When we think of diets, we often imagine a huge list of “Don’ts.” Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. Stay away from those. Steer clear of these. We’re actually not fans of being restrictive.
Turns out going low isn’t always good for you.
We all want to eat healthy, which is a great thing, but a lot of diets these days promote unhealthy behaviors. Some may cause feelings of guilt or anxiety if you don’t stick to the diet plan. Highly restrictive plans may cause you to overthink every meal that you eat. Shouldn’t we just be able to enjoy food without being stressed out?
Many people chose to go on diets as a solution to quick weight-loss, but usually end up in disappointment. If you’re looking to lose weight and keep it off, it’s much better to lose weight gradually. We understand it takes commitment, it shouldn’t be a chore.
We want to make it clear that any 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. Many of the delicious food that diets tell you not to eat—cake, cookies, and 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 you get a balance of nutrients and that your hunger is satisfied. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein are great choices because they are nutrient-dense. You’ll get the most bang for your buck when it comes to health.
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.
We’re not saying you should calculate the nutrition content of each food you eat, but focus on quality over quantity.
Some diets recommend cutting calories down to less than 1000 calories first. Some even less than 500. 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 mode. 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 these 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, protein, healthy fat, 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 use less energy and burn fewer 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, focus on the balance of your diet. Making small behavior changes, such as skipping your usual soda during lunch, makes a big difference when you look at the long-term, big picture. If you’re trying to lose weight, the pounds will naturally come off when you make small, mindful decisions every day.
Moreover, focus on eating foods that are nutrient-dense. Pack in vegetables that are full of nutrients and naturally low-calorie. They will also keep you fuller, longer because of their fiber content. No wonder vegetables are often called superfoods.
If you want to know a sustainable amount of calories for you, try 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. Plus, many of the low-fat products are high in sugar.
The fact is, some fats are good for you and some are bad. Which is 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 various food and oils that are usually 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, two types called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential fats- this means your body needs it, but can’t produce it. They’re helpful for your muscles, blood clotting, and inflammation and can help 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 when too much is eaten. 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: unsafe
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 nutrient. 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 reduce 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.
It is okay to eat refined grains in moderation, but try making at least half of the grains you eat whole grains. 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. Certain populations, such as those who follow a vegan diet, can greatly benefit from enriched grains. In this case, it is important to make sure you are getting enough fiber from other food sources.
What to do?
Reducing carbs may help cut obesity, but carbs do not cause obesity.
The fact is, carbs provide a great source of energy, especially for the brain. They don’t hurt you unless you overeat them. Although it is possible to live on a zero-carb diet, it’s not an optimal choice because you’ll be missing out on large amounts of food that are beneficial.
If you’re looking to get carbs vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are great options. Whole foods provide the most nutrients, but a cookie here and there won’t hurt either. Just keep a balanced diet in mind.
One More Thing
Now that we’ve convinced you that low isn’t always good for you, let’s contradict ourselves. In some cases, you really should limit certain foods or ingredients.
Did you know that sugars are carbs?
Eating too many foods that are high in added sugars may cause high blood sugar. Having elevated blood sugar for long periods can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Too much sugar may also cause tooth decay.
Sugary foods and beverages, such as candy and soda, tend to be high in other unhealthy ingredients as well. If you are craving sugar (everyone has a little sweet tooth), try eating some fruit. They are naturally sweet, but also provide fiber and necessary nutrients.
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. Many health and protein bars, and yogurts are packed with added sugar. 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 often have a lot of ingredients added to them to increase shelf life. True, they may be enriched with nutrients, but they often 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!