You have stuck to your diet all week – avoided all of the foods you shouldn’t eat and made sure you ate all the foods you should when you want to lose weight; chicken, broccoli, fish, salad. The weekend has arrived and the cravings are at an all-time high. You decide to reward yourself with a little bit of ice-cream, but seconds seem to pass and you are staring at the bottom of an empty litre tub. Sound familiar? You are not alone.
Experience has shown that restrictive diets which label foods as “good” or “bad” or even eliminate food groups altogether are not sustainable and lead to binge eating, cheating, and yo-yo dieting. This in turn creates feelings of guilt, generates self-punishment and negative emotions, resulting in a very unhealthy relationship with food and body image. We are constantly being told what to eat and to fill our diets with “good foods” and cut out “bad foods”, especially if we want to lose weight. But what makes certain foods “good” and others “bad”?
Firstly, we need to understand that our bodies do not identify foods as good, bad, healthy or unhealthy – they identify the macronutrient breakdown of the food we consume. Every food is made up of macronutrients, which include protein, carbohydrates and fat and each of these have a corresponding caloric value:
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates/sugars = 4 calories per gram
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
With this knowledge we can more accurately describe foods. Foods that are considered “good” for us are usually whole foods which are rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and other essential nutrients and as such are best described as nutrient-dense. These foods are generally low in calories, keep us feeling full and should make up the majority of our diets. On the other hand, foods that are considered “bad” for us generally contain a fair amount of fat, sugar or both and not many nutrients. However, rather than slapping a “bad” label on these foods, it is best to describe them as more calorie-dense (contains a lot of calories in a small amount) and as such are not the best choice to consume on a regular basis. This is because these foods do not contain many nutrients and don’t usually keep us feeling satisfied for long, making it very easy to overeat.
So how do we lose weight while still eating the foods we love? The secret lies in energy balance – calories in vs calories out. The most basic yet important tool in weight loss is understanding that establishing a calorie deficit is necessary to lose weight. This is when you consume less calories than you burn for an extended period of time. If you are not in a calorie deficit you can eat all the “good foods” you want and you will not make any progress towards your weight loss goals. This is why it is important to see foods for their calorie and macronutrient composition (amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat in the food) rather than identifying them as “good” or “bad”. Attaching these labels to food will not help you to lose weight or improve your body composition in the long-term because it doesn’t take into consideration your specific energy balance.
The best way to maintain a balanced approach to your diet is to follow the 80/20 rule. A minimum of 80% of your diet should be composed of nutritious whole foods, or “good” foods, and a maximum of 20% of your diet should come from more processed foods, which are described as “bad” foods. This allows you to enjoy all types of foods, without labelling any particular food as good or bad and offers psychological advantages over restrictive diets. Personally, I like to get 80-90% of my daily calories from nutrient-dense whole foods, but I will often include some calorie-dense foods every day like chocolate or ice cream. The reason I can do this and still achieve my goals is that everything is accounted for in my daily calorie intake.
Remember, the most effective diet is a sustainable diet and in fact research shows that a more flexible approach leads to less anxiety, and more successful weight management. So get flexible with your diet and get results!
 C.F. SMITH, D.A. WILLIAMSON, G.A. BRAY, D.H. RYAN, Flexible vs. Rigid Dieting Strategies: Relationship with Adverse Behavioral Outcomes, Appetite, Volume 32, Issue 3, 1999, Pages 295-305, ISSN 0195-6663, http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/appe.1998.0204.