There is more to fat loss than nutrition. We know that. We need to accumulate plenty of low-intensity movement every day, we need to occasionally lift heavy things and move at high-intensities, we need to sleep well and we need effective stress management. Pretty straightforward. But then we come to nutrition and there is consternation and confusion. Certainly, some aspects of nutrition are subject to debate. Is consuming too much protein damaging? How much is too much? Can athletes thrive on high-fat diets? Is organic really worth the extra cost? There are lots of interesting opinion, and some more compelling than others. But today, I want to focus on what is not debatable and provide an effective nutrition template that will work for most people, most of the time.
To begin with, if you are still buying into the low-fat dogma, that’s the first thing we need to address. Snap out of it! Haven’t you heard about Ancel Keys and his Seven Countries Study in 1953 that got us all into this mess? If not here’s a two minute video from Fat Head that will fill you in.
“It’s become part of the zeitgeist. Everybody knows saturated fat is bad for you. But when you start looking at the medical literature, and you root back through and find out where this whole idea came from, it’s bogus.” Michael Eades, M.D
If you want to learn more how everything we thought we knew about dietary fat is wrong and why, read Nina Teicholz’s recently published book The Big Fat Surprise. Or the infamous Good Calories, Bad Calories that kicked off the whole debate in 2007. For now, it’s safe to say that we were duped. Just because your nutrition text book says dietary fat makes you fat, doesn’t make it so. As a caveat, of course you might find some initial success in losing weight with a low-fat diet, but that’s not necessarily because you are avoiding fatty foods. Remember correlation does not imply causation and that’s a topic for another day.
Many knowledgeable nutrition coaches out there will argue that a calorie deficit is still the key to fat loss, and that’s fair enough. But focusing on cutting calories is sending the wrong message. There’s more calories in a gram of fat than a gram of carbs so if I need to cut calories I’ll eat a low-fat diet, right? Or I’ll just eat less food altogether, has anyone tried the no-calorie diet?! This dieting culture has little regard for the quality and nutrient density of food, it runs your hormonal system into the ground and low and behold you eventually become sick and put on more fat. That seems to explain how ‘less-calories’ diets work in the beginning, but ultimately plateau and fail. As Dan John says, anything works for a while.
If your main beef with the Paleo diet (pardon the pun) is that it does not accurately reflect what our Palaeolithic ancestors consumed because of modern cultivation, stop that! You are missing the point, and you will find that none of the most well-known proponents of the Paleo diet such as Lorain Cordain, Robb Wolf, or Chris Kresser, argues the case in the first place. Which makes much of the points in this TED Talk on Debunking the Paleo Diet a straw man argument. You should watch the video, and if you have a lot of time on your hands read Robb Wolf’s rebuttal. Interesting stuff. It doesn’t matter what it is called, Mark Sisson refers to it as the Primal Eating Plan, if that makes people feel better. It is the principles behind it that are important. That is the premise that we are better off eating mostly veggies and high-quality meats that suit our 10,000-year-old genes, rather than the food-like products and grains that are thrust upon us morning, noon and night in recent decades.
Of course, if we are dealing with athletes we may want to top up our glycogen stores with some Basmati Rice or Quinoa when we need it for high-intensity practice or performance, and no that wouldn’t be strictly paleo. We might even snack on a Cottage Cheese snack or enjoy a Burrito bowl with some kidney beans in there every now and again. But that’s why this article is called A Fat Loss Nutrition Template. And remember, even if you are an athlete, performance in most sports will suffer if you are overweight.
At the end of the day, a Paleo or Primal diet will work as a basic eating template for most people because a) it is simple, b) it focuses on real food. Both of which are essential components in any nutrition plan. We know that the more complicated we make change, the less likely we are to succeed in making the change. And we intuitively know that real food is good for our bodies, if we can just avoid falling for marketing campaigns that convince us of the health benefits of low-fat microwaveable pizza and Lucozade.
The Metabolic Typing diet isn’t much in fashion these days but the idea of Biochemical Individuality and the premise that we all have different nutritional needs no doubt still holds true. There are some excellent resources out there that can help us customize our diet to our specific needs, I would personally recommend Chris Kresser’s Your Personal Paleo Code and Diane Sanfilippo’s Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and Whole-Foods Lifestyle. These can help us with digestive health, issues, thyroid health, chronic fatigue, and other issues. Remember the Hippocrates quote: Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. Wise man. And further to the healing properties of food, we will all thrive on different macronutrient ratios, some better on more fat, and others better on more carbs. If you do a lot of heavy lifting you will want to take some extra protein on board, if you are going to play a hurling match you will want to top of your glycogen stores with some sweet potatoes or rice. But for now, with a focus on fat loss, keep it simple and try the basic Paleo template first. As Robb Wolf always says, try no legumes, no grains, and no dairy for thirty days and then see how you look, feel, and perform. That’s keeping it simple. After that you can start to tinker with those other foods that you might be able to digest and absorb just fine.
Most people these days consume too many grains, whether we are able to digest them efficiently or not. If you have cereal or porridge for breakfast, a sandwich for dinner, and pasta for dinner, that’s grains, grains, and more grains. Hard to argue with that. In this case, we are what Mark Sisson calls Sugar Burners. Constantly burning glycogen to produce energy, and craving more carbs to replenish these glycogen stores for the next time (then storing the excess carbs as fat).
Consequently, our bodies are not very adept at accessing our fat stores to produce energy, which is not ideal if we want to lose fat and get leaner. We want to become more fat-adapted and we can do this by easing off on the constant carb-loading and give the body a chance to build the mitochondrial machinery to burn fat more efficiently. Thus, if we eat accordingly and give the body a chance we can go from being Sugar Burners to Fat-Burning Beasts. When you get to this place, you will not crave carbs every other hour of the day and your body will be able to use fat as its primary fuel source. Good news if you have some extra adipose tissue that you are happy to get rid of. For most people that should be the goal and the basic paleo template will help get you there: fish, meat, poultry, green vegetables, more vegetables, and water.
My advice would be to fix the basics and don’t worry about calories until you are very lean and want to get even leaner, or you are too skinny and want to bulk up. I have yet to meet someone who has become fat from eating too much green, leafy vegetables and grass-fed beef. Once we repair our damaged hormonal systems and emotional relationship with food, our bodies will self-regulate the amount of food we really need to take in. And we could always dip into our reserve of common sense every now and again. Too much of anything is bad for you. We don’t need to throw the Paleo Baby out with the bathwater just because some people eat 5 bags of Brazil nuts a day and 10 bits of bacon every morning. You don’t need to get your calorie calculator out to know that that’s just silly.
“We’ve known for years what to do. Parsing out whether one specific diet is better than the other is no longer a valid question. The question is how do we get people to do it? How do we get the majority to make the long term behaviour change and stick with it.”
That’s why a simple approach is the best one. Because good advice not followed is still bad advice and the best plan is the one you stick to consistently. As Lyle McDonald mentions, the big challenge is long-term behaviour change. Remove the psychological stress and constant motivational demands of dieting by building lasting healthy habits and make good nutrition easy.
Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.