Are health and weight loss mutually exclusive?
There's a lot of confusion going on out there in the nutrition world. I get it, I get confused, too. You hear a study, the protein in eggs is great for weight loss! 🥳 But then, another study says eggs can contribute to higher cholesterol. 😢 What gives?
This isn't just about eggs. Surely, you've heard this one: a friend says, I lost weight eating nothing but fat and protein. Wow, you think, they look great, but you secretly wonder just how healthy gobs of fat and meat could really be. You had recently heard that whole grains were really health and that one should always eat lots of fruits and veggies. 🧐 Similarly, you decide to start replacing sugary snacks with lots of nuts to help facilitate weight loss - you've heard almonds are really healthy and you actually like them - so you grab a few handfuls a day to help you lose weight...but you realize you haven't lost a pound - in fact, you actually think you've gained one. 🤦♀️
In nutrition, I tend to think there are two elements that are not, in fact, mutually exclusive...I will show how they combine below. Here's an infographic to help illustrate it:
On the left side is health. When one is eating with their health in mind, they are focused on consuming a diet rich in vitamins and minerals (commonly referred to as "micronutrients"). They are mindful of developments in nutrition that maximize the energy-promoting elements of food, while minimizing the disease-promoting elements and, moreover, may actually help to prevent or even reverse disease. Think of the Hippocrates quote:
Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.
Focusing on health may mean learning about certain "superfoods" that recent studies promote - these foods are found to be particularly dense in a certain micronutrient that has particular protective properties (recently: berries and chia seeds).
This all sounds great - and it is - however, the problem with focusing on health is twofold - 1. Individuals can be come obsessed with these superfoods, thinking they will be a cure-all when in fact they may be sadly over-hyped, and 2. They may be so concerned with eating healthfully that they forget that these "superfoods" still "count" as calories are concerned. In other words, healthy foods can still contribute to weight gain! Additionally and even more frustrating, what was considered a "superfood" today may lose its luster tomorrow.
The central tenet to weight loss is creating a caloric deficit - in other words, you are consuming fewer calories than you are burning (conversely, you are expending more than you are eating). This tenet is the subject of much debate and it's not a perfect science - the amount that you burn on any given day is NOT static, and your environment, stress, sleep, hormones, etc can all impact the rate at which you burn calories; this is why it can seem that this concept is, at times, faulty. However, the premise still holds, it's just that one's caloric burn is never a steady thing (nor is the amount of calories in our foods - packages can be wrong, sizes can be different, etc).
Also central to weight loss (at the least the kind of weight loss that I hope any of my clients are looking for) is consuming adequate protein to maintain as much lean muscle mass as possible (critical for protecting one's metabolism and strength). Additionally, lowering one's weight to an ideal range helps to promote health since excessive weight is associated with a host of chronic health problems.
The problem with focusing exclusively on weight loss can be adopting strange diets or habits that promote loss but do so to the exclusion of entire foods or food groups (e.g., prohibiting carbs). Additionally, understanding the calories in/calories out premise, one may focus exclusively on calories (quantity) without consideration for nutrients (i.e., quality) - think a diet in which one loses weight eating a lot of low-cal but nutrient-poor "junk" food.
Neither of these approaches are perfect if one's goal is HEALTHY WEIGHT MANAGEMENT. Instead, the goal should be to combine them, which can be accomplished by:
1. Eating in a caloric deficit but maximizing nutrients (vitamins and minerals) - this is where eating lots of veggies is particularly important. They are low cal, fill one up, but pack quite the vitamin and mineral punch.
2. Recognize that you must consume the correct caloric level for your particular training status (how hard you've been training lately, body composition), current activity level (how intense your workouts actually are), and your goal. As I hinted at earlier, this caloric level is far from static on a day-to-day basis. My caloric intake varies quite a bit depending on how intensely I work out, how much I have been working out for a while, and what I'm trying to accomplish at that point in time. If I am focusing on performance, I will consume more calories. If I am focused on shedding some body fat, I will consume fewer calories. The best way to learn about your appropriate caloric goal is to track your calories for about one week. See my post on that HERE. While it's not a perfect science, it's much more precise and far more accurate than constantly guessing and then wondering why "I can't lose weight"...see my post on that HERE.
3. Your particular diet must work for your lifestyle - not your friend's, your mom's, or that lady on the talk show who lost 20 pounds in three weeks eating bacon (I swear, I don't hate bacon, it's just...it's not a "health" food, sorry). If you travel a lot and have to eat out with clients frequently or at airports and restaurants, your healthy weight loss diet might look substantially different than someone who is retired and enjoys cooking frequently. Importantly, BOTH of these individuals can follow a diet that promotes health and weight management.
4. Similarly, your diet MUST include foods you love. I am not saying that you can indulge in booze, high-cal desserts, and rich sauces in every meal/day, BUT you can learn to incorporate these foods regularly and frequently while still promoting good health and a weight reduction. This is all about creating that caloric goal, infusing it with tons of nutrient-dense, calorie-poor foods, while leaving room for reasonable amounts of foods you love (you know, like ice cream!). 😉 See my two posts on this specific topic HERE and HERE.
If you have questions about how this can work for you, consider working with me for a three-month fitness solution to figure out how you can incorporate foods you love into a plan that highlights lots of health-promoting, disease-fighting foods.
In good health,