A lot of the time, when we think of diets, we get a huge list of “Don’ts.” Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. Stay away from those. Steer clear of these. But we’re actually not fans of being restrictive. Turns out going low isn’t always good for you.
We all want to eat to healthy. That’s a great thing. But there are a lot of diet plans out there. Each one has fans and haters. A friend will tell you, “I went on that diet and lost twenty pounds!” while another will say, “That diet is garbage. It doesn’t work!” And good luck researching diets on the internet. There will be a million articles on both sides for every diet. Instead of over-complicating things, we want to simplify.
A lot of diets require restrictive eating. If you need to lose weight fast, that can be a good thing. But if you’re looking to lose weight and keep it off, it’s much better to lose weight gradually. So dieting really shouldn’t be difficult. Don’t get us wrong, it takes commitment. But it shouldn’t be a chore.
In fact, you’re in luck. Many of these restrictive diets aren’t the best idea. They seem to make sense on paper, but in practice they just don’t work. Let’s look at why low isn’t good for you.
Calories are everywhere. Some of the most delicious foods—cake, cookies, sugary drinks—are like calorie TNT, just waiting to explode. So it might make sense to just cut the calories dramatically. But not all calories are created equal.
When you take in calories, you want to make sure they’re full of nutrition. See what kind of vitamins and minerals you’re getting, as well as how many macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein). Vegetables tend to be the most nutrient-dense and you’ll get the most bang for your buck in nutrients vs calories.
For example, imagine you were allotting yourself 600 calories for a meal. With that you could eat a double cheeseburger from a fast food restaurant–no drink, no fries. With those 600 calories, you’re getting 33 grams of fat, 1000 mg of sodium, 44 grams of carbs, 26 grams of protein, and a few vitamins. With those same calories, you could eat one cup of fresh vegetables, one 8-ounce chicken breast, and one cup of brown rice. Sounds filling, right? You’re getting only 8 grams of fat and 430 mg of sodium, but 70 grams of carbs and 56 grams of protein, with a whole lot of nutrients packed in. So focus on quality over quantity.
Some diets recommend cutting calories down to less than 1000 calories first. Some even less than 500, and low isn’t always good for you. While everyone else chows down on their TV dinners and pre-packaged sweets, you can just chow down on a nice bowl of lettuce. Sound fun?
No reason to be so extreme. In fact, going to desperate measures could even hurt your health. Why?
It’s a battle with your body’s survival mechanism
When you cut calories, the first thing your body does is go into survival modes. It begins counter-measures to fight weight loss. The more dramatically you cut calories, the more your body fights back.
It’s difficult to get all your nutrients
When you’re cutting this many calories, you will inevitably miss out on food that is actually good for you. It’s going to be difficult to get all the fiber, minerals, and vitamins that you need to be healthy and active.
It will make it harder to lose weight next time
As we said, cutting your calories so dramatically will send your body into survival mode. One thing your body does is slow down your metabolism. Your body will burn use less energy and burn less calories. That’s counterproductive, isn’t it? It’s almost like you’re just making it harder on yourself.
It will make you very tired
With less food comes less energy. And we all know exercise a key part of losing weight and staying healthy. Cardio and resistance training help you build muscle and burn fat, but it’s harder when you’re running on an empty stomach. So when you dramatically cut your calories, you’re making it a lot harder on yourself to head to the gym.
Your body will eat its lean muscle mass
Lean muscle mass is what you want. It gives you a great physique and burns fat for you. When you starve yourself, your body burns that muscle for energy. It’s causing the opposite of what you want.
The only end-point is failure
These extremely low-calorie diets are short-term. They’re not a matter of if they’ll end, but when. The strongest of us can power through starving ourselves for a few weeks. Most of us will give up quickly and binge on unhealthy food. But with constant temptation in literally all the food around you all the time, you are setting yourself up for failure.
What to do?
Think long-term. Instead of cutting thousands of calories from your daily diet, try just a few hundred. The pounds will come off. If you’re looking to burn fat quickly, have an exit plan. You’ll gain it all back if you revert back to your old diet.
Moreover, focus on eating calories dense with goodness and vitamins. Pack in vegetables that are full of nutrients and carry few calories. A cup of broccoli only carries 30 calories. Could you eat twenty cups of broccoli? Vegetables are the original superfood.
If you want to know a sustainable amount of calories for you, trying using this calculator.
In the 90’s, Low-Fat was all the rage. Low-Fat products flew off the grocery aisle shelves. Most of us assumed all fat was a bad thing. But low isn’t always good for you. And now we’re more educated in our macronutrients.
The fact is, some fats are good for you and some are bad. Which are which? If you look at the nutrition label, you probably see things like “saturated fat.” In there. So we’ll simplify.
Monounsaturated fat: good
This is a good fat. It’s found in a lot of foods and oils. Its genetic make-up causes monounsaturated fat to stay liquid at room temperature. Eating it reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and can improve your blood cholesterol level. You can find this fat in olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and most nuts.
Polyunsaturated fat: good
Another good fat. In fact, it’s an essential fat. This means your body needs it, but can’t produce it. They’re helpful for your muscles, blood clotting, and inflammation. You may have heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are types of polyunsaturated fat. These prevent heart disease and stroke. You can find them in salmon, trout, tofu, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
Saturated fat: not-so-good
This fat is unhealthy. You should limit your intake of saturated fat, as it is linked to heart disease and raising harmful cholesterol. It’s solid at room temperature. Many common sources of this type of fat are cheese, coconut oil, whole-milk dairy foods, red meat, pre-packaged baked goods.
Trans fat: very bad
This is the big bad guy. You’ll want to avoid trans fat in your diet. It increases the dangerous LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream and creates inflammation, which is linked to heart disease diabetes, and other chronic conditions. This fat lurks in your fried foods, margarine, shortening, and pre-packaged snacks and baked good.
A further note: food manufacturers are allowed to say a product is trans fat-free if it contains less than half a gram per serving. This seems good at first, but it will add up. Check the ingredients list. If you see the words hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or shortening, in contains trans fat. Avoid it!
What to do?
Follow these tips as a general rule: Eat monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, limit saturated fats, avoid trans fats. Don’t cut all fat, because it’s actually a necessary macronutrient. 25-35% of your daily caloric intake should be fat.
We’re not necessarily against low-carb diets if that’s the way you want to go. But you should know that there’s nothing inherently wrong with carbs. They’re a normal, natural part of diets across the world. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you get 45-65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates.
But you may know a lot of people who avoid carbs. Why’s that?
Your body normally uses carbohydrates for energy. Many diets (often for quick weight-loss) replace carbs with protein or fat. When you do this, your body starts using substitutes for energy. Unlike carbs, which burn quickly, protein takes longer for your body to digest, so your body works harder. Cutting carbs also reduces insulin and your kidneys shed excess water. So the face is, you’ll lose weight quickly.
One criticism of low-carb diets is that they are difficult to sustain. It does require a long-term commitment to no carbs. It’s not impossible, but for those who love their carbs, you may want to consider a diet that allows carbs.
The real debate here is not whether or not to eat carbs, but what types of carbs are okay. Let’s first look at grains.What you want to eat are whole grains as opposed to refined grains.
Whole grains are unrefined. They have not been milled, which removes the bran and germ. Thus they still contain all their nutrients. This makes them great sources of fiber, B vitamins, and other nutrients, like potassium and magnesium. Good whole grains include barley, oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, popcorn, and whole-wheat bread and pasta.
Unlike whole grains, refined grains have been milled. They’ve been stripped of their bran and germ to give them a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, this removes many nutrients, including the fiber. This makes these foods high in calories, but low in nutritional value. Some of these include white bread, white rice, white flour, and degermed cornflower. Most of the pre-packaged baked good you’ll find are refined grains.
Tricky, tricky—there’s another category. Enriched grains are refined grains that have had many of the lost nutrients added back in. Many white breads and pastas will be enriched and thus are good sources of folic acid and B vitamins. They are okay to eat.
What to do?
Reducing carbs can cut obesity. But carbs do not cause obesity. This is evidenced by many cultures which for centuries primarily relied on heavy-carb diets, like those in Asia.
The fact is, carbs aren’t necessarily essential. You can live without them. But they don’t hurt. Although it is possible to live on a zero-carb diet, it’s not an optimal choice. Because you’ll be missing out on plant foods that we all know are beneficial.
If you’re looking to get carbs, make sure to eat lots of vegetables and fruits. Whole and enriched grains are great too. Just avoid refined grains. A good rule of thumb is to eat everything in its most natural state. And always, everything in moderation.
One More Thing
Now that we’ve convinced you that low isn’t always good for you, let’s contradict ourselves. In comes cases, you really should avoid certain “foods.” It’s in quotations because it’s hard to consider them such.
Sugar is packed with calories. It raises your blood sugar and your triglycerides, which increases the risk of heart disease. They cause tooth decay. Not to mention, it increases the risk of diabetes. Also, foods high in sugar tend to be high in other unhealthy ingredients as well. If you must ingest sugar (everyone has a little sweet tooth), eat naturally sweet fruits. These contain complex sugars. Simple sugars, found in candy, juice, soda, and baked goods, are bad for you and consuming them only makes you crave more sugar.
If you have one take-away from this, it would be to avoid sugar. Look up just about any diet and they will all recommend to cut sugar.
Beware of many pre-packaged snacks. Lots of them appear to be healthy—and scarily even claim to be healthy—when they aren’t at all. Beware of most health bars and protein bars. Lots of yogurts are packed with sugar. And many health foods that come in packages are coated in sugar to make them more appealing. Always check the label.
Note: Be wary of juices—even “real fruit” juices. They’re full of sugar and artificial sweeteners and low on nutrients.
Processed foods are any foods that have been altered in some way during preparation. These processes could be freezing, canning, baking, packaging. It could also be food that’s had its nutritional composition changed with fortifying or preserving. Remember refined grains? These count as processed foods. Some foods are barely processed, like cut vegetables or bagged spinach. Others, like frozen pizza, TV dinners, or ready-to-eat snacks like chips and crackers, are more heavily processed.
The problem with processed foods is that they have a lot added to them to make them more appealing. True, they may be enriched with nutrients. But often, they contain unhealthy amounts of added sugar, sodium, and fat—trans fats, even. Avoid foods with the top few ingredients containing things like sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, cane sugar, or maltose.
Though we can’t deny the convenience of pre-packaged, processed foods, fresh is always better.
We hope this guide helps you find food that is filling, tasty, and healthy. Going for low isn’t always good for you. There is so much good food in the world. You should enjoy it!