What Works, What Doesn’t and How to Make Nutrition a Lifestyle

By Amanda L. Lim

It’s the first quarter of the new year, and if you are a trainer or nutritionist that can’t make ends meet at this time of year, you’re probably better off hanging it up. This is the time when clients are literally crawling out of the woodwork to try and make significant life changes, whether it’s getting back to the gym, making long lists of new year’s resolutions, or going on the next fad diet.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with diets, except for the fact that 95% of them don’t work (and, in my opinion, even that number seems low). Sure, you may go low-carb and lose a few pounds, or try veganism and drop a dress size, but rarely does the weight loss – or the food habit itself – actually stick. Diets fail because restriction over the long-haul is tough. What seems like a fun challenge in the beginning (think “30 Day No Sugar” plans) becomes a boring drudgery after day, say, 200.

The thing is: Diets that can’t (or shouldn’t) become lifestyles will never succeed. No one can go without sugar for a lifetime. Joy cannot be found by eliminating an entire food group forever, and short-term solutions like teetotaling for Dry January or juice-cleansing for a week can only go so far – they’re not solutions for long-term health. So what actually works?

The reason that any type of diet succeeds boils down to one thing: caloric deficit. You must intake fewer calories than you are burning, and you must do this more often than not (think 80% of the time). Calorie deficits should be created in two ways, both by controlling food intake and by participating in regular exercise.

When my clients are just starting out, I recommend they aim for a moderate deficit of 250 calories per day, created by both diet and exercise. Once they get the hang of it (and stop feeling symptoms like hunger, tiredness, or irritability, all of which can come from a sudden drop of calories in your daily diet), I recommend they move to a deficit of 500 calories per day to produce a net weight loss of about a pound per week. This speed of weight loss ensures that you can maintain your metabolic rate and not experience the plateaus or “crashes” of faster styles of weight loss, such as long fasts or cleanses, or sub-1,200-calorie diet programs.

Once you’ve mastered the deficit, it’s time to consider your macronutrients. Known as “macros” for short, this term refers to the fat, protein and carbohydrate proportions that make up your daily calories. For example, two people can eat 1,600 calories per day, but if one person is eating all of those calories from sugary carbohydrates, while the other is eating a balanced diet of high protein, some healthy fats and a few complex carbohydrates, the latter person will very likely look and feel much better (with a more favorable fat-to-muscle ratio to boot). If you are unsure about the ratio of carbs, proteins and fats that you are eating, I recommend using a free food logging app like MyFitnessPal, which converts your food into macros and helps you monitor your caloric deficit as well.

Once you’ve got an idea of what macronutrient proportions you tend to eat, it’s time to decide what kind of nutrition approach will work for you. Do you prefer more carbohydrates in the morning for energy, then taper off with lean proteins in the evening as you prepare for rest? Do you tend to spread out your meals into small, frequent servings or get most of your calories in one or two bigger meals? Do you like to count calories and track your intake to a T, or would you rather a more flexible approach that focuses on food choice rather than calorie counting?

There is no single path to successful dieting; however, the closer you can match your normal preferences and ways of eating to the dietary strategy you want to try, the more successful you’ll be.

For example, intermittent fasting (IF) is an effective weight loss approach that works wonders for those who aren’t hungry in the morning, prefer larger meals rather than several smaller ones and don’t want to necessarily focus on calories. The idea is that you eat all of your meals within an 8-hour window (say, 12pm-8pm), and only have water or calorie-free beverages outside of that window (no food). Proponents of intermittent fasting report rapid fat loss, increased mental clarity and even improved immune response when performed consistently over time.

Another popular method is the Ketogenic diet, which focuses on high-fat and extremely low-carbohydrate eating in order to move the body into ketosis (a state where the body burns stored fat for fuel). Keto diets work great for those who prefer the satiety of higher-fat foods (hello bacon and cheese!), enjoy being in a community of like-minded folks (there are huge amounts of keto-friendly restaurants, shops and online groups to help support this style of eating) and don’t mind a little extra prep work in the kitchen (it can be challenging to find strict keto-approved foods at parties or when out and about). The benefits of the Keto diet include increased fat-burning metabolism, better skin quality and potentially a reduction in risk factors for several types of cancer.

Though IF and Keto are surely trendy right now, don’t be lured by this alone: There is nothing about a diet or nutrition program that needs to be “hip” or cool. The best path to losing weight is simply to create and maintain a caloric deficit through a balanced, reasonable eating plan and moderate exercise, and while not glamorous or flashy, that’s the truth. If you are unsure where to start, consult a registered dietitian or certified nutritionist to help you turn a “diet” into a lasting lifestyle – it’s one of the best investments you can make for your own long-term health.