Written by Molly Galbraith
With a slew of popular diets and their respective zealots floating around the internet, it can be very confusing trying to figure out what the “best” diet is. Let me say right off the bat, that I don’t think that there is one “best” diet. The “best” diet for each person is the one where their goals, their health, their lifestyle, and their compliance intersect.
Within this article, I am going to discuss 7 of the most popular diets, and break them down according to:
– What it manipulates
– Common mistakes
– Who it might be good for
But first, a disclaimer.
Disclaimer: This article is simply based on my observations from working with clients, speaking with other Coaches about their clients, and my own personal experience. You may have had a different experience with a diet, and that’s great. If so, please post in the comments section below so that those reading can benefit from your experience.
Also of note: many of these diets are difficult to compare to one another, because they manipulate different aspects of nutrition. You see, there are only 4 components to any nutrition program. There is calorie level, macros ratio, nutrient timing, and food sources.
Anytime someone develops a new diet, they are manipulating one or more of those 4 components. So comparing the “healthfulness” of IIFYM (if it fits your macros) to Carb Cycling is difficult without knowing calorie level and food sources.
A “hunter-gatherer” diet consisting of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, oils. (I will admit right out of the gate, that I am somewhat biased towards a Paleo-style diet simply because it’s based on whole, unprocessed foods. We have used it with great success with a lot of our clients).
– What it manipulates: Food sources.
– Healthfulness: High. It’s based on whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods.
– Cost: Moderate to high, especially if you buy grass-fed meats, and organic fruits and vegetables. However, the cost can be mitigated by joining a CSA, and buying meat in bulk and freezing it.
– Convenience: Moderate. You can find meat and vegetables almost anywhere you go, but completely avoiding dairy, soy, corn, wheat, and all processed foods can be a challenge. Some people also find snacks challenging. Some good options are: jerky, Epic bars, Lara bars, and Paleo Krunch.
– Efficacy: Can be extremely effective, however, calorie level, macro ratios and food timing are still important. Just because something is “Paleo-approved” doesn’t mean that it will make you lean.
– Common mistakes: Thinking that just because a food is “Paleo,” that it’s fine to eat in unlimited quantities. Thinking that anything “non-Paleo” will kill you. People have different tolerances for different foods. It’s a way of eating, not a religion. Chill.
– Who it’s good for: People interested in fat loss, who don’t want to count calories, and who have the time and money to devote to cooking. You can make Paleo less expensive, but it will take more time. And you can make Paleo convenient, but it will cost more money. “Bulking” on a Paleo diet generally takes more effort, and often non-Paleo-approved foods such as white rice and some dairy are added to supplement the diet.
– Resources: The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, Everyday Paleo by Sarah Fragoso
“If It Fits Your Macros” is a nutrition program with many devoted followers. It encourages eating within certain macronutrient ranges (protein, carbs, fat = macronutrients) to achieve your goals (fat loss, muscle gain, etc.)
– What it manipulates: Macronutrient totals, and therefore calorie level as well.
– Healthfulness: This depends on what types of foods you are consuming, and what your overall calorie level is. Carbs coming from ice cream have a very different effect on healthfulness than carbs coming from sweet potatoes.
– Cost: Average.
– Convenience: Unless you eat the same foods every week, it be inconvenient to consistently count/track all of your meals and macros.
– Efficacy: It can be very effective if your macro total and calorie level are set correctly for your goals. And while you can often get away with eating some junk food and still reach your goals, the higher the quality of food you consume, the better your results will be.
– Common mistakes: Choosing low quality food sources on a consistent basis simply because they fit your macros.
– Who it’s good for: Good for individuals who want some wiggle room in their nutrition plan. Also good for people who don’t mind counting/tracking macros. Can be used for fat loss or muscle gain.
– Resources: If It Fits Your Macros
Intermittent Fasting alternates periods of fasting with periods of feeding or feasting. There are several ways to structure your fasting periods from 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of feeding, all the way to 36 hours of fasting, 12 hours of feeding.
– What it manipulates: Nutrient timing, and often this affects calorie level.
– Healthfulness: This depends on what types of foods you are consuming, and what your overall calorie and macro levels are, although some experts suggest that the simple act of fasting and feasting in and of itself improves health.
– Cost: Low to average. It makes sense that if your overall food consumption decreases, your cost of eating will decrease.
– Convenience: Very convenient for most people. You can go several hours without worrying about food or spending time eating.
– Efficacy: Again, this depends on other factors, but many people have experienced great success with different versions of IF, even when indulging in less-than-healthful foods. Whether this is due to timing or calorie control is yet to be determined.
– Common mistakes: Assuming that you can eat whatever you want because you have been fasting. Trying to force yourself to fast when it doesn’t suit you, your lifestyle, or your goals.
– Who it might be good for: Busy professionals, people who travel often, people who don’t like to eat/feel inconvenienced by eating.
– Resources: Lean Gains, Eat Stop Eat, Precision Nutrition Intermittent Fasting
Carb cycling is a diet often found in bodybuilding circles that cycles carbohydrate levels throughout the week. It may also cycle fat intake. There are general high, medium, and low carb days, with protein intake staying relatively consistent, and fat intake changes at an inverse relationship to carb intake (i.e. high carb = low fat, moderate carb = moderate fat, low carb = high fat)
– What it manipulates: Macronutrient levels, and therefore calorie level.
– Healthfulness: Generally considered healthy, as no macronutrient group is completely restricted or eliminated, but food sources and calorie level still must be taken into account.
– Cost: Average.
– Convenience: Moderately convenient. Once you get in the routine of counting macros, you can generally eyeball your food and come pretty close to meeting your macros. However, if you have to weigh and measure all of your food, it can be pretty inconvenient. This can be mitigated by cooking/weighing/measuring everything 1-2x/week.
– Efficacy: If levels are set correctly for a person’s goals, carb cycling can be extremely effective for both fat loss, mass gain, and body re-composition (fat loss and muscle gain over a given period of time).
– Common mistakes: Eyeballing portions from the get-go, instead of weighing and measuring until you are good at estimating portion sizes.
– Who it’s good for: People who don’t mind counting/tracking macros and people who don’t want to restrict any one food group. Generally you alternate between low, medium, and high carb days, so you don’t feel deprived on any one macronutrient.
– Resources: Beginner’s Guide to Carb Cycling, Research Approved Carb Cycling
Carb Backloading is a method of manipulating macronutrient levels, namely carbohydrates, based on very specific timing windows. Very high glycemic food (including junk food) is allowed, and thought to make the diet more effective.
– What it manipulates: Macronutrient levels and nutrient timing.
– Healthfulness: This one is debatable as this diet typically allows for and encourages some level of junk food consumption. However, many followers of CBL have experienced drastic improvements in their health markers, likely associated with fat loss and increased insulin sensitivity.
– Cost: Average
– Convenience: Between average and high. Some of the CBL recommendation are somewhat inconvenient, such as certain amounts of whey and leucine consumed multiple times on workout days, but overall the diet is quite convenient. Also, the whey and leucine aren’t necessary per se, but they do increase the efficacy of the diet according to Kiefer, the author of the diet. This diet can require quite a bit of tweaking.
– Efficacy: Many people report extremely good fat loss and body re-composition results using CBL, once it’s tweaked appropriately.
– Common mistakes: According to Kiefer, eating too much fat from plant sources and not animal sources, eating carbs with too low of a glycemic index, and over-consuming carbohydrates during their backload (typically an issue with females).
– Who it’s good for: People who want good results while having more freedom with their food choices, although that “freedom” is restricted to specific time windows based on their weight training schedule.
– Resources: Carb Backloading
Ketogenic (with periodic carb-up)
A nutrition program that restricts carbohydrates and forces the body into ketosis, and then implements periodic carb-up phases based on certain goals.
– What it manipulates: Macro ratios.
– Healthfulness: Moderate to high. The healthfulness of ketogenic diets has been a hot-topic for a long time, and the debate won’t likely be settled anytime soon, although they are becoming more widely accepted as healthful.
– Cost: Moderate to high, if food sources are high quality, especially if you’re buying grass-fed or wild meats and fish, and organic vegetables and fat sources.
– Convenience: High. The general consensus is, as long as it doesn’t have carbs, you can eat it.
– Efficacy: High. Can be extremely effective for fat loss, as long as carb-ups are appropriate in size, duration, and frequency for your goals.
– Common mistakes: Not eating enough fat. Assuming that as long as a food is low-carb, that it’s a free-for-all. Eating too much fake sugar and processed junk.
– Who it’s good for: People who do well with an “all-or-nothing” mentality. People who enjoy being strict, and also enjoy going crazy occasionally. People who don’t want to count/weight/track all of their food.
– Resources: Carb Nite Solution, Anabolic Diet
Weight Watchers has many different programs, but they all include some level of calories restriction and social support.
– What it manipulates: Calorie level.
– Healthfulness: Low to moderate (and debatable). People who are overweight and choose to do Weight Watchers are often consuming way too much food, especially junk food, before they start WW. So you could argue that getting them to pay more attention to their nutrition intake, and cutting their calories is “health-ier,” but as a standalone diet, I would say that the healthfulness of WW is low to moderate. They don’t emphasize quality of nutrition as much as they do calorie level, and they allow lots of low-fat, fat-free, processed junk within the plan as long as calories stay at a certain level. They also continue cutting calories when fat loss stalls, often lowering them too much for the individual.
– Cost: Moderate to high. In addition to buying groceries, you have special Weight Watchers frozen meals that you are encouraged to buy, and you have an additional cost if you are a WW member.
– Convenience: High. WW doesn’t restrict any particular food groups, as long as you stay within your “points” range. WW has also partnered with many food companies to put the “point total” of the food on the packaging.
– Efficacy: I have seen statistics showing that WW is effective in the long-term as well as statistics showing that it’s not, so it’s hard to say. In the short-term, efficacy seems high for most people, but in the long-term it seems low, as many of the people who try WW gain their weight back. Another issue is that WW doesn’t seem to understand that you cannot be in a calorie deficit forever, and that you need periods of being at or above maintenance. All of my friends who have done WW have said that they just continued to lower their calories as their weight loss stalled.
– Common mistakes: Saving all of your WW “points” to binge on junk food. Eating a lot of low quality, processed junk (sugar free Jello, WW ice cream bars, etc.)
– Who it’s good for: People who do well with accountability and the support of a group. People who don’t like to restrict any particular foods from their diet.
– Resources: Weight Watchers
There you go. Basic breakdowns of 7 of the most popular diets and nutrition programs available today. So what do you think? Have you had a different experience? Similar experience? Please let me know below! I’d love to hear what you have to say!Molly Galbraith is a rapidly rising young trainer who is quickly making a name for herself in the fitness industry. She is a strength coach and co-‐owner of J&M Strength and Conditioning, a rapidly expanding, private studio gym in Lexington, Kentucky that’s quickly becoming the go-‐to place for professional athletes and the general public alike. In less than 18 months, they have gone from renting space at a local gym, to opening their own 7,500 sq. foot facility. Molly is also co-founder of the wildly popular Girls Gone Strong group, a movement dedicated to changing the way women train. She has also been an expert contributor to magazines like Oxygen and Experience Life. No stranger to the gym herself, she has competed in both figure and powerlifting and boasts a 275 lb. squat, a 165 lb. bench press, and a 341 lb. deadlift. Website, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Her Butt’s Twitter