You’ve started a new diet, or maybe you’ve been on one for a while. You’re got the hang of it by now, and you’ve certainly followed enough personal trainers on Instagram to know that you can eat whatever you want, and lose weight because CaLoRiE dEfiCiT bRo. Of course, not in the quantity you would like, but there’s some flexibility there. Now, I’m not here to dismantle the laws of thermodynamics, nor am I suggesting that a calorie deficit isn’t essential.
However, how you structure your calorie deficit determines your success – and constantly choosing the lowest calorie option may be hindering your fat loss more than you realise.
You’re Eating Too Many “Diet” Foods
The easiest way to ensure you adhere to your diet is to minimise your hunger and perceived deprivation. Feeling “full”, or satiated is crucial in structuring your diet (Li et al., 2014). Many of these so-called “low-calorie” snacks are of course low in calories. However, they are also quite energy dense, and do not really contain any ingredients that help with satiety. A prime example of these snacks tend to have “skinny” or “diet” in the name, and they are typically your favourite foods with all the fun sucked out. Whilst yes, they may fit your calorie targets, they may actually be hurting your weight loss goal. These foods are typically high in sugar, and low in fibre and protein. Fibre and protein are key drivers of satiety (Warrilow et al., 2019, Rolls, 2017).
Not only that, but these “diet” foods are often more expensive. You can follow @thefitnesschef or @healthy_little_lifter on Instagram for some more wallet and diet-friendly foods swaps.
You’re Not Eating Any Energy-Dense Foods
So now you’re telling me the reason I can’t lose weight is because I don’t snort a family packet of Doritos every night?
Kind of. Avoiding high-calorie foods when dieting is generally advisable, because you don’t get as much bang for your calorie buck. However, we all know what happens when we completely eliminate these sweet fried delicacies from our diet completely. They adopt Hemsworth-brothers level of appeal. You can read all about why you shouldn’t ban foods entirely from your diet here.
But in essence, demonizing foods is setting you up for failure. Not only that, it sets you up for a bad time once the dieting period ends. It can be challenging to be in social settings around hyperpalatable foods when dieting, of course. But by keeping some of these foods in your diet (albeit in far smaller quantities than you may like), you reduce the hold they have on your headspace. Exposure therapy, innit.
You Always Pick The Lowest Calorie Item on the Menu
Constantly picking the option you don’t actually want sucks. Scanning the menu for the lowest calorie option is a lot of mental arithmetic. Especially when the lowest calorie option is something you don’t even like. Feeling deprived when dieting is often associated with poorer adherence (Timko and Perone, 2005).
Of course, when dieting there has to be some element of sacrifice. You can’t slam double cheeseburgers every time you go out for dinner and expect to see results, if fat loss is your goal. However, you don’t have to be totally miserable.
If you are heading out for dinner, maybe consider what foods you actually like. If they are slightly higher in calories than you would like, ask for a smaller portion or take some home for later. Perhaps the second or third lower calorie option is more appealing.
This is all easier said than done, of course.
Fibre: Friend or GI Foe?
Fibre is helpful in assisting weight loss, as it helps with satiety. We do not absorb a lot of energy from it (Drewnowski, 2018). It also helps satiety by slowing down nutrient absorption and “bulking” up the food in your gut (Warrilow et al., 2019). Of course, fibre has a litany of other health benefits (aiding digestion and lowering cholesterol to name but a few [Gunness and Gidley, 2010]) beyond making you feel full.
This is where I need to be careful not to get cancelled. I am not saying for one second we should all be cutting out fibre AT ALL. Read that again. However, I would argue it is problematic when you over-fibre your meals (yes, that is a word). I’m talking bulking out every single meal unnecessarily with fibre. You might have seen people shovelling psyllium husk into their shakes or full bags of spinach into their salad. Or, worse of all, courgette into oats. Is nothing sacred?
Now don’t worry bikini athletes and bodybuilders, I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong. Indeed, it is very much essential when you are a couple of weeks out from stage and have the caloric intake of a toddler. That is what it takes, and you need to bulk out your meals to help get you over the line.
I’m talking to the general weight loss individual here. You do not need to overstuff every single meal with fibre. Fibre is a cruel mistress. If you start slamming fibre into every meal straight away, sure, you’ll feel full. You’ll also feel violently unwell from the GI distress that will induce (Simrén et al., 2011). So, unless you feel like playing chicken with your bowels in public, go easy on the fibre and gradually introduce her.
Because, nothing puts you off your diet like shitting yourself.
No Fat, No Problem: Right?
Fat has got a bad name ever since tracking macros became the new Slimming World. Coming in at a whopping 9 kcals per gram (Rolls, 2017), the energy density of fat was enough to get it cancelled. What does this mean for us?
In essence, fat is the most “energy-dense” macronutrient, which means it has the highest amount of energy per gram. 100 calories of fat will look considerably smaller than 100 calories of protein or carbohydrate.
So, you can see the logic here. Fat has the most calories, and by reducing our fat intake, we have more calories from protein and carbohydrate to play with. Seems pretty reasonable, right?
You should know by now, I would never pose such a question unless I planned on dismantling it entirely. So, the answer is – not quite. Yes, fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient. However, fat serves many more important functions in the body beyond providing energy.
Fat forms an essential part of cell membranes, enzymes and many hormones (Clandinin et al., 1991). In addition, fat houses many of the fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) (Burke and Deakin, 2015).
A very-low fat diet is defined as <15% fat (e.g. 33g of fat in a 2,000 calorie diet), and it is not without risk. Extremely low-fat diets are associated with insufficient fatty acid intake, impaired fat-soluble vitamin absorption and malnutrition (Lichtenstein and Van Horn, 1998).
So, whilst fat may be the first macro to go when cutting calories, make sure you aren’t cutting it out entirely!
You’re in a Calorie Deficit
So, you think you have this calorie deficit thing down – plenty of fibre, protein, fluids and enough caffeine in your system to kill a small child. There’s just one nagging issue – you’re still hungry. Food is consuming a lot of your headspace. And, no matter what, you just don’t understand it. Did that influencer lie? Why am I doing all of this right and still hungry?
This answer is called: one tough pill to swallow. You’re in a calorie deficit baby. Eventually it’s going to catch up on you. The body doesn’t like to be starved. It considers chronic energy restriction a threat to its survival. If you’ve been in a deficit for a long time you will notice you think about food a lot more, you feel hungrier and you generally have more cravings. Your body is crying out for food, and you aren’t feeding it enough. Which is unfortunately how calorie deficits work.
Satiety is a cruel mistress, and it goes beyond simply distending your stomach with diet drinks and kilos of salad.
You need to anticipate feeling some hunger in a deficit eventually. You can have all the courgette oats in the world, but if you’re not eating enough calories, you’ll feel it. However, if this hunger is taking over your life and interfering with your daily tasks, it might be worth taking a closer look at the structure of your diet.
Dieting is hard. Dieting requires sacrifice, which is most unfortunate. There are some lesser-discussed dieting errors you might be making that are hindering your fat loss. Can you think of any others?
Burke, L.M., Deakin, V. (2015) Clinical Sports Nutrition. Australia: McGraw-Hill.
Clandinin, M.T., Cheema, S., Fields, C.J., Garg, M.L., Venkatraman, J., Clandinin, T.R. (1991) ‘Dietary fat: exogenous determination of membrane structure and cell function’, FASEB Journal, 5(13), pp. 2761-2769.
Drewnowski, A. (2018) ‘Nutrient density: Addressing the challenge of obesity’, British Journal of Nutrition, 120, pp. 8-14.
Gunness, P., Gidley, M.J. (2010) ‘Mechanisms underlying the cholesterol-lowering properties of soluble dietary fibre polysaccharides’, Food Functions, 1, pp. 149-155.
Li, S.S., Kendall, C.W., De Souza, R.J., Jayalath, V.H., Cozma, A.I., Ha, V., Mirrahimi, A., Chiavaroli, L., Augustin, L.S., Mejia, S.B. (2014) ‘Dietary pulses, satiety and food intake: A systematic review and meta-analysis of acute feeding trials’, Obesity, 22(8),, pp. 1773-1780.
Lichtenstein, A.H., Van Horn, L. (1998) ‘Very Low Fat Diets’, Circulation, 98, pp. 935-939.
Rolls, B.J. (2017) ‘Dietary energy density: Applying behavioural science to weight management’, Nutrition Bulletin, 42(3), pp. 246-253.
Simrén, M., Månsson, A., Langkilde, A.M., Svedlund, J., Abrahamsson, H., Bengtsson, U., Björnsson, E.S. (2001) ‘Food-related gastrointestinal symptoms in the Irritable Bowel Syndrome’, Digestion, 63, pp. 108-115.
Timko, C.A., Perone, J. (2005) ‘Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population’, Eating Behaviors, 6(2), pp. 119-125.
Warrilow, A., Mellor, D., McKune, A., Pumpa, K. (2019) ‘Dietary fat, fibre, satiation and satiety – a systematic review of acute studies’, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73, pp. 333-344.