If you don't really enjoy being active then exercising is a hard thing to do. Exercising just to lose weight is even harder. So what is the preferred weight loss method for people who don't like to exercise? Most of the times it's simply to eat less. In second place comes cutting out carbs. But in the recent years we've seen a popularity in intermittent fasting. At the same time, the ketogenic (or simply "keto") diet has seen a huge growth as well but isn't as popular as intermittent fasting. So which method is better? The short answer (you might already guess it) is: it's not that simple. Firstly, the methods above can all help you lose weight but some have benefits beyond just weight loss. And then there are feasibility factors to consider. Some method is a lot harder execute than the others.
Why eating less and cutting carbs work (and why they don't)
Most of us have done it and know that it works: eat less and lose weight. Cut out all carbs and lose weight. These methods work well in the short term because your body loses water and you burn more than you consume. But with the eating-less approach your body realises after a while that it's getting a lot less energy in form of food than it's used to so it might slow down your metabolism. This is a natural adaptation process and leads to the well-known plateau many people experience.
The carb-cutting approach on the other hand works because you cut out all the fast energy that your body doesn't need: pasta, bread, desserts. This means your body has fewer possibilities to store excess energy as fat and at the same time you're more likely to consume fewer calories because you are substituting your lasagne with salad in the evening.
In both cases you'll see the same pattern over and over again: you do it for a while, you lose weight, then you plateau or are invited to a dinner party where you fall out of your routine, then you go back to your old pattern, put on the weight again and repeat the same diet on January 1st. Hence, eating less and cutting carbs are not sustainable weight loss methods.
Intermittent fasting (IF) describes different types of eating intervals. The most popular types of IF are:
- 16/8: eat only within an 8 hour window, e.g. noon until 8pm
- 5:2: eat normal for 5 days and eat up to 500-600 calories on 2 consecutive days
- eat-stop-eat: a 24-hour fast once or twice per week
- spontaneous meal skipping: skip meals from time to time
During the fasting time you can drink water, coffee or tea, although some experts argue that drinking only water would be most beneficial.
IF has become one of the most popular diet-methods in the past few years, however, fasting is a very old method of healing. According to Britannica, "Fasting has been used therapeutically since at least the 5th century bce, when Greek physician Hippocrates recommended abstinence from food or drink for patients who exhibited certain symptoms of illness." In some religions fasting is being practiced on a regular basis. Sadly, with our busy lives and entertainment-filled breaks on social media, fasting is mainly used to lose weight. Losing weight is important for health, of course, especially when you're overweight. But fasting has farther reaching benefits than just to help you fit into your old pants again. Some of them are:
- prevent diseases
- improve blood sugar management
- support brain function
- cell repair
- reduce inflammation
- improve heart health
- increases growth hormone secretion
- may extend lifespan
- may aid in cancer prevention and increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy
With regards to weight loss, IF helps you to lose weight not just by reducing overall calorie intake (because you could still be eating the same amount of calories during the day with 16/8 IF) but also improving insulin sensitivity through blood sugar management. Insulin is the key hormone that regulates how energy is being processed after consumption. By fasting you give your system the necessary breaks it needs to rest instead of constantly having your system working. Experts in this field such as Dr. Jason Fung argue that insulin management is the most important factor to look at when it comes to weight control, especially obesity and diabetes.
Ketogenic diet (keto)
The keto diet is a very low carb, high fat diet that is often confused with the Atkins diet (high fat, high protein) and low carb diets. It involves drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and replacing it mainly with fat. This puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis, meaning that your body mainly uses fat for energy. This process can take a few days if your body is mainly used to get energy from carbs. Ketosis also turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain, helping you become highly alert and more productive.
Same as with IF, ketogenic diets can lead to significant reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels, help you lose weight and lower your risk for diseases (e.g. diabetes). The typical keto diet normally contains about 70% fat, 20% protein, and only 10% carbs, although some people prefer to go even down to 5% carbs. Typical fat sources are meat, fish, eggs, nuts, butter and healthy oils. Protein consumption is limited because it can be converted into glucose which may slow your transition into ketosis. A typical keto meal looks very different than your standard meal, for example:
- Breakfast: eggs, avocado and bacon
- Lunch: Zucchini noodles and meatballs
- Dinner: Chicken and cauliflower baked with cheese (lots of cheese)
Typical mistakes people make are thinking they're doing a keto diet while they're just doing a low-carb diet. To get into a ketosis state one has to be very strict about the fat-protein-carbs ratio and ideally test it through blood, urine or breath with special devices (such as the one by Abbott) or urine strips. If you don't measure you don't know.
Which is better?
If your goal is purely to lose some weight then the winner is Intermittent Fasting. The reasons are:
- feasibility: it's quite easy to skip a meal for 16/8 or reduce calories on 2 days of the week compared to coming up with a high-fat meal 3 times per day
- number-free eating: no need for meal planning or macronutrient (fat, carbs, protein) calculation
- more variety: with IF you are pretty free to eat a variety of things whereas keto requires consumption of lots of fats which be very hard and not always so tasty for some people
- freedom: no need to measure your blood/urine/breath
- energy for training: a keto diet might not be suitable for you if you do high-intensity training while with IF you are free to eat carbs for training or recovery
The bottom line
Both intermittent fasting and ketogenic diet have significant health benefits when done right and regularly. Other variations that we have not covered here, for example fasting for several days, can lead to even greater benefits such as autophagy which is simply put the cleansing and repair of damaged cells as well as creating new cells so that your body can function better, heal and may even support with cancer treatment.
The most important thing to add here is that before you spend too much time thinking about what diet is right for you, always re-evaluate the quality of your food. Eating whole, organic food with lots of vegetables, some fruits, nuts and seeds and some meat and fish should always come first, followed by regular physical activity (and you might not need to worry about the next best diet anymore).
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