My initial exposure to the world of dieting came in 2004 at the age of 16. After receiving a few comments about my weight and my ability to eat as much as my brothers, I asked a personal trainer about diet and nutrition.
As you may recall, Atkins was all the rage throughout the first decade of this century, and my trainer had eagerly jumped on board.
“Eat 4-5 times per day, and don’t have more than 15g of carbs per meal.”
These were his explicit instructions to me.
As was expected, I dropped 10-15 pounds fairly quickly, and I instantly assumed the decrease in carbohydrates was the cause of my weight loss. To be fair, this decrease did cause the weight loss indirectly, but it wasn’t the true cause—it was simply correlation.
What was the cause of the change in body composition and scale weight?
1. Overall decrease in calories
Fast food after school and before volleyball practice was a consistent part of my routine, so removing the extra bread, tater tots, and soda removed a large chunk of calories right off the bat.
The quality of my food choices increased dramatically as a result of restricting carbs, as most processed foods were now off the table, and I didn’t consciously increase my fat or protein intake either.
Overall, I was consuming less food and calories across the board, which was the true cause of the fat loss.
2. Water Loss
For every 1g of carbohydrate consumed, our bodies hold 3-4g of water. When we decrease our carb intake, it’s very common to experience fast weight loss within the first two weeks. This is largely a loss of water, not fat.
Do you think I had any clue that these two factors were the true causes of my weight and fat loss? That would be a resounding NOPE.
I relied on the opinions of “experts” at the time, and I didn’t have any clue that the information being touted wasn’t based on sound evidence. Embarrassingly, I was regurgitating this information to others left and right.
I truly thought carbohydrates were the source of all illness and fat gain, so the removal of them from one’s diet was the holy grail.
I was flat out wrong, yet I believed this vehemently for almost a decade.
The Carb Mind F*CK
As a result of believing inaccurate information, in addition to being unwilling to having my opinion changed, I wasn’t open to the notion that my overall food intake was the cause of my weight fluctuations.
Rather than take a high-level, holistic view of my diet, I narrowly focused on the number of carbs I consumed.
I believed it was impossible to gain weight without carbs and that the only way to lose fat was to decrease them, so I doubled down. It fewer carbs was good, none must be better, right?
At this point, my view of food was so distorted that I was obsessively eating avocado, eggs, bacon, and any form of additional fat while keeping my carbs extremely low. The new narrative at the time was (and still is with keto), “you have to eat fat to lose fat”, so I didn’t mess around.
Butter in my coffee? Sure!
The fattiest steak on the menu? I need it.
Extra avocado on my already fat dense meal? It’s not a meal without it.
Note that there isn’t anything wrong with these choices, but rather the false information I believed that was governing them. It had nothing to do with what made my body feel good, so I couldn’t even tell you how my body responded.
The large quantity of fat in my diet led to an overall increase in calories that far exceeded the decrease in carbs, so I started to gain weight. WTF?
I must not be low enough on carbs.
Maybe I need to eat more fat to burn the fat.
Everyone is saying that undereating can lead to weight gain, so maybe I need to eat more.
And so I took it even further by decreasing my carb intake, increasing my fat intake, and eat more in general. Not surprisingly, my weight continued to climb.
I felt like an utter failure, and my neurosis around food was at an all-time high.
Luckily, IIFYM (if it fits your macros) began to make its way onto the dieting scene at this time, and the premise essentially states that we can eat whatever we want, as long as we hit a specific number of carbs, protein, and fat every day.
This was also gaining popularity amongst the Crossfit community due to the higher carbohydrate content of most of the plans, which led to improved performance outcomes.
This illustrated a few things:
The three macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat), in addition to alcohol, comprise our overall calorie intake.
We can adjust our macros up and down and transfer between the three-four, as long as the calorie target remains the same.
There is room for processed foods in a diet, so long as the overall calorie and macro targets are met.
Carbs often aid in athletic performance, especially of the anaerobic variety.
Carbs are not the enemy, more fat doesn’t lead to fat loss, and calories are king.
I WAS SO WRONG. Like, dead wrong.
I anticipated that tracking and counting my food wasn’t a good idea for me mentally, but I was so curious about this concept of eating that I decided to partake.
I quickly realized that my fat consumption was through the roof, my protein was decent, and my carb intake was far too low for the amount of Crossfit I was doing. Additionally, my calorie intake was certainly over maintenance (the amount needed to maintain my weight).
My dogmatic nutrition world was shattered!
I started enjoying rice, tons of potatoes, and processed foods, and I reduced my intake of added fats, like the butter in my coffee, avocado on everything, and fatty cuts of meat.
To be clear, I didn’t go crazy with decreasing my fat intake, but it was now within a moderate range.
I began to realize that I don’t need the additional fat to feel satisfied as I once thought I did.
My plates started to look balanced—my version of balance—with a serving of protein, carbs, and vegetables at most meals, and the fat came from cooking oils and whatever was in the leaner meats.
Damn—I started to feel great! My performance in the gym improved, I slept better, my hormones started to level out, and I started dropping some fat.
Do I advocate for counting macros?
No, I don’t. At least not long-term.
I quickly realized that counting and tracking my food wasn’t healthy for me mentally (nor worth it), and it isn’t for many. However, I am grateful for some of the lessons I learned:
Science and evidence-based approaches reign supreme when it comes nutrition and changes to body composition. I.e. calories absolutely do matter.
People on the internet will often claim that the method that worked for them (n=1) will work for everyone. This can greatly harm their followers.
Having blinders on about the basics of calories in vs. calories out spun me in circles for years and only furthered my food obsession.
Carbs are beautiful creates, and I love them.
Most of us eat a lot more fat than we think we do, which is not a bad thing in isolation, but it is often hindering fat loss. And may not be great for our health, either.
By knowing what actually works via science, we’re empowered to make changes accordingly if we wish.
If a nutrition plan or diet makes claims that sound too good to be true—i.e. “eat as much fat and protein as you want and lose weight!”—it is.
Tracking and counting food can be useful for short periods of time to bring awareness to our skewed perceptions of our intake.
Tracking and counting food can further neurosis if we attach moral value to the outcome and we can’t eat comfortably without it.
After years of trying almost every diet under the sun, I’m finally content with a moderate approach that is tailored to me based on my lifestyle, preferences, and activity levels.
Opening my mind to scientific evidence was tremendously helpful in getting me here.
Dietary dogma served me in the opposite way.
Science and evidence-based nutrition is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to developing a healthy relationship with food, but it’s an important one.