Just as no two individuals are alike, the same can be said for their dietary requirements. With a blistering array of foods available to residents of developed nations, the choices presented go well beyond choosing the Atkins diet or a calorie-controlled eating plan. Common variables include daily calorie intake, breakdown of fats/proteins/carbs and micronutrient content but can extend to the decision to include meat and the times of day to eat.
The amount of calories you consume each day is generally considered the most important aspect of a diet. While it is true that a calorific shortfall is necessary to elicit weight loss (and the opposite required to increase mass), both scientific research and the experiences of many dieters demonstrates that there are many more factors that contribute to the success of a diet plan. This is especially true where weight loss in concerned. Feeding yourself an insufficient amount may trigger a ‘starvation’ state in the body, whereby your metabolic rate drops to compensate for the reduced calorific intake; this wipes out any calorific deficit created and blocks further weight loss. This explains the poor success rate calorie restricted diets (and others that restrict key dietary elements) and why you may wish to consider more than the total energy intake when planning a weight loss diet.
Weight loss occurs when the body receives adequate nutrition to avoid the starvation response, without being loading with foods that would trigger the release of ‘storage’ hormones. Hormones like insulin activate your body’s fat storage enzymes. Altering your ratio of carbohydrates, fats and proteins can help achieve this. The pancreas, a small organ that sits inside your ribcage, releases insulin in response to carbohydrate intake; foods that elicit such a response include bread, pasta, potatoes and cereals, with a particularly exaggerated response coming from high-sugar choices like cakes and sweets. Reducing your carbohydrate intake and eliminating sugars stands out as one of the most effective ways to encourage your body to burn more fat. The Atkins diet exploits this principle, severely restricting dietary carbohydrates to less than 20g per day in the initial stages.
Such diets have received criticism from many sources because they do not provide sufficient carbohydrates to maintain normal brain function. Although the brain (and nervous system) can adjust to the reduction in carbohydrate availability by entering an altered metabolic state called ketosis, many individuals report poor mood and low energy when using such a regime. Perhaps more importantly, experiments show that these low levels of carbohydrates may not be necessary for successful weight loss. One such research paper showed how a group that used a diet that moderately restricted carbohydrates recorded much more impressive fat loss those that undertook a more severe regimen, but with none of the unpleasant side-effects. Those eating the more moderate diet were sedentary for the most part of the week and consumed around 157 grams of carbohydrate per day, the amount found in:
three slices of wholemeal bread (45g) a moderate serving of rice (45g) a large apple (18g) a large salad of watercress, tomatoes, red onions and peppers (20g) a large serving (about two fists worth) of peas, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower and green beans (30g).
The macronutrient content – which refers to the levels of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients – of the diet can also play a potent effect on the diet. For example, magnesium plays an important role in the deactivation of stress hormones, muscle relaxation and your ability to get a deep sleep; if you are short in this vital mineral, your results may suffer. You can find magnesium in pumpkin seeds, spinach and okra, although many experts recommend taking a magnesium supplement on top to ensure healthy levels. All nutrients work in symphony with one another, which supports the idea of using a multivitamin product to ensure adequate assimilation of each nutrient by your body’s cells, which constantly undergo a wide range of chemical reactions requiring nutritional support.
Other factors may also play an important role in the success of your diet. Regular eating may help avoiding dips in the blood sugar levels; these drops in glucose levels can trigger a release of cortisol, the body’s major stress hormone, that can send activity of fat-storage enzymes soaring. While you should not expect anything spectacular at normal intake levels, the inclusion of foods like coconut oil and green tea have been demonstrated to help in the fat-burning process; both increase thermogenesis, a process that sees fat sacrificed to produce body heat.
These variables form the basis upon which diet plans are often built around, with a myriad of health professionals promoting their own preferred combination. While no universal diet exists for all, the principles of weight loss diet remain fairly similar for each individual; an understanding of these principles can allow you to tailor your food intake to achieve your goals, while ignoring the faddy diets that continue to disappoint.
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Johnston CS et al (2006). Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over non-ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 83(5): 1055-61. http://www.ajcn.org/content/83/5/1055.abstract
“The Magnesium Miracle”; Carolyn Dean MD; 2006.
Ames BN, 2005. Increasing longevity by tuning up metabolism. European Molecular Biology Organisation, 6(S1): S20-24. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1369274/