Sorry, there’s no magic bullet. You gotta eat healthy and live healthy to be healthy and look healthy. End of story.
What’s the best diet? If you have read my content for any length of time, you might remember that, in simple terms, a good diet to gain muscle involves a caloric surplus, whereas a good diet to lose fat involves a caloric deficit.
Any diet can be great as long as it accomplishes either task, depending on your goal.
A more effective question would be: What’s the best diet for you?
In this article, I am going to outline some benefits and downsides of three of the current most popular dieting approaches, so that, if you are considering any of these, you can make an informed decision.
The dieting strategies I will touch upon include:
I would like to clarify that perhaps none of these methods will be appropriate for you in the long term. In fact, I would rarely implement them with my own clients.
However, these diet trends still exist, and I thought that writing this post instead of ignoring their popularity might help people realise that none of these are “special” or in any way superior to others.
When it comes to a long-term way of eating, these are signs that the particular diet you are thinking of will work for you:
The keto diet and other low-carb diets
Fat loss pros and cons
One of the biggest pros of keto is its simplicity. All you need to do is drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake, with the exception of non-starchy vegetables and perhaps the occasional piece of fruit.
Carbohydrate-rich foods comprise the bulk of many people’s diet, so decreasing their consumption to such a dramatic extent has the benefit of achieving a caloric deficit in most cases and without tracking calories, unless the lowered amount of carbohydrate is counterbalanced by an increased and excessive consumption of protein and fats.
However, it has been reported that the first few weeks in a state of glycogen depletion – that is, your body’s carbohydrate stores become empty and you don’t refill them with more carbohydrate-containing foods – may cause short-term unpleasant effects, such as nausea, constipation, and headaches.
When your body adapts to the keto diet, these symptoms will eventually disappear. If you don’t want to experience them in the first place, you can also opt for a lower-carb approach without going “full keto.”
Another negative aspect of this type of diets is that, albeit simple, they can be hard to implement, especially at social gatherings or restaurants, where it is unlikely you will find a “keto friendly” or “low-carb friendly” menu.
Furthermore, if you don’t count your calories and don’t compensate for the lack of carbohydrates in your diet, you may not realise that you may be putting yourself in an excessively large caloric deficit. This could make the diet harder, cause your fat loss to plateau sooner, and even induce muscle mass loss in extreme cases.
Lastly, it can be easy to eat excessive amounts of fatty protein-rich foods, like beef, pork, and processed meats, instead of plant-derived unsaturated fats such as oils and nuts. This is going to impact your diet quality and potentially result in negative health effects in the long run.
Muscle gain pros and cons
Fat-rich food sources tend to contain more calories than carbohydrate-rich sources. If you struggle to eat enough when in a caloric surplus, a keto or low-carb diet could help you stomach the necessary amount of food without too much GI distress.
However, if you are trying to build muscle, chances are you lift weights to accomplish this. Resistance training is an activity largely fuelled by glycogen, therefore chronically low glycogen levels, as experienced with the keto diet and other forms of very low-carb dieting, might have a negative effect on your training.
To reduce or prevent this negative impact, you can have a higher carbohydrate intake than what low-carb or keto “technically” requires and cluster these carbs around your sessions. This way, you will utilise carbohydrate to power your workouts and enhance recovery.
Even so, I think there are easier ways to fuel high-quality performance.
For this reason, unless keto or a low-carb diet resulted in appreciably greater results than other higher-carb approaches, this would not be my personal preference when in a caloric surplus.
Fat loss pros and cons
Intermittent fasting isn’t a fat loss diet per se, unless you implement a caloric deficit. However, many people report it works even if they don’t count calories.
Do not be fooled by this claim. Not tracking your food intake does not mean you aren’t reducing it. When intermittent fasting results in fat loss, it is because narrowing your “feeding window” – that is, the number of hours during which you consume food – makes you eat less.
For example, some people struggle to overcome their late night snacking habit until they establish a rule not to eat after 6pm.
Snacks can easily contribute to a huge caloric surplus, so, if all of a sudden you stop having them, you might drop 200 to 500 calories per day. In most cases, this will create a caloric deficit.
This can be one of the main benefits of this nutritional approach: you could kickstart fat loss without having to think about it.
Furthermore, a recent review article by de Cabo and colleagues proposes that intermittent fasting could have some health benefits that may be independent from the improvements resulting from losing fat, although we need more research on this particular topic.
However, intermittent fasting might be difficult to stick to in social situations, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree than keto. For instance, I have met many “intermittent fasters” who told me they have to take a break over the festive period.
This can be a problem if, as soon as you stop intermittent fasting, you can’t help overeating.
In this situation, when you take a break from your fat loss phase, increasing your calories to maintenance, you could also take a break from intermittent fasting. During a diet break, you tend to drop some of the stress associated with caloric restriction. Therefore, this might be a great time to “train yourself” not to overeat when not intermittent fasting.
Muscle gain pros and cons
Intermittent fasting doesn’t appear to be detrimental to muscle growth, as showed so far by two studies, one conducted on male trainees and one on female lifters.
It is usually recommended that resistance trainees aim for a protein serving every three to five hours for a total of at least four. For this reason, intermittent fasting might seem unwise.
However, given the results of the two studies mentioned above, it is possible that a restricted feeding window might not be as bad as we may fear, as long as one consumed enough protein within a 24-hour period.
Nevertheless, if you want to optimise as many variables as you can to get the most out of your training and physique, then perhaps eating enough protein and spreading it out throughout the day might yield superior results.
Nonetheless, planning four or more meals might be unrealistic for some people with very hectic lives. In this context, intermittent fasting might actually the best option for the time being.
If that is the case, then make sure to aim for an appropriate amount of protein and you are unlikely to compromise your gains.
Lastly, when in a caloric surplus, cramming a high food intake into a short amount of time might be hard on your digestive system.
For this reason, you may want to look into foods that are easier on the stomach. Examples could be high-fat liquid foods, like oils and nut butters; fast-digesting carbohydrates, like low-fibre fruit and white bread; and protein shakes.
Fat loss pros and cons
Cycling calories means having “high-calorie days,” which most people schedule to coincide with a hard workout, and “low-calorie days,” which instead tend to correspond to rest days.
Much like intermittent fasting, cycling calories is another way of inducing a caloric deficit, so it will not help you lose fat unless you are in a state of negative energy balance.
That said, cycling calories can be really helpful to stave off hunger and to prevent “diet burnout.”
For instance, if after a leg workout you are always starving and tend to overshoot your caloric target, whereas you feel stuffed on a rest day, why not take 200 to 300 calories from that rest day and allocate them to leg day?
Or you may be “very good” with your diet Monday to Friday… only to cave at the weekends because you have been feeling restricted all week and want to “reward yourself.”
Unfortunately, the increase in calories often means that you are actually eating at maintenance or even in a slight surplus, not in a deficit. As a result, you may be “dieting” forever without seeing any changes.
In that case, lower you calories for the five days you know you can be compliant, and make Saturday and Sunday higher-calorie days without negating the caloric deficit.
For example, if you are dieting on 1800 calories per day (12 600 calories per week), you could try five days at 1700 calories and two days at 2000 calories (12 500 calories per week). As the total weekly calories are similar, you would be able to remain in a caloric deficit and successfully lose fat.
To note, this advantage of calorie cycling could turn into a negative if you lower your calories too much on certain days, as it may lead to binge eating on a higher-calorie day.
For this reason, try not to allocate more than 20% of your daily target to a different day. For example, having 4000 calories on one day and 1000 for the next three would not be the smartest choice.
Muscle gain pros and cons
We used to believe that it would be better to eat less on rest days and more on training days. However, this doesn’t appear to have any benefit for gaining muscle when compared to an isocaloric diet, where you eat the same calories every day instead of cycling them.
This doesn’t mean that you should not cycle your calories.
You may feel that having more calories on hard training days gives you the extra boost you need to make progress, and you don’t have any issue reducing your food intake on rest days.
In fact, some bigger individuals, who might struggle to get in enough food to achieve a surplus, would find this method extremely helpful, as it would allow them to eat more when they are actually hungry and eat less when they don’t feel like it.
A downside to this dieting strategy would be that it forces you to pay a lot of attention to your nutrition. A muscle gain phase is supposed to be more relaxed than a fat loss phase, so, if you are someone who finds it stressful to count calories, you may want to avoid this at maintenance or in a surplus, in case the negative effects on your mindset prevent you from achieving your targets.
As I said at the beginning of the article, these diets are different tools at your disposal, which may be better suited to the pursuit of a short-term result than to a longer-term lifestyle.
Hopefully, this piece equipped you with the insight you needed to make an informed decision about whether any of these – or none of them! – could work for you at this moment in time.
Have you ever tried any of these diets? Comment below with your experience!
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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