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Low fat high carb or low carb high fat diets – which works best for fat loss?

Low carb high fat or low fat high carb?

Everywhere you turn, people have an opinion about the best diets for fat loss. If you utter the words “I need to lose a little weight” around literally anyone, they will tell you categorically what the best diet is. Your hairdresser, work colleagues, Aunty Betty, the checkout person at the local supermarket…everyone will tell you the best way to go about it.

Lately, the two diet types that are going head to head in the battle for weight loss supremacy are low fat high carb (LFHC) and low carb high fat (LCHF). So which one is best?

If you’re on an LFHC diet, you would remove oils, nuts, avocado, coconut products and most dairy foods like full cream milk, butter and cheese from your diet. You’d eat a moderate amount of lean meats, and plenty of plant foods such as vegetables and fruits.

If you’re on an LCHF diet, you’d remove bread, cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes and fruit from your diet. Again you’d eat a moderate amount of meats and plenty of vegetables.

So which approach is best for fat loss? Rather than take Aunt Betty’s advice, let’s look at actual research into the area so we can make an informed decision.

As far back as 1964, a study was carried out to determine how LFHC and LCHF diets compare for weight loss. They gave obese patients in a hospital ward a liquid diet, with each patient getting the same number of calories every day for 10 weeks. Every 3-4 weeks the researchers changed the ratio of protein (14-36% of calories), fat (12-83% of calories) and carbohydrates (3-64% of calories) in the liquid formula. The result? All patients lost weight at a constant rate, regardless of whether the formula was LFHC, LCHF or anything in between.

Here’s another more recent study (2009) showing the exact same results. And for you nutrition nerds out there, here’s a meta-analysis (combination of data from multiple studies) that shows no real statistical difference between LCHF and LFHC diets for fat loss.

If we’ve been testing this since 1964, why the confusion?

“But how can that be?” I hear you say! “What about all of those ketogenic, paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, (insert other diet types here), recipe books, videos, membership websites, (insert other money making ventures here), that claim their way is the best?”

That’s just it, where there is money to be made, people will always claim one way is better than the other. What better way to make money than by claiming their way is the best, and that the rest suck! And these people may very well believe it too. But scientific evidence and research clearly prove otherwise (well, as clear as nutrition science can be, but that’s another story).

OK, so what is the secret to losing unwanted body fat?

We can rule out exercise right from the start. If you’re being told by your personal trainer, or anyone else for that matter, that you need to train harder and longer to lose unwanted body fat, they’re sadly mistaken (You can read an article about that here, and a research study here). Of course, exercise enormous health benefits, it’s just that weight loss isn’t one of them.

Most people fail at dieting because they fail to stick with it for the long-term, not because the diet doesn’t work. In fact, most diets do work, not because they are LCHF or LFHC, but because they prescribe a caloric deficit. In other words, the energy you get from food is less than the energy you burn to move and survive.

So, what’s the secret?

Sorry to say, but there literally is no secret. Don’t let clever marketing and health and fitness buzz words fool you into thinking one way is better than another. The only truth is if you eat fewer calories than you use to move and survive over the long term, you will lose weight. It’s called thermodynamics and the laws can not be altered. For you, the best diet you can choose is one where you are in a caloric deficit, is healthy, you’ll enjoy and can stick to. That’s it. No gimmicks, no secrets, no tricks, just common sense.

I quite like this graph from physiqonomics.com. It is a rather simple way to outline the diets we follow in the West.

Low carb high fat or low fat high carb diets?

Quadrant One – enjoyable but not healthy: This is where a lot of us live. We eat a lot of highly processed foods, which means high carbs, high fats, high sugar, high salt, high calories…you get my drift. We love eating everything we put in our mouths, the only problem is it’s causing us as a society to be obese. Big problem.

Quadrant Two – healthy but not enjoyable: This is where many of us go when we decide to diet. We think we have to eat a certain way because some ‘guru’ has told us to, but we soon fall off the diet wagon because we can’t sustain it. Then we go back to Quadrant One (because we haven’t changed our habits at all) and put on all of the weight we may have lost. Big problem.

Quadrant Three – not healthy and not enjoyable: This is when we venture into crazy diets like juice cleanses and bulletproof coffee for breakfast. Totally unsustainable and may do damage. Bigger problem.

Quadrant Four – healthy and enjoyable: The only quadrant you want to be in. You eat nutritious whole food meals most of the time, and indulge in treats and the foods you love that might not be so good for you some of the time. No problems.

But I already eat fewer calories than I use and I’m not losing any weight

Humans have a shocking track record at understanding, estimating and reporting how many calories they eat during any given day. There has been a crazy amount of research in this area, and if you’re interested in reading a couple, check out here and here. So while you may think you are eating fewer calories than you are using, chances are you probably aren’t (there are medical reasons why this may not be the case, but they are rare).

Does that mean you need to use some sort of online calorie counting tool to monitor your intake? Unless you like weighing everything you eat, entering it all into an online tool every time you eat, and repeating this process for weeks or months until you reach your goal weight, then I don’t recommend it. Just like being on a diet you don’t like, this will only cause you to become frustrated and annoyed. Not to mention it’s a bit of a waste of time for a whole host of reasons, including:

  • Information on food labels and in online databases are often wrong
  • We don’t absorb all of the calories we eat
  • How you prepare and cook your food will change the calorie equation
  • You absorb and use calories differently to everyone else
  • We’re not great at estimating how much we eat
  • You will use more or less energy than someone else during exercise and at rest
  • What you eat and how much you eat influences how much energy you burn

Instead of the laborious task of counting calories, I recommend a four step plan to lose unwanted body fat.

1. Eat whole foods most of the time, and save the highly processed foods for an occasional treat. That means eating lean meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts and the like 85% of the time, and indulge in foods you love to eat 15% of the time. For example, let’s say you eat three meals per day. That equates to 21 meals per week. If you ate 18 meals full of nutritious whole foods, and three indulgent meals, I believe most people could handle that very comfortably.

2. Eat a lean protein source at every meal. That’s right, even breakfast! Great sources of protein include eggs, lean meats, poultry, seafood, lentils, beans, tofu, cottage cheese, Greek yoghurt or a protein powder supplement. Protein is way more filling than fats and carbs, so it will stop you from wanting to eat for longer. It also requires far more energy to absorb than fats and carbs, so you burn more calories by eating protein.

Instead of calorie counting, use your hand to measure portion sizes


3. Get your portion sizes under control. What does this mean?

  • Protein – 2 palm-sized portions at every meal for men, 1 palm-sized portion for women
  • Vegetables – 2 fist-sized portions at every meal for men, 1 fist-sized portion for women
  • Carbs – 2 cupped hand-sized portions for men with meals before and after a workout, 1 cupped hand-sized portion for women
  • Fats – 2 thumb-sized portions for men at 1-2 meals per day, 1 thumb-sized portion for women.

This is a starting point, and should not be used as a definitive guide for every man and woman. Some men will require less food, while some women will require more. Factors determining how much you should eat include:

  • Your size
  • How full or hungry you feel at the end of each meal
  • How many meals you’d prefer to eat during the day
  • How active you are
  • Your goal, i.e. lose weight, put on muscle, maintain current size

4. Make outcome-based decisions. Take measurements before you get started such as scale weight, body girth measurements with a tape measure, and front, back and side photos. Put steps 1-3 in motion, then take more measurements in 2-3 weeks. If you’re losing weight, great, keep going. If you’re not losing weight, or even put weight on, make adjustments to the food you’re eating. For example:

  • Remove a thumb of fats from one meal per day
  • Remove a cupped handful of carbs from a couple of meals per week
  • Be honest with yourself, are you overeating?
  • Be honest with yourself, are you indulging in too many treats?
  • Replace one of your indulgent meals with a nutritious whole food meal, or reduce the amount you treat foods you eat at those times.

Then repeat steps 1-3 again for a few weeks, take more measurements and make further outcome-based decisions.

By following these four steps, eventually, you’ll begin to understand how much food your body really needs to maintain your current weight, and how much you need to lose weight. This may take a little longer than the “Lose 15kg in 10 weeks with this one simple trick” diet you bought online from some diet guru, but you’ll learn much more about your body and the food you eat, and you’ll give yourself a greater chance of keeping the weight off forever.

I think I might still need help with my diet

Nutrition can be confusing, or at least that’s what food companies and ‘diet gurus’ want you to believe. After all, the more confused you are, the more likely you are to buy their products.

However, it’s also a fantastic idea to have someone coach and guide you through your weight loss journey. After all, CEOs have business mentors and professional athletes have coaches, and many of them are already brilliant at what they do. So it makes sense for someone who may not have the knowledge in a particular area to seek help from a qualified coach.

As a Precision Nutrition (PN) certified Level One Nutrition Coach, I have the knowledge and expertise to help you look, feel and move better for life. I also have access to the world’s best online nutrition program to guide you through the weight loss process. It’s based in change psychology, so while you’ll get the latest nutrition research as part of your coaching, you’ll also change your habits and behaviours. That way eating a healthy diet becomes a natural way of life for you, and not something you have to think about and remember every time you make a meal. That’s the real power of lifelong weight change, creating a suite of healthy habits that will stay with you forever.

The program has been tested on close to 100,000 people worldwide, by both PN and their own clients (around 45,000 clients) and other independent certified PN Nutrition Coaches (like me). With 15 years of experience and millions of dollars spent on the technology and curriculum, you can rest assured that you will be joining a program that is ahead of anything else on the market. To see what the nutrition program can do for you, check out this video.

If you want to find out more about the program, head to the Frequently Asked Questions page. All of your questions should be answered there, however, if I’ve missed something that you need to know, you can either send me an email via the online contact form, or call me directly on (+61) 0435 554 422.

Alternatively, if you’re ready to go and want to get started straight away, choose the best package for you from the options below. I’m excited to help you achieve your health, fitness and body weight goals.

Don’t look back at this moment in 12 months and regret not signing up for the Eat For Lean nutrition program (powered by ProCoach) TODAY! It may well be the best decision you have made in a very long time.

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