By Paul Stevenson
As personal trainers at the Clean Health Fitness Institute, part of the service we offer our clients is nutritional programming to assist with clients’ training. This is because we recognize the huge role nutrition plays in helping to change a person’s body composition. We utilize a nutritional software program called iNutrition Pro to create nutrition plans for our clients. This gives our clients a detailed plan providing specific quantities of foods they need to eat in order to hit specific caloric goals, which in turn allows them to achieve their goals.
Anecdotally the clients who are able to follow their plan with rigorous precision often achieve the best results in the fastest possible time. This is achieved because when it comes to improving body composition, there is simply no getting around the first law of thermodynamics. Without getting to scientific this simply means that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transformed into a different form. Put another way, you simply cannot get around the fact that you have to create an energy deficit in order to lose body fat in the long-term. You certainly can lose body weight without a reduction in calories, but over time, in order to lose body fat, you have to be expending more energy than you are consuming.
So this is where dietary interventions come into play. The aim of all fat loss diets (going forward I am going to use the term ‘weight loss’, which you should understand to mean ‘fat loss’ as well) is to get you to consume less, whether the diet makes this clear or not. For example, whilst diets like the Atkins Diet don’t place limitations on quantity, they do restrict food choices by not allowing the consumption of carbohydrate which automatically eliminates a great deal of available food.
So naturally people eat less. Some diets restrict the times in which you can eat, such as the ‘Lean-Gains’ Intermittent Fasting protocol which contains an 8-hour eating window every day. Some diets provide portion controlled meals and shakes or meal replacements. However, no matter what the diet the goal is simple, reduce calorie intake.
When it comes to dieting, hunger is the enemy. If it was not for hunger dieting would be simple. We could all just make a conscious decision to eat less food and there would be no ramifications. Sadly this is not the case. Research has found that not being hungry is the most important predictor of successful weight loss
“The finding that reduced hunger is a significant predictor of success…. suggest the prioritization of hunger suppression, which in this study was achieved by focusing on meal timing and nutrient composition (high fibre, moderate protein, moderately low glycemic load and high volume).” (Batra et al, 2013)
So it appears from the research that any diets that can maintain a negative energy balance whilst maintaining a good degree of satiety such that the client does not become too hungry is going to be an approach that will likely be most successful. So the question is, how can this be achieved?
All clients I see begin with tracking macros, for the following reasons:
- Provides an idea of how large portion sizes should be
- It gets the client accustomed to knowing how many calories are in different foods and at different quantities, which I believe is crucial for long-term success. Often people simply do not know how calorically-dense some foods can be, even foods purported as being ‘healthy’ can be extremely calorie-laden
- It makes clients more conscious about what they are eating
- It provides me with accurate feedback with regard to the effectiveness of the deficit I have provided a client. For example, if I have prescribed a client a 20% deficit which results in them consuming 2,000kcal per day, how do I know this is appropriate if they do not track their macros to ensure they achieve this number? If no fat loss occurs we know that perhaps a greater deficit is required if the client was meticulous with tracking macros. However without the tracking, we cannot know whether it was the wrong deficit, or if compliance was the issue.
Once clients have mastered macro tracking, then there are other methods that can be employed to ensure that clients still reach their goals, but without necessarily having to weigh out every meal they eat. For me this is where ad libitum dieting can be utilized. ‘Ad Libitum’ is literally translated as ‘at liberty’. With this style of eating you do not track calories but rather you eat until satisfied. In order to lose body fat with this type of diet you do have to be somewhat restrictive with the types of food you can prescribe someone.
On this kind of diet you need to focus on foods that provide a great deal of satiety. There is a Satiety Index (SI) of foods based on the pioneering work of Holt et al who tested the satiety of 38 different foods and scored them against white bread. The findings that were although foods were of the same caloric value (240kcal in this case) they varied greatly in their satiety. For example, the findings from this study found that boiled potatoes had an SI score 7x higher than that of croissants. Even more interestingly, this study also found that subjective satiety was a great predictor of later food intake. A 100 unit difference in satiety index score resulted in a 55kcal difference in the amount of food eaten at a meal 2 hours later.
So, foods have to have some of the following characteristics:
- High Volume/low energy density (relatively few calories per 100g – the opposite of calorie-dense foods)
“Foods of a low energy density (low kJ/g) are particularly satiating since they are inherently high in fibre or water (contributing bulk but no energy) and must be served in large amounts to provide 1000kJ (240kcal)” (Holt et al, 1995)
- Protein Content – each meal should provide a good amount of protein, ensure all amino acids are supplied.
- High Fibre Content
- Viscosity – How solid the food is. Generally speaking more liquid-type foods and shakes are poor at providing any satiety, which is generally why shake-based diets fail in the long-term when hunger becomes unbearable for most people.
Foods that provide a great deal of satiety include:
- Cottage Cheese and Quark
- Dark Green vegetables
- Some fruit, including strawberries, blackberries, melons, papaya, plums and peaches
When following an ad libitum diet, you are looking to consume foods that you are going to find difficult to over-eat on. So calorie dense foods should be eaten very sparingly. The benefits of this type of diet is the fact that you have to base your diet around minimally-processed, whole foods, that are high in fibre and generally low in calorie density. This is a fantastic basis, not only for improved body composition, but also improved health.
Long-Term Weight Loss Dieting – An Overview
It is important to take a long-term approach to weight loss. Whilst aggressive dieting using large calorie deficits are fantastic tools for rapid fat loss, they simply are not sustainable in the long term. This is why I champion approaches that utilize more aggressive short-term measures, interspersed with periods that are more ‘relaxed’ in their approach. For example:
- Utilizing Planned ‘Diet Breaks’ every 12-16 weeks: Serves as a psychological release from dieting: “by breaking your dieting efforts up into smaller chunks, while maintaining control over your eating in the long-term, you are less likely to lose control or go off your diet completely” (McDonald, 2005). This approach also provides an opportunity to raise the hormone leptin and recover the metabolism that would have inevitably slowed down during the dieting process, I talk about this more in my previous article understanding metabolism for fat loss.
- ‘Unplanned’ Diet Breaks: Diet Breaks that are incorporated into holidays or busy periods when sticking to a rigid diet is going to prove extremely difficult.
- Implementing a Maintenance Diet: A maintenance diet is a diet that will maintain your current bodyweight/body-fat levels within a relatively narrow range. Utilizing a maintenance diet can be implemented once a client has reached their desired bodyweight or body fat level. It is at this stage that an ad libitum diet would be good to implement. It should also be noted that regular body-weight or body-fat assessment is necessary to ensure levels are being maintained. If weight starts to creep up then you can immediately take action to rectify this by changing food choices, portion sizes or activity levels.
Take Home Points:
- There is no single best way to prescribe diets – every client will have an individual set of circumstances that will need to be addressed
- Can be argued there is a natural progression from macro-tracking in the short-term to ad libitum dieting in the long-term
- Need to think about dieting from a long-term perspective, not just short-term, aggressive approaches
- Batra, P, et al, “Eating Behaviours as Predictors of Weight Loss in a 6 Month Weight Loss Intervention”, Obesity, 2013.
- Holt, S, et al, “A Satiety Index of Common Foods”, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1995.
- McDonald, L, “A Guide to Flexible Dieting”, 2005.