Comparing the Diets: Part 1

If you read diet literature, it seems as if there are nearly an infinite number of dietary approaches out there. However, once you start looking at it in terms of generalities, you find that this isn’t really the case. The number of distinct dietary approaches is actually quite minimal.

I’m going to ignore the really weird stuff that’s out there, by the way. Food combining, metabolic typing, I consider all of that to be voodoo nutrition. If such approaches work for you, fantastic, but I doubt they are working for the reasons you think they are working.

In general, folks have generally divided themselves into three different ‘camps’ when it comes to diet. All of the groups tend to proclaim loudly that their approach is best and all are quite able to bring research to the table to support their diet in some degree.

Testimonies always abound about how a specific diet just did amazing things and you can find them for any diet out there. A bigger cynic might conclude that all diets work (as long as they meet a few basic requirements) and to, a great degree, there is some truth to this. As long as a diet gets you to eat less, you should lose at least some weight.

At the same time, you can always find folks who did poorly on a given approach. It’s easy (and a copout) to blame the dieter and there are situations where a given diet may simply be inappropriate (or less than ideal) for a given situation. A dieter may fail on a diet for the simple reason that it doesn’t meet their needs, a topic I discuss in How Dieters Fail Diets.

But that doesn’t change the rather loud proclamations of the various dietary camps that they have the ONE TRUE DIET ™. It’s not far from claims of having the ONE TRUE RELIGION ™ in a lot of ways.

What few of these groups are willing to admit or acknowledge, and what I’ve tried to make a recurring theme in this book is that different diets are more or less appropriate depending on the situation. Each of the different diets may be the ‘correct’ approach, simply at different times and under different sets of circumstances.

Rather than promoting a specific diet as being optimal under all situations, I take the stance that the choice of diet (for example high vs. low-carbohydrate) is context specific: different diets are more or less appropriate under a given set of conditions. Sure, I’d sell more copies of my books if I told you I had the ONE TRUE DIET (TM) but that’d be bullshit because I don’t think it’s true.

Frankly, I feel that this is a big part of why you can always find someone reporting near magical results with a given diet: whether by design or by accident, they stumbled on the diet that happened to meet their specific needs. At the same time, it’s easy to find people who weren’t so lucky: who by design or accident picked the absolutely wrong diet for their situation. Results, as would be expected, are poor.

As I mentioned above, you might note in this regards, that diet gurus almost never report their failures (or they blame failure on the dieter), focusing only on those individuals who got stunning results. To say that this is intellectually dishonest would be an understatement.

I’m going to present, discuss and describe three distinct dietary approaches in this and the next two articles: high carb/low-fat, moderate carb/moderate fat and low-carb/high fat. If you read Dan Duchaine’s Bodyopus, they should seem quite familiar as he described a standard high-carb/low-fat diet, the Isocaloric diet and finally his take on the ketogenic diet, Bodyopus.

However, the way Dan’s book was written, it almost seemed as if dieters were supposed to move sequentially through each diet: starting with the standard high-carb approach, then to Isocaloric, finally to Bodyopus. Figuring that most people were ‘used’ to seeing the standard approach first, he described it first; it was pandering to the psychological hangups of dieters as much as anything else.

I am going to take a different approach in this article series. Rather than have folks pick a diet at random, find out that it’s not appropriate for them (losing valuable dieting time) and then try the next diet, I prefer to take a broader approach.

First I want to discuss each of the three diets in terms of their pros and cons and under what situations and conditions they might be ideal or less so. Odds are you’ll find a description of your specific situation (or something close to it) in that discussion. That should point you towards which approach might be ideal for you and you can look at the detail chapters to get the specifics of the how to optimize the diet. Of course, I can’t predict every possible situation, in some cases you might have to take a stab at one of the dietary approaches and then make modifications.

I’ll say it again, for the slow of reading: none of the three diets described in this book is the ‘best’ across the board. Not high-carb, not moderate carb, not low-carb (so please quit calling me the keto guru). Put differently, I am absolutely NOT an advocate of a given dietary approach except inasmuch as it meets the needs of the individual. I’ll rant about this one last time in the next chapter.

One More time: Protein Intake

Before continuing, I want to harp on the issue of protein intake one more time, an issue I discuss in more detail in Is A Calorie A Calorie? In this article series, I’m mainly going to focus on manipulations in carbohydrate and fat intake; I assume protein intake to be set adequately and identically in each of the three diets I’m going to discuss. Basically, this isn’t a discussion of how low-carb diets are ‘better’ but only because they happen to get people eating more protein. Understand, protein intake is taken to be sufficient and identical regardless of the rest of the diet.

That assumption means a protein intake of 1-1.5 g/lb (roughly 1.8-3.0 g/kg or thereabouts). Again, that means that, in this discussion, I’ll be focusing primarily on variations on carbohydrate and fat content since, as I’ve mentioned before, that’s generally what’s being shuffled around.

Defining Terms

Even though I threw around the terms high, moderate and low above in terms of carbohydrate and fat content above, I’m not happy with them. As I discussed Diet Percentages, such terms tend to be generally meaningless. A diet containing nothing but 50 grams of protein per day might be ‘high-protein’ because it’s a 100% protein diet but it’s ‘low-protein’ compared to what the body actually might require. As well, as much as I don’t like percentage based diets, I need some way to differentiate the various diet camps from one another. I’m not saying mine are necessarily correct, simply that that’s what I’ll be using. But so we’re clear I’m going to use the following terminology:

Low-fat: anything below 30% of total calories (this is the standard definition) Note: to athletes and obsessive dieters, low-fat usually means 10% or ‘as low as I can get it’

Moderate-fat: 30-40% of total calories Note: some researchers use 25-35% as moderate fat

High-fat: anything above 40% of total calories

Low-carbohydrate: less than 20% of total calories
Note: a true ketogenic diet contains, by definition, less than 100 g carbs/day. But while all ketogenic diets are low-carbohydrate, not all low-carbohydate diets are ketogenic

Moderate-carbohydrate: 20-45% of total calories

High-carbohydrate: 45% of total calories or higher

Since protein intake will always be set at about the same level (between 1.0-1.5 g/lb which is generally between 25 and 40% of total calories), I’m not going to bother defining terms for it. You can call it low-protein or high-protein or Susan for all I care; I consider it the proper protein intake and that’s all that matters.

So, using those numbers, a traditional athletic ‘low-fat’ diet would contain approximately 60% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 10% fat. Moderate fat diets such as The Zone, Dan’s Isocaloric diet and others contain anywhere 30-33% protein, 33-40% carbs, and 30-33% fat on average. A typical low-carbohydrate/high-fat diet would contain 30% protein, 20% carbs or less and 50% fat or more.

I want to make the point once more that such percentages don’t necesarily have any relevance to actual human needs, which are better expressed in terms of g/lb or g/kg. I’m simply using them for convenience here. Again, read Diet Percentages if you’re unclear on why I’m saying this.

To be continued in Comparing the Diets: Part 2.

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