Debunking Dietary Absolutes

Is there such a thing as a dietary absolute? I’ve been pondering this question since encountering yet another bit of dietary advice in a recent book that was presented to the reader as an absolute must.  I read it and chuckled a little to myself. Although the author is well intentioned, it was one of those perpetuated myths that has been disproven many a time, both in literature and in my own personal experience. Clearly not a “must” if the principal is not universally applicable or necessary.

So is there really a universal dietary absolute out there?  Something that all dieters and healthy individuals must follow? I’ve been racking my brain for an answer to this question and the closest thing I can come up with to an absolute must is simply the basics of human survival:

Drink water and ingest calories.

Yeah, it seems like a no brainer, but these really are the only absolutes out there.  You can survive a few days without water, considerably longer without food, but eventually you will need both if you want to continue living.

Beyond that, the waters get muddied with recommendations on caloric and nutrient requirements.  Time and time again, that multitude of information regarding healthy diet and losing weight is delivered to the reader in terms of absolutes.  Don’t eat carbs. Limit your fat. Don’t eat too much protein. Don’t eat late at night. You must eat breakfast. Avoid white foods. You must eat 6 meals a day. Calories in = calories out. Calories don’t matter. To maximize digestion efficiency spin in a counter clockwise circle for 5 minutes after every meal.

Okay, I made that last one up (seriously, don’t try it. I’m not responsible for any vomiting), but you get the point.  Diet books are written in terms of absolutes because most readers want to be told what to do.  They want to believe in the system that was sold to them, that this is THE ONE that is going to work no matter how many other diets they’ve tried. They want the guesswork taken out of things so the task at hand becomes less stressful.

For a few people, this works magically, just as advertised.  They lose weight and keep it off, and generally are a healthier version of who they were just a few weeks or months ago. That’s great, those “absolutes” worked for them. Others may try it, experience no success, and ultimately go back right to where they were because “dieting doesn’t work”. Those “absolutes”, they didn’t apply to that particular person, and end up not being as absolute as the author would have you believe. That’s not to say that there aren’t certain principles that seem to breed better success than others.

These two outcomes though, in some part, explain why the market is absolutely inundated with diet books.  Most of them in all likelihood work for someone, but none of them work for everyone.  If there was a diet out there that worked for absolutely everyone that would be a game changer.  Boom! Obesity epidemic cured. Millions saved in health care costs. We all live longer and happier lives. Case closed, right?

Unfortunately, no.  So, where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave the 95% of dieters that fail (Yes, that’s a real stat)? First, you have to take a step back and evaluate.  Did you fail the diet or did the diet fail you? Get to the root cause of that failure.  Were those dietary absolutes too hard to follow or did you follow them to a ’T’ and still not see results.  Were you looking at body composition changes or purely weight loss on the scale? Did you give your body long enough to change and adapt?

Between reality shows like The Biggest Loser and marketing tactics of most diets the consumer is led to expect rapid and noticeable results, when the actual reality is that those advertised results are extreme cases. Those results are appealing to our increasing need for instant gratification, and that’s where a lot of consumers fall into a trap.

Weight loss, for most of us, is a grind. It’s not something that happens overnight.  You fight and you struggle and there are ups and downs, but the people who have long term success are those that incorporate new, healthy habits and stay persistent no matter the results.

Personally I like to do one month dietary experiments where I change a single variable, usually a dietary habit or principle, and give it a month to see what impact that had.  I find that the small change is easy and sustainable, due to the fact that I am usually changing just the one thing. Whereas a mainstream diet will have an entire list of absolutes (do this and this and this, but don’t do this or this or stay away from this) for you to incorporate. That’s overwhelming, more so if that list is loaded heavily on the “Don’t Do” items. Instead introduce a single change and that becomes so much more manageable.

I’ve also found that committing to a month is long enough to see results, and yet short enough to enhance my adherence rate.  A month is not too daunting of a period of time to incorporate a change, especially if it’s something that I perceive I may struggle with. Know at the end of that month, once you’ve made that assessment of the impact that change had, you have the ability to choose whether or not you continue with that behavior.

This leads to a more long term, progressive approach that people in our “gotta have it now” society struggle with.  It’s an unappealing, un-sexy approach that’s full of possibilities, not absolutes. Embrace this process though, and suddenly a failed diet is no longer a failure and a reason to give up. Instead it’s a learning experience. That particular change didn’t work for you.  Learn from it and move on. What is the next possibility that you can incorporate? Let’s try that for a month. By the same token if that particular change did work it’s perfectly okay to continue for another month without any further changes. Why mess with a good thing, right?

It’s trial and error to a degree, but there are smart ways to incorporate this approach.  Looking at all of the absolutes set forth by all of the particular diets on the market you begin to see commonalities. These are the shared principles I mentioned that are likely to breed more success than others. Distill these principles into a list of possibilities. This is why I like to read diet books. It’s not because I’m looking for an entirely new diet to follow, it’s because I enjoy finding these commonalities (or, when you’ve been at it as long as I have, the occasional radical new concept that seems fun to try) and add them to my list of possibilities.

Once you’ve generated that list you need to step back and evaluate it. Find ONE thing to implement.  Which of those possibilities is going to have the highest impact? You may not know this inherently, but here’s a hint: if it’s mentioned in a majority of your sources, then it’s likely to have a high impact value. These are good candidates. In addition, which of those possibilities is going to be easiest to implement and stick to for that month?  These are also good candidates.  Better yet, is there something on that list that meets both criteria? Put it at the top. That’s your first possibility.

If you need a place to start, here’s a list of high impact hitters that have proven time and time again to be successful habits:

1.    Drink more water – 0.5 – 1.0 oz of water per pound of bodyweight. Err on the high side if you’re exercising.
2.    Eat more vegetables – 6-10 servings a day is a good goal, but heck one or two servings more than you’re doing now is a step in the right direction
3.    Sleep 7 hours or more a night
4.    Eat more protein – 0.8 – 1.0 grams per pound of lean body mass. For a general estimation of lean body mass check out this calculator.
5.    Walk more – Start with just twenty minutes a day and work your way up. I shoot for at least 10000 steps in addition to my planned exercise for the day

You’ll notice not all of these are specific diet advice, but damn if they don’t have a high impact on weight loss.

I encourage you to add to that list and start your own mini-experiments.  Explore the possibilities and stay persistent.  Results may not come right away.  I’ve had months of great success, and months of stagnation. Even a month or two of regression (those particular habits did NOT become permanent). You need to learn from both the good months and the bad months. Remember there are no failures, only opportunities to learn.

This is a systematic approach that challenges those dietary absolutes on an individual level. It’s an approach that sets you up for long term success based on your unique biology.  Keep at it, grind it out, and stay persistent. If you pursue it long enough, tweaking variables and adapting to what works for you, you can develop your own system that absolutely works.

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