N.B. It is suggested the reader reviews a prior article in this series which throws light on various diet plans available before reading this piece.
Which Diet Plan is the Best?
Last week, we discussed as many as 10 different diet plans – some at length and some briefly. You would have noticed some overlaps across recommended dietary regimes. That’s because the basic physiology of fat loss is clear:
Lower the insulin response to the food consumed, avoid chemicals and toxins, exercise regularly.
Reward – A Healthy Physique.
Except for the low fat and the Military diet, all the diets previously mentioned focus on reducing the glycemic index of food without limiting the intake of calories significantly. The Ornish diet also reduces the glycemic index of food, while restricting fats, thus curtailing calories.
Calories are gradually curtailed naturally in all effective diets, even when not counting them. Eating a meal rich in healthy fats and proteins is very filling, and inhibits snacking for at least 6 hours or so (it takes the body about 8 hours to digest fats, 6-8 hours to digest proteins and just 2-3 hours for carbs). As one is full for a longer duration, the awareness of appetite improves: it is easier to eat when hungry, rather than by the clock every couple of hours. Tea and coffee (unsweetened and with a small amount of milk or creamer) is allowed in all the diets, large quantities of water are recommended and alcohol is limited.
Most diets discussed have similar outcomes – there is an initial phase fat loss, followed by a slow creeping up of weight over the next 1-2 years (usually more than half the lost weight), which is why reportedly only 5% people can maintain any substantial weight loss over 2 years. This dismal figure has improved somewhat over the years (some sources claim it is now close to 25-30%, still nothing worth writing home about) with the guidance of doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, gym coaches et al. Largely, our inability to resist carbs long term sets the trap; sooner or later, one starts cheating – occasionally, then more often, and soon one is back to square one.
This is where intermittent fasting comes in. Most of us know what to eat, whether one sticks to these desirable foods or not is a different question. The question which most diets fail to answer (or perhaps, ask) is – When should we eat? Should it be every couple of hours to keep a steady blood glucose, or should it be substantial, but infrequent meals?
The answer has been discussed at length earlier. Briefly, frequent meals don’t allow insulin levels to fall low enough for fat burning to occur, hence the meals should be filling and infrequent (at most, 2-3 per day). To keep the blood sugars stable and low, the quantity of carbs (especially refined carbs) should be reduced, while healthy fats and proteins should be added. However, some carbs should be allowed, as total abstinence from them is neither required nor useful.
The Achilles’ heel of most diets is that they are restrictive.
Low calorie diets lead to lasting changes in the hormone levels in blood that slow down metabolism (causing fatigue and lack of energy) and increase appetite, even as late as 1 year after being on a diet. Exercise is hard to maintain in this scenario; sooner rather than later, one breaks and falls from the diet.
Hence, the tough goals in constructing an effective and lifelong diet plan are to ensure that the diet:
Is adequate, and not low in calories so as to keep hunger promoting hormones low, providing enough energy for work and exercise.
Has some intake of carbs combined with a generally low consumption of refined carbs.
Is Easy to follow long term and not extremely restrictive food choices.
In the light of these goals, which are the most healthy, nutritious and satiating diets?
Probably, they are the Mediterranean, the Pegan and the Warrior diets. These don’t restrict calories, allow a large variety of healthy and filling foods, and are somewhat easier to follow in the longer term. For quick weight loss, a brief period of Keto diet/Atkins’ 20 is very useful, though these are hard to continue long term.
Synthesising the best features of the above 3 diets, I had suggested a diet plan in the beginning of this series. This is a relatively low carb, moderate protein and adequate fat diet, which tries to achieve the following objectives:
- Palatable, healthy and filling, so that 2-3 meals are enough with little need for snacking.
- Should work for vegans, vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
- Less prohibitive and convenient to follow in the long term.
- Provide enough energy for the day’s work as well as exercise.
- Allow some refined carbs occasionally (in a planned way) to avoid carb craving (and bingeing).
Hence, we can consider viewing foods to be had daily, and those to be had occasionally.
Foods for daily consumption are salads, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes (including daals, sambar, beans) and for those who eat them – a serving of meat, fish, cheese, curd and eggs. Of these, nuts and the non-veg items are to be taken in limited quantities, as are starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas), wheat and wheat products (chapatti, bread, cereals) and white rice. Rice products like dosa, idli and uttapam have glycemic indices on the higher side that are lowered by eating them with sambar; brown rice is healthier too.
Fats and oils have been discussed earlier in a separate article; extra virgin olive oil may be the best but is not suitable for high temperature Indian cooking (only good for salads). So, acceptable alternatives are the Indian oils for limited use including rice bran, mustard, coconut oil and some proprietary blends. Ghee, butter and coconut oil are especially good for frying (occasionally), but the remaining amount should ideally be discarded after a single use (repeated frying in the same oil generates trans fatty acids, which are definitely implicated in causing heart disease and strokes).
Snacks should be minimised; if needed, the best snacks are nuts, seeds, sprouts, fruits, boiled eggs and salads.The best drink is water, though tea and coffee can be enjoyed (best if unsweetened and with little milk or cream), apart from vegetable juices. Hence, sodas, fruit juices, artificial sweeteners and alcohol are best avoided or minimised.
The best part comes last: the cheat day / meal. If one can stick to the diet for 6 days, the reward comes on the 7th day; anything one fancies can be enjoyed that day. This provides better satisfaction, no absolute lack of tasty carbs and meals, and the fortitude to stay clean the rest of the week. It may even help as it gives the metabolism a kick-start with a large calorie load, and the heaviest exercise may be done on the cheat day for best results. The cheat day is the insurance policy against giving up in frustration.
If one has had to indulge some time during the week (a birthday, a marriage or a party), one can have just one cheat meal over the weekend, instead of a full day. Thus, one can enjoy two cheat meals over a week and get away with it!
In summary, one can lose weight on almost any diet in the short run, so what’s more important is to find a program one can stick to. For this purpose, the best diets are the Mediterranean, Pegan and Warrior diets. The diet proposed here is a synthesis of these popular diets tailored to the Indian taste, making it relatively easier to follow while being less limited in its choices of foods. Intermittent fasting and the cheat day are hacks to make one stick to the plan: please remember that weight loss is not a one-time job, it is a holistic, lifestyle change for the rest of one’s life.
All the very best to you all!!
This is a recurring column published every Sunday under the title: What is Nutrition. Stay tuned.