As much as people argue otherwise, ultimately, the most important piece of being successful in altering body composition is energy balance (i.e. how much energy do you expend relative to the amount that you intake). There are a lot of variables that alter energy balance and create some nuance in truly figuring this out, but the old adage of "move more and eat less" is basically true - assuming your goal is fat loss.
There are a ton of diets out they're preaching all kinds of food restrictions. There’s paleo, which suggests you need to eat things that we’ve been eating as a species for some arbitrarily long amount of time. You have intermittent fasting, which basically suggests you skip breakfast and eat only in a small window of time during each day (or sometimes fast for entire days). You’ve got ketogenic diets, which restrict you from eating anything that has more than an insignificant amount of carbohydrate in it. There are, of course, many many more. What do all these diets have in common? They cause you to decrease net caloric intake. Paleo causes you to ingest fewer calories by mostly consisting of foods that are very satiating and have a lower amount of processing, meaning that the thermic effect of food is higher (it’s harder for the body to digest, and thus, it takes more energy to do so). Intermittent fasting simply makes it such that you don’t ingest as much food because it’s hard to overeat in such a small eating window. Ketogenic, or low carb, dieting is the one most relevant to the topic today. It succeeds by removing a massive source of calories in our modern, plentiful diets.
Carbs get a bad rap, and for misguided reasons. I do think removing carbohydrates from your diet works for fat loss, but it’s not because carbohydrates are "bad for you." The problem is that carbohydrates, especially in some of the forms we find them today, tend to be our greatest source of empty calories. Think about the things that people overeat: pasta, rice, breads, desserts, soft drinks, etc. All of these things are primarily carbohydrate-based. In my opinion, there are a few reasons this tends to happen. First of all, we have simply been conditioned to recognize what actually amounts to several servings of carbs as being a single serving. I’m not sure how or why this has become the norm over time, but usually the amount of rice or pasta we put on our plate, or the serving size found at a restaurant, is actually several servings of carbs. Second, the type of processing carbs are subjected to means that they’re a great way to sneak in a lot of extra fat and/or sugar into a package of the same size. A great example is french fries. Potatoes are actually a very healthy food, but if you deep fry them, they absorb a huge number of extra calories from the oil. Additional processing can also reduce the thermic effect of food by “pre-digesting” some component of the food (so your body doesn’t have to expend as much energy to digest it) and can also make it less satiating (so you feel less satisfied, likely leading to overeating). Another great example is a pastry at a coffee shop. You can easily find a muffin at Starbucks in excess of 700 calories. For a small and sedentary female, that might be half the intake, or more, she needs to consume for the day to successfully lose fat. A Starbucks muffin does not keep you satiated for very long, either - the tradeoff between calorie consumption and nutritional value/satisfaction is very poor. Finally, carbs are a great vehicle for sauces, which is another large source of extra calories. In a place like SF with a great food scene, you find tons of aiolis, gravys, and cream sauces. While they may be delicious, they’re usually very calorically dense. The vehicle on which you often find these things is some form of carbohydrate.
I’m not telling you to stop eating carbs, but I do want to a propose a solution. Because these foods tend to be the most dense source of calories out there, I suggest “earning your carbs.” What I mean is this: don’t feed yourself starchy carbs unless you earn them through expending a decent amount of energy. Otherwise, stick to fruits and vegetables for carbs. So, if you go on a hike, hit the gym, walk 3 miles home from work instead of taking the train, or something along those lines, allow yourself some starchy carbs. This does two things: it only allows the most calorie-dense foods to be consumed when you balance out the other end of the energy balance equation (energy expenditure), and it promotes being more active. Do you want to stay home all day on Sunday and watch Netflix and chill with your significant other? Fine! However, you’ll be eating only protein, fruits, and veggies for the day - you didn’t do enough to earn anything more than that. Let’s flip it and say you’re traveling and hike for several hours to see a beautiful view of the town you’re visiting. Great! You expended a lot of extra energy, so go enjoy that pasta dish you’ve been wanting to try later that night. Let’s say you do something somewhere in the middle. Your day is largely sedentary, except you get in the gym and do some weight training for an hour. Alright, you weren’t totally lazy today, but you didn’t go on an epic all-day hike either. In this case, the meal after you work out can include a sensible amount of starchy carbs in it. For some kind of reference, jogging or walking a mile expends around 100 calories (This does vary pretty significantly, depending on body weight). So, in order to work off the 700 calories you consumed with that Starbucks muffin, you need to walk or jog about 7 miles. Keep that simple rule of thumb in mind next time you succumb to an impulse food purchase like that.
This is not a hard-and-fast rule. I don’t like giving people overly restrictive suggestions when it comes to cleaning up their diet. Most of the time, I think that’s a recipe for failure. However, I do think this strategy is a useful proxy for balancing energy expenditure with energy intake, hopefully helping you lose fat or maintain your weight if that’s what you want. Go forth and sensibly include delicious carbs in your diet, and I’ll catch you in the next blog!