My Thoughts on Today's Top Diet Trends

I could write pages on the diet methods below. I tried to be as concise as I could and cover what I feel is most important. There are many books, research papers and articles written about each of these programs. I’m sharing my insight based on scientific research, as well as real world research from over 20 years working in the fitness industry and more than 30 years participating in the fitness industry.

Intermittent Fasting

Weight Watchers

Whole30

Atkins

Keto

Paleo

Carb Cycling

Intermittent Fasting (IF): Intermittent Fasting may be the most popular diet out today. It features long periods of no eating or eating very little with shorter periods of eating. Proponents call IF an “eating pattern” rather than a “diet”. There are several methods of IF, with some less stringent and hard on metabolism than others. Rather than comment on each individual method, I’m going to give my opinion on the theory overall.

A Harvard Med School article said this, "The theory is that intermittent fasting will help decrease appetite by slowing the body's metabolism." Slowing the body’s metabolism? That's the last thing we want to do. We want our metabolism on fire! We all do some form of fasting every day – SLEEP.

I personally think of IF as just another diet. Followed long term, IF can have negative effects on metabolism, lead to muscle loss and lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Also, because the foods eaten and portion sizes often aren’t specified, IF doesn’t teach a well-rounded, quality nutrition foundation.

If Intermittent Fasting were the long-term answer, believe me, I'd be following it. I’d have you follow it too. It’s a short-term diet that can produce fairly quick weight loss for a short time, but not a nutrition lifestyle to maintain and follow long term. It may produce weight loss – even fat loss – briefly, but again, followed long term, IF risks too much muscle loss (see education from last week about fat loss/weight loss/muscle gain and loss). Also, once a person goes back to a typical eating pattern after IF, weight is often gained back quickly.

Genetics may play a factor in a person’s success with IF (and any diet for that matter). For example, the amount of muscle mass a person has at the time of following the plan may contribute to success. I’d argue that most people carrying a larger amount of muscle mass who get lean following IF didn’t gain their muscle following the plan. They may eat enough on IF to maintain most of their muscle or have a genetic structure that doesn’t lose muscle as easily. Some people are just predisposed to losing fat and maintaining muscle more efficiently than others. Most of us aren’t that fortunate.

Missing a meal here or there won’t kill ya, but long term fasting – or starving – is just too harmful to metabolism, building/maintaining muscle, losing fat, increasing strength, supporting energy, maintaining endurance, improving and/or sustaining performance and to the mental/emotional relationship with food. Most people can get away with not eating until 8 or 9 am (depending on morning training/activity) and having the last meal between 6-8 pm – similar to Circadian Rhythm Eating (eating during the daylight hours). As long as you consistently get all of your meals in and spread them 2-4 hours apart, you should be able to maintain a strong, healthy, fat burning metabolism.

Remember, almost any diet will work for weight loss for a time. Eating small meals, containing foods that feed muscles and starve fat, spread evenly throughout the day and developing a solid nutrition lifestyle is the only method I've seen in my 20+ years’ experience that produces long term, sustainable results for every body type, fitness level, age, genetic structure, etc.

Now that I’ve shared what I don’t like about IF, the following fasted methods do have great benefits.

~ Fasted AM Cardio refers to cardio done first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Years of scientific and real-world research have shown that fasted cardio burns more stored body fat than cardio after fed. The body burns the nutrients most readily available to it first. If you’ve recently eaten, your body will choose nutrients from that meal to fuel your workout rather than tapping into stored body fat for fuel. Fasted AM Cardio essentially forces stored fat to be burned.

Typically, the first place we store fat is the last place we lose it. While there’s no way to “spot reduce”, meaning lose weight from just one area on the body by doing a certain exercise, Fasted AM Cardio may increase blood flow to stubborn or troubled fat spots and reduce fat more efficiently in those areas. Be mindful of the amount of time spent doing Fasted Cardio (about an hour max for most people) and eat quickly after (especially protein) to prevent burning glycogen stores (muscle energy).

~ Fasted or Slightly Fasted Post Training Cardio refers to cardio done immediately following strength training and assumes you haven’t eaten since an hour or two prior to that training, or even the night before. In this case, it’s important that strength training be performed first, aside from a short warm up. This allows glycogen stores, or muscle energy, to be used by muscles first during strength training. Once those stores are used up, the post training cardio will tap into the bodies fat stores for energy. Again, eat a meal high in protein shortly after.

~ Slightly Fasted PM Cardio refers to cardio done approximately one, preferably two hours after the last meal of the day and before bed. While not quite as effective at burning stored fat as Fasted AM Cardio, this is still a highly effective time to do cardio. Do not eat following this cardio.

~ Circadian Rhythm Eating refers to eating during the daylight hours, typically within a window of 12 hours or less and fasting for the remaining 12 or more hours each day. Again, there are varying interpretations of this and I’m not going to dive into the deep end of this method. Eating with the sun isn't necessary, but it won’t kill results and is actually good for some people.


Weight Watchers (WW): Weight Watchers was kind of the original “macro counting” or “macro tracking” program without most ever learning what macronutrients (carbs, proteins and fats) are, what they do or why each are important. Food servings are assigned a point value based on calories, protein, sugar and saturated fat. Members are assigned a daily point goal based on weight (not knowing muscle to fat ratios), height, gender and age. Members learn to count points rather than calories.

When followed as I’m sure the creator intended, it can be a decent mainstream program that helps balance healthful eating with added goodies in moderation. I LOVE that most plans offer accountability and support, which we know is critical to success in anything. My overwhelming experience though is that for most, it’s just another diet.

Clients who’ve followed WW admit that they often skipped meals, became experts at saving up points for the unhealthy foods they really wanted and rarely, if ever worked out. They had no idea what a healthy protein, carb or fat was, why they should eat them or how they were different than their unhealthy counterparts – example how complex carbs like sweet potatoes, oatmeal or rice are different and better than cookies, chocolate or ice cream. The lack of focus on strength and cardiovascular health is also concerning (although I believe programs have been added to place more importance on fitness).

Skipping meals and saving “points” to eat something unhealthy at the end of the day slows metabolism. The reduction in overall calories may produce “weight loss” for a while, but it won’t produce sustained “fat loss”. This pattern can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food – sometimes creating deprivation-binge eating habits. Much of the weight lost on a WW program is muscle weight – ouch! Clients become “skinny fat” - or a smaller version of the body they were unhappy with to start – rather than lean and toned.

My goal is that you become leaner, more toned and healthier than when you started. I want you to be educated about why we eat the foods we eat, what they do, how they are different and why strength and cardio is important. I want you to learn enough over time to become your own fitness expert.

You’re going to read this paragraph over and over in this comparison. Almost any diet will help you lose weight until it stops working. In my 20+ years working in the fitness industry (and trying lots of “diets” myself), the only method that works time and time again and produces sustainable results for any body type, fitness level, age, genetic structure, etc. is eating small meals, containing the proper foods, spread evenly throughout the day and developing a solid nutrition Lifestyle. When you consistently eat 4-6 meals/snacks a day, spread 2-4 hours apart, you should be able to maintain a strong, healthy, fat burning, muscle building or muscle maintaining metabolism. Working out will also help you sustain muscular, cardiovascular, mental, emotional and bone health and longevity.


Whole30 (W30): Unlike Intermittent Fasting, I’m going to start today by sharing the things that I like about Whole30. I keep saying that I’m trying to be concise. These insights are anything but short, but there’s a lot to cover and I’m still just covering the basics. I hope I’m educating and not overwhelming. I want to help clear up confusion, not create more. Please ask questions if you have them.

The Whole30 food list has a lot in common with your FF Substitution List, until it doesn’t. It’s loaded with real, quality whole foods - most of the very best. Foods loaded with protein, slow burning, complex carbs and essential fats. Foods loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals. Following the W30 plan doesn’t completely eliminate any macronutrient group, is physically healthy and shouldn’t leave you with deficiencies.

W30 doesn’t require you to weigh or measure foods, which can be overwhelming for many starting a new plan. It doesn’t require fasting. Coffee is allowed (un-doctored) for our coffee loving friends out there. W30 includes some high fiber foods with decent benefits for gut health and digestion. It’s a good food elimination plan that can help identify potential food allergies. Overall, it’s not a terrible program.

What I dislike about Whole30 and feel makes it a diet rather than a Lifestyle:

1. Whole30 is VERY restrictive from day one: There is no easing into the program - no transition foods like Dave’s Killer Bread or Ezekiel Bread, a tortilla, some no preservative Boar’s Head or maybe a slice of cheese (I don’t recommend much dairy, but it can be a good transition food), no UMP and definitely no Treat Meal. While there is no reason physically that you need any of these foods (except UMP – I consider it an essential), and they are the first ones we cut at a plateau (again besides UMP), going “cold turkey” is difficult for most to do.


Shifting someone from a low-quality diet, or even a moderate quality diet, into a

plan this restrictive is mentally and physically taxing and there is a higher

probability of failure. I see a much higher rate of success in developing a Lifestyle in those who can transition into the nutrition changes, rather than having the rug completely pulled out at once.

2. Some high-quality foods are left out:

o No grains like rice, quinoa, or oatmeal? I understand eliminating wheat and

some others, but oatmeal is one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Whole oats are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Overwhelming research shows that oatmeal helps stabilize blood sugar, may lower cholesterol, aids in digestion and helps keep us full longer. Quinoa is also extremely healthy and loaded with nutrients. There are great benefits to many rices as well. I’ve seen very few people in 20+ years - actually I can’t recall one - who had an allergy to whole oats (no quick oats), quinoa or rice. I know allergies exist, but these just aren’t super common.

o Legumes (beans) or lentils - so no black beans, chickpeas red beans, oh my?! Now, legumes are among the most common food allergies, but most often legume allergies stem from solely peanuts (yes, peanuts are beans, not nuts and you’ll notice I usually steer you away from them).

Beans commonly cause gas, but that doesn’t mean you have a legume allergy. Beans are high in fiber that many bodies have a harder time digesting. Generally, the more you eat beans, the higher tolerance you will develop to digesting them.

3. No snacking – eat only 3 meals per day: Here we go again. A plan with only 3 meals a day is a metabolism stopper – or slower. If we eat every 2-4 hours the body is digesting food every 2-4 hours. To digest that food, send nutrients where they need to go and burn calories, the body has to heat up – engage the inferno! It doesn’t have much time to stop burning before you feed it again. Reducing meal frequency slows down fat burning. Plain and simple.

4. Whole30 allows fruit (ok), but also fruit juice (yuck): Fruit juice isn’t the worst thing, but it’s also not the best. It’s loaded with sugar and a waste of calories, unless you’re 8, and then there are still concerns. Eat the fruit, skip the juice - unless it’s Treat night in your margarita or cosmopolitan. 🤣


5. No protein powders – no UMP: Protein powder is a dairy product, but with UMP, the “bad stuff” - the lactose (dairy sugar) - is removed leaving only the high quality, high protein, nutrient dense goodness. It helps us get meals in with hectic work schedules and life on the go. UMP also curbs a sweet tooth, which helps decrease the likelihood of caving and eating sugar.


6. No artificial sweeteners: Some of you may be surprised by this one. I have no problem if you don’t use artificial sweeteners. There is no health reason that you need to. You may have a health condition like migraines, Fibromyalgia, etc. that artificial sweeteners make worse. Don’t eat/drink them. If you use sweeteners, use them in moderation.

A small amount of an artificial sweetener like sucralose or stevia can be the difference in some succeeding or giving up on a program. I’ve seen it time and time again over the years. I would prefer a client use a small amount of artificial sweeteners than eat sugar or give up on eating well completely. Sugar is a powerful food “drug” that is hard to kick. It also contributes to many of the deadliest diseases and health conditions known.

Again, if following the Whole30 plan to pin point or rule out a possible allergy, it’s a good plan. You have to follow it strictly to the end to be successful. One slip and the process must be started completely over. Be mindful to add foods back in slowly. Too often people add foods too quickly and gain back all or more weight than they lost.

Below are the foods I would add to the Whole30 foods list, better yet, just eat the Better & Best foods on the Focused Fitness Substitution List.

Most beans and lentils

Ezekiel or Dave’s Bread (if suggested on your personal plan)

Oatmeal

Brown or multi grain rice

Ultimate Muscle Protein (UMP – optional, but a lifesaver for me)

Artificial Sweeteners (In moderation – optional)


Atkins, Keto, Paleo + Carb Cycling: I really am going to try to breakdown these diets on the very basic level today. These programs are interpreted so differently. One proponent may have one food list and a strict list of rules of adherence, while another proponent of the same plan may have a different food list and alternate strict list of rules of adherence. It’s difficult to breakdown a program when even the staunch proponents have different guidelines for how to successfully follow the diet. So, I’m again giving my thoughts on overall theories.

The primary purpose of Atkins and Keto diets is to induce ketosis for a moderate or sustained length of time. Ketosis is the metabolic process in which the body burns stored bodyfat for energy rather than its main fuel source, carbohydrates (glucose). Ideally, when carbohydrates are drastically limited, proteins are kept low to moderate and fats are drastically increased on a nutrition plan, the body will find and burn stored bodyfat. WIN, right?! Yes, it’s a major win when stored fat is all that is burned. It’s a major LOSS when muscle is burned, which is highly likely on keto programs!

Muscle is hard to gain and easy to lose, especially when not protected by a good supply of protein (amino acids), targeted supplements – or usually both. When protein is adequate, muscle mass may be maintained (and more likely with the help of supplement too), but it’s difficult to build muscle on this type of plan and more common to lose it. I will be very clear on this. We don’t want to stay in ketosis for sustained periods of time. Ketosis can cause many nutritional deficiencies and poses risks (sometimes extreme) to organ function, mental acuity, energy levels, skin health, bone health, metabolic function, reproductive health and more.

I will offer two simple methods of Carb Cycling at the end of this breakdown. These are the best, safest and most effective way to dip a toe in ketosis (or close) for stored fat burning, but replenish glycogen stores (glucose that’s stored in the muscles to be used as energy later), protect muscle and avoid health damage. The goal is to feed muscles and starve fat. Even these methods should be followed only for a limited time, and preferably under the guidance of a very knowledge fitness professional. 🙋‍♀️

Paleo: While Paleo isn’t a “keto” diet, it does contain a low amount of complex carbs and high amount of fat and has similarities to Atkins and Keto plans. The premise is to eat like a cave man or hunter-gatherer. It suggests eating only foods found in their original form and not harvested, obtained or changed with help from advances in agricultural farming. Paleo also suggests that our digestive systems weren’t designed to breakdown certain types of fiber like legumes (beans) and grains. Complex, vegetable carbs like sweet potatoes, butternut squash and white potatoes are allowed in small amounts. I’ve read recommendations as lows as 5% and as high as 15% of total calories should come from carbs on a Paleo plan.

There are many healthful foods on the Paleo list, many similar to the FF Sub List. Eliminating sugar and processed foods is always a good idea. No complaints from me on that. It may be less likely to cause nutritional deficiencies than Atkins or Keto depending on foods chosen on each. I question the historical accuracy of Paleo guidelines. History clearly shows that hunter-gatherers did eat legumes and grains. Also, how many foods not raised in a personal garden or pasture are available without the help of modern agricultural advances today? Many foods on the Paleo list are only available with the help of modern agricultural.

We don’t need many of foods born from the advances in food processing, but we do benefit from advances in farming technology. All advances don’t negatively affect us – many help. Don’t we benefit from advances in medical technology that weren’t available to cave men? Should we refuse medical treatment and health advances? To be honest, I also just think it’s a bit hooky.

To conclude, Atkins, Keto and Paleo are all very restrictive diets. I don’t support any diet that calls for permanent, long term elimination of all or part of a macronutrient group (proteins, carbs & fats). That is difficult or impossible to sustain long and leaves deficiencies that aren’t necessary. We want to create a Lifestyle that we enjoy and can maintain. We want to learn how to eat goodies in moderation and have a healthy relationship with our food.

Here I go, these diets will help you lose weight for a while. They will also likely make you lose muscle (that stuff you’ve been busting your butt to gain so you are firm, tight and toned – and burn more calories at rest). There’s plenty of scientific evidence to prove that eating small meals, containing the best foods, in ratios best for your goals and spread evenly throughout the day is the best method for building muscle, losing fat and supporting a healthy metabolism. The research that is most important to me is the REAL-WORLD research – what works for all people like you and me no matter our age, genetic structure, fitness level, etc.? I have a hard time understanding why people want to find a DIET when they can have more success and enjoy life more with a nutrition LIFESTYLE. I digress.

The two most successful Carb Cycling methods (proven to provide results):

1. High protein, moderate fats and low carbs with a twice a week Carb Meal (more extreme):

If you eat 35 meals/snacks in a week on this plan, 33 of those meals are high protein, high fibrous veggies, moderate fats, but NO starchy carbs (potatoes, rice, beans, breads, etc.). Then, every 3rd and then 4th day, for example, Wednesday and Saturday, you eat high starchy carb meal as the final meal of the day, along with some veggies and a little fat. No protein. Protein slows down the absorption of carbs.

This meal needs to be the very last meal of the day before bed. Not after a workout or in the middle of the day. We don’t want these carbs burned quickly. These carbs replenish the glycogen stores that are down to very low or zero by that time. This assures that we burn stored fat for fuel and not muscle. Sometimes I suggest a high carb meal mid-week and a Treat Meal on the weekend that is high in carbs, but low in protein. Steven and I do this a lot with success – and a mental break.

2. Drop starchy carbs every 3rd day (less extreme – usually the step before above):

This plan calls for you to follow you plan as is, but every 3rd day, drop the starchy carbs from your day and eat an extra cup of veggies or a thermogenic fruit like a ½ grapefruit or 5 large strawberries in their place. This won’t put you in full ketosis, but still helps the body shift to burning stored fat rather than carbs but maintain muscle tissue.


Rachel Wade

Focused Fitness

rachel@yourfocusedfitness.com

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