready to commit to any diet per say, there are a few general guidelines you can use right now that will help you improve your health.
First, avoid foods loaded with processed sugar and grease. This is self-explanatory. You are wasting valuable calories on food that provide you with zero benefits.
Next, try to eat a variety of fruits and veggies. You will feel good when you’re getting all of the necessary vitamins and minerals you need, plus they have fiber.
Finally, if you opt for animal products, try low-fat options. You may want to take this on gradually as to not overwhelm your taste buds. Overall, at the end of the day you have to do what is best for you. If you keep your health a priority, you will never go wrong.
 American Heart Association. (2016). Vegetarian diets. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Vegetarian-Diets_UCM_306032_Article.jsp#.VuwfNPkrLIU
 Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 16275-16335. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N
 Mayo Clinic. (2014). Diet Plans. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/basics/diet-plans/hlv-20049483
 National Cancer Institute. (2016). Artificial sweeteners and cancer. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/artificial-sweeteners-fact-sheet