If you’ve ever read a fitness magazine or searched for any health-related information on the Internet, this is probably how you feel. Or maybe it’s more like, “WTF! Why does every piece of information contradict the other?”
First carbs are bad, and then they’re considered kinda rad (for athletes, at least). We say fats aren't part of the plan, but what about Paleo, where bacon is the jam? I hear that intermittent fasting can eliminate fat… or is that only true if you’re a lab rat? It’s enough to make you want to throw your computer across the room—and not just because of the terrible rhymes.
This stuff (nutrition and fitness) is a business—one of misinformation, overreactions, and enough double-talk to make you think Paleo and Atkins are running against Mediterranean and Low-Sugar for the office of diet supremacy. Like any election, all candidates have their flaws, but that’s a major reason why I’m writing this column, Naked Truth: less confusion, more answers, and a place for you to turn when you’re sick of reading everything and just want to know what to believe.
I’m not here to break the news. I’m here to make sense of it all so you can live a healthy life without all the added stress and second-guessing. And while you can safely assume any plan that includes the words “cookie” or “miracle” is full of sh!t, trying to tackle every new diet trend would be an impossible task. Instead of naming names, here are three tips to help you figure out what actually works and what might work best for you.
1. Avoid any plan that points out one “enemy.”
So many new trends in the health and fitness world use smart marketing techniques to both scare you and promise quick results. Neither is usually valid, which is why it’s important to read this next part very carefully: Weight loss is a complex topic. It’s about calories, food quality, hormones, health history, genetics, exercise, body type, food sensitivity, age, and even your family history.
Does that mean you need to become a nutrition expert before trying any new eating plan? Hell no. But it does mean that if any diet suggests changing one element is the “key to success,” you should run. Fast.
It is a gross overstatement to say that avoiding any one of the following items is “all it takes”: carbs, fat, wheat, dairy, gluten, sugar, late-night eating, or processed and/or packaged foods. Can adjusting your diet around these things lead to weight loss? Of course. But it’s not the long-term solution. Why? Because it relies on unnecessary restriction of foods you might enjoy, which limits the likelihood that you’ll stick with it.
86 percent of people who thought they were gluten intolerant were not.
Yes, some people might actually need to avoid certain foods or ingredients due to food allergies (which is an entirely different, super-interesting topic), but the truth is most people are overreacting and cutting foods from their diet because they’ve been tricked into believing these “bad foods” are a health problem. They’re not.
For the most part, odds are you don’t have a food allergy—no matter how much the latest book might try to convince you otherwise. Case in point: Research found that 86 percent of people who thought they were gluten intolerant were not. And scientists estimate that only one to two percent of people in the world actually suffer from gluten intolerance. If you’re truly allergic to a food, then you’ll experience a reaction in your body when you eat it, similar to how pollen crushes my sinuses every summer.
If you’re trying to understand nutrition, it’s best to consider the words of Mike Israetel, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Temple University:
“Ultimately, successfully countering weight gain and obesity is a combination of many nutrition and behavioral principles that keep the fundamentals (like calorie balance) in mind. Catchphrase demonization of a single nutrient as a magic-bullet cure is unlikely to ever be the solution, and–in fact–more likely to create problems and confusion about how to fight obesity.”
2. Think of dieting like dating (hear me out).
Looking at what works for your friend, sister, coworker, or favorite Instagram star is a bad idea. And yet, that’s often how a lot of people get inspired to start a new diet. Instead, think of dieting like dating.
You wouldn’t choose to be in a relationship with someone who you despise from day one, so why would you do that with the foods you eat. Every. Single. Day. Anything that sounds like it might make your life miserable is going to be a problem. Your body might survive just fine, but your mind won’t. You will quit the plan, you will learn to hate healthy eating, and you’ll probably end up more frustrated and confused than when you started.
After working with hundreds of clients over the past 10 years, here are a few things I’ve seen:
Bad Relationship No. 1
Molly wants to try a low-carb diet, but she loves pasta. She’ll be OK for four to six weeks, snap, pay rent at her favorite Italian spot for the next month, and then think dieting can’t work.
Bad Relationship No. 2
Paul loves dessert. He tries a clean eating plan of mainly chicken and broccoli. It satisfies him for about two weeks, and then he becomes grumpy and hates his life.
Bad Relationship No. 3
Rebecca loves breakfast. It’s her favorite meal of the day. But she’s heard that intermittent fasting works really well and that she should only eat during an eight-hour window that starts at 12 p.m. every day. This relationship does not go well.
The problems repeat over and over (and over) again. Choosing a diet because it sounds good or because it worked for your BFF and not prioritizing your personality, preferences, and lifestyle sets you up to fail.
“Do what works for your body" is simple advice, but it works incredibly well. And it makes perfect sense. You have a different body than your friends or siblings, so why wouldn’t you want to make slight, personalized adjustments that seem to fit?
If you want to live a healthy, low-stress life, you need to honestly consider whether a plan is a good fit for you.
3. Focus on the big picture.
The most important parts of any healthy eating plan–whether low-carb, low-sugar, or anything in between–are consistency and sustainability. (I’ve written about it many times.) You must see the bigger picture when it comes to nutrition and your health. Just as you don’t transform your body by doing one exercise repeatedly for 30 days, you won’t change your body permanently by committing to something for such a short period of time.
Eating is social, fun, and should bring happiness. You should feel in control and know that your healthy choices are making a difference and helping in the ways you want—without preventing you from living your normal life.
Choosing your diet is like investing in your career. If you want to rise to the top, you have to play the long game. It’s not sexy. It’s not an exciting sell. But at the end of the day, when done right, it’s always more rewarding.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times best-selling author and the founder of Born Fitness, a company on a mission to cut through the noise and share what you need to know to live a healthy, happy life. He extends that mission even further as Greatest’s Naked Truth columnist. Learn more on his profile page or follow BornFitness on Facebook.