There Are Three Strategies of Dieting–Which One Is Best for You?
Should you do food tracking, try ad libitum dieting, or use a mindfulness eating plan?
When you think of “dieting strategies,” what comes to mind is probably the question of which diet to follow. Or, to put it another way, you probably think about the question of what to eat — should it be low-carb, low-fat, paleo, ketogenic, low glycemic, vegan, or something else altogether?
But there’s another, even higher level of thought you need to put into deciding on a diet, and that is your approach to dieting. I’m not talking about what to eat, but rather what a “diet” even means.
Right now, the center of gravity in the fitness industry is firmly on the “track everything you eat, count calories and macronutrients” approach to dieting, especially due to the influence of food-tracking apps, which have made this approach easier. In fact, this approach has begun to predominate so much that many people think it’s the only way to diet.
In fact, it isn’t. There are three different styles of dieting: food-tracking, ad-libitum dieting, and the mindfulness/habit-building approach. Each person tends to do best on one style of dieting. Unlike the question of what to eat, the question of how to diet is psychological, not physiological, in nature. When you understand your own psychology, you can diet in a way that is easier, more effective, and more sustainable.
In my coaching practice, I’m constantly researching the best strategies and methods that will help clients reach their goals. Finding the right diet approach—regardless of the composition of the diet itself—has been a key part of their success.
Food Tracking — “It’s Cool If It Fits Your Macros”
The first approach to dieting is the most rules-based and will appeal to the control freak in all of us. Under a food tracking approach, you have loose rules (at most) about what types of food you eat. For instance, you might be told to “eat vegetables and a protein source with every meal,” and “don’t eat junk food more than once a day.”
On the other hand, you might have very strict rules about how much you eat. Crucially, “how much” is measured not in servings or ounces of food, but by actually counting calories and macros. This approach is colloquially known as “if it fits your macros,” or IIFYM.
“Macros” is fitness industry slang for macronutrients, the three (or four or five — I’ll get to that in a bit) classes of chemicals that provide the usable calories your body can burn for energy. There are three primary macronutrients that mostly occur naturally in food, as well as two others that are mostly produced by artificial processes.
The main macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. “Food tracking” diets should be set using the following process:
- Calculate daily calorie needs. This will probably be different for days you work out vs. days you don’t.
- Determine daily protein needs.
- Calculate optimal daily fat intake.
- See how many daily calories you have left after to account for protein and fat, and assign them to carbohydrates. Or increase protein and fat and decrease carbs, if you’re not a big carb fan.
- Figure out your meal schedule (how many meals per day and what time, as well as what time of day you work out) and allocate your daily intake to each meal, so you have per-meal targets.
Here’s an example of a tracking-based diet I created for one of my online coaching clients:
The best way to calculate calorie intake is to use this calculator, usually along with a fitness tracking device to get a more accurate picture of how many calories you really burn per day — and then more accurately set your activity level in the calculator.
The first macronutrient to account for is protein, the fitness junkie’s favorite macro. Protein is probably the most essential out of all the macronutrients; you need to eat a lot of it to maximize muscle growth, and by extension to keep your metabolism high and minimize fat storage.
Protein has four calories per gram. It’s also the most satiating of the three main macronutrients, and has the highest thermic effect of food, meaning eating more protein will make you burn more energy — although a high-protein mix of all three macros has a better effect than protein alone.
To maximize muscle growth, people need to eat at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or .7 grams per pound, and should spread that intake roughly evenly throughout the day, consuming 3–5 meals a day (ideally 4), with 20–30% of their total daily protein intake in each meal.
Second, there’s fat. Fat has traditionally been considered the devil because it has nine calories per gram, making it more than twice as energy-dense as protein and carbohydrate. However, this ignores the fact that some fat is necessary for satiety, as well as the fact that fat serves vital structural and hormonal purposes in the body.
People who consume more fat have higher testosterone levels, and build more muscle and gain more strength when weight training. Additionally, athletes who consume less fat are more likely to get injured. Accordingly, you should get at least 20% of your total calories from fat, and there’s evidence to suggest that getting at least 40% of your calories from fat will help you build more muscle and increase your levels of testosterone, estrogen and growth hormone. Contrary to popular belief, this probably won’t have an adverse effect on your cardiovascular fitness, as long as you’re exercising.
The third of the major macronutrients is carbohydrate, and it was four calories per gram, just like protein. Unlike fat and protein, your body doesn’t strictly need carbohydrates to be healthy. In fact, a significant number of people avoid carbs almost completely, replacing them with fats and following what’s known as a ketogenic diet.
That said, most people will want to eat carbs, and they aren’t the devil. Setting carbohydrate intake is simple: set your fat and protein intakes first, then your remaining calories can be assigned to carbohydrates. Well, that’s the maximum — you can always have fewer carbs and more fat and protein if you prefer.
What about those other two macros? Those would be alcohol and sugar alcohols, and despite the names, they’re two different things.
“Alcohol” here refers to ethanol, the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. It’s bad for you, but most of you drink it once in a while, and that’s okay. Not ideal, but okay. It has seven calories per gram.
Sugar alcohols are a class of chemicals used as artificial sweeteners. You’ll mostly find them in protein bars and sugar-free candies. They have calories, but the exact number varies tremendously, with most having fewer calories than actual sugar. You’ll need to look at the list of ingredients for whatever you’re eating, then consult this chart:
While this may sound like a great deal, calorically speaking, most sugar alcohols cause some degree of indigestion if you consume more than twenty grams or so. There’s a reason we don’t put them in everything.
Food tracking-based diets don’t normally include targets for alcohol and sugar alcohols. Both should be counted towards your carbohydrate allotment for the day, in proportion to the number of calories, not grams, you consume. So a 5 oz glass of wine, at 14 grams of alcohol, would equal 14 x7/4, or 25 grams of carbs. A protein bar with 20 grams of lactitol would be counted as ten grams of carbs.
This style of dieting has become very popular lately thanks to the rise of food tracking apps — to the point where some people think it’s the only approach to dieting. In fact, if followed properly, tracking-based diets can produce better results than either of the other two approaches. However, that’s huge if, for a few reasons.
First, most people are not good at tracking either their food intake or energy expenditure, and more out of shape people are consistently worse at both, typically overestimating exercise and underestimating food intake by about 50% each. As such, this approach tends to fail the people who need it both. On the plus side, smaller portions are easier to measure or estimate than larger portions, so a strict weight-loss diet will largely ameliorate the food intake side of this problem.
Second, the calorie counts on foods can be inaccurate, if they’re available at all. They’re often off by up to 20%, and more likely to be low than high. Food databases on food-tracking apps (especially MyFitnessPal) are even worse, as they’re mostly user-generated and often amount to no more than hopeful guesses. The only good solution here is to precisely measure intake whenever possible — ideally with a food scale — and err on the side of overestimating when in doubt.
Third, there is no good way to estimate how many calories you burn without directly measuring it. The simple solution here is to use an activity tracker like FitBit. Those are fairly accurate — usually within 20% for calories burned via exercise and 10% for total calorie expenditure.
Fourth, the focus on macronutrients obscures the importance of micronutrients — vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Many of these are found in foods that have comparatively few calories, like vegetables and some of the less sugary fruits, and these low-calorie foods can get treated as an afterthought when you’re focused on counting calories.
Building on that, it’s easy to use this “if it fits your macros” as an excuse to eat crap food — you can hit your macros through the right combination of protein shakes, fried chicken, candy and donuts. In addition to food tracking, there always need to be at least some rules about what you eat and when, and some minimum intake of fruits and vegetables to ensure that you also get your vitamins and minerals.
Ad Libitum Dieting — “Eat This, Not That”
Ad libitum dieting takes the opposite approach from food tracking: no more than a few loose rules about how much you eat, but very clear rules about what kinds of foods you eat at any given meal.
Here’s an example of a typical ad libitum diet:
- Meal 1: 8–10 AM
- Meal 2: 1–3 PM
- Workout: 3–5 PM
- Meal 3: 5–7 PM
- Meal 4: 9–11 PM
Required at every meal: One protein source (meat, eggs, fish, tofu) and at least one serving of non-starchy vegetables the size of the palm of your hand. Also, roughly one teaspoon of healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, nuts) if the protein source isn’t something fatty like eggs or salmon.
For most meals, your food choices are restricted to the following:
- Lean, non-dairy protein sources, e.g. chicken, non-fatty fish, very lean beef or pork, tofu. Note that every meal is required to include at least 30 grams of protein.
- Low FODMAP, non-starchy vegetables: green beans, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chilies, cucumber, greens (collard greens, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens), jicama, leeks, lettuce (endive, escarole, iceberg lettuce, leafy varieties, radicchio, romaine), parsley, parsnips, peppers, pumpkin, radishes, rutabaga, scallions, spinach, squash, Swiss chard, tomato, turnips and zucchini.
- Fermented vegetables: sauerkraut (preferably raw and unpasteurized), kimchi, pickles, natto, curtido, beet kvass, kombucha, water kefir, coconut kefir, miso, tempeh, etc.
- Low calorie, low FODMAP fruits: berries (all except blackberries), papaya, cantaloupe melon, and grapefruit. Apples are restricted to one a day due to FODMAP content.
- Vinegar, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, mustard, low-calorie condiments, herbs, spices and anything with zero calories and no caffeine.
- Broth, especially bone broth (highly recommended for gut health and satiety).
- Artificial sweeteners, including diet sodas. Caffeine is only allowed before 2 PM, however.
- Nuts, excluding peanuts, but only with one meal a day.
On days you work out, the following are also allowed with meals 3 and 4:
- High-calorie, Low FODMAP fruits: grapes, oranges, cantaloupe melon, honeydew melon, and peaches.
- Any kind of unprocessed meat, fish or poultry, regardless of fat content.
- Rice, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams.
- Legumes, including peanuts, beans, and lentils.
- Up to a tablespoon of oils or added fats.
As you can see, this approach has similar aims to the food-tracking approach, but it achieves them via different means. Because it avoids the need to precisely track quantities, ad libitum diets are easier to stick to and keep a log of. They’re also viable in situations where food quantities cannot be precisely tracked, such as when visiting countries that don’t have strict nutrition-labeling laws.
Since calories are not counted, a good ad libitum diet will work by limiting food selection to foods with a high satiety index (SI) — a measure of how satiating a food is relative to its calorie content. Foods with a high SI are allowed, low-SI foods are proscribed, and medium-SI foods are sometimes allowed in very limited quantities or at restricted times.
Simply put, a hundred calories of tuna will make you feel several times more full than a hundred calories of bread, so you want to eat tuna, but not bread.
The SELF nutrition database is an excellent tool for creating ad libitum diets, as it lists a Fullness Factor — effectively the same thing as the satiety index — for nearly every food you can imagine.
Ad libitum diets do have a few potential downsides. This approach relies on the dieter having a normal satiation response. Some people are entirely capable of overeating even when their food selection is severely restricted to only highly-satiating foods. I have one client, for instance, who can easily eat a whole pound of meat for dinner — she needs to count quantities.
Unlike food-tracking diets, ad libitum diets offer no particular way of compensating for times when you cheat on your diet. Whereas a food tracker could eat fewer calories for the next several meals to make up for a cheat meal, the ad libitum dieter simply resumes their diet as normal. This can be easier and less stressful, but it does mean you need to stick to the diet and minimize cheating.
Ad libitum diets are ideal for people who are able to stick to general guidelines without needing to be told exactly what to eat and when, who gets full after eating a healthy portion of food, and who chafes under the yoke of strict, highly specified rules like those used in food-tracking diets.
Mindfulness and Habit-Building — The Diet of No Diet
The final approach to dieting differs radically from the other two in that it eschews rules directly governing one’s diet altogether. The mindfulness approach comes at the problem more indirectly. Instead of telling you what to eat, how much to eat, or even when to eat, the mindfulness approach focuses on being more aware of your eating habits and building healthy habits around eating.
Most people make little effort to consciously monitor their eating habits. And when they do attempt to monitor their eating and exercise habits, as you’ve seen, their recollections tend to be wildly inaccurate. It’s no wonder, then, that mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to help patients lose weight, even without being paired with a specific diet.
Here’s an example of a set of habits that might be followed by someone taking the mindfulness-based approach to dieting (or arguably, not dieting):
- Take a photo of everything you eat before you eat it.
- Chew every bite of food at least ten times.
- Keep a journal of everything you eat (not calories, just what you eat and roughly how much).
- Take a minute every evening to stop and reflect on everything you ate that day.
- Only go grocery shopping when you’re full.
- Always clean up your kitchen after you eat at home.
- Save all your food (restaurant and grocery) receipts and review them every Sunday.
- Before eating something, take a few moments to smell it and get a good look at it.
- Organize your fridge and pantry twice a week.
As you can see, there’s nothing in there that really meets the usual definition of a “diet,” but there are a lot of habits that would make you more aware of how healthy your food intake really is. And to paraphrase the great management consultant Peter Drucker, what gets measured gets managed.
You can also see that in addition to mindfulness habits, people who take this approach sometimes also make an effort to build what I call “friction-reducing habits,” or habits that reduce the amount of (real or perceived) of effort needed to eat healthily. Keeping your kitchen clean, for instance, makes it feel much easier to start cooking a meal since a clean kitchen is more appealing and easier to work with.
The biggest advantage of the mindfulness strategy is that it’s probably the easiest way to improve your eating habits. It doesn’t require you to completely cut out any particular foods, nor to seek out any particular foods.
The biggest disadvantage of this approach is that it requires you to have a clear understanding of what healthy eating actually looks like. If you honestly believe that it’s okay to eat four thousand calories of bread a day as long as you avoid fat, or that the best way to lose weight is to eat five hundred calories a day, being more mindful of what you eat will only help you adhere to a bad diet.
The mindfulness approach, therefore, needs to be paired with a solid nutritional education in order to work well. At the very least, you need to understand why calories are so important, why a moderate deficit or surplus is (usually) better than a huge one, why unprocessed foods are better than processed foods, which foods you need to eat for vitamins and minerals, and why neither carbs or fat are the devil.
Because it is generally the easiest style of dieting, the mindfulness strategy can sometimes become an excuse for laziness. It shouldn’t be — if you choose this style of dieting, it should be because the other two don’t work very well for you even when you work hard at them, not because you’re unwilling to work hard to begin with. Or, alternatively, because you want to invest most of your effort in exercise rather than in a diet.
The other disadvantage of the mindfulness approach is that there’s a limit to what you can achieve with it. Properly executed, this strategy can make you healthy and get you into better than average shape, and that’s sufficient for most people’s goals. That said, if you want to be in amazing shape — to have sixpack abs, or be a competitive athlete or natural bodybuilder — you need a more defined diet.
Picking the Right Dieting Style for You
Food-tracking has the strictest rules and requires the most work of the three styles. It is also the most effective and foolproof if done properly, and the only one that lets you be precise about how many calories you’re eating. As such, it’s the best option for athletes who need to be exact about what they eat.
Although having to track food and follow set macros seems very restrictive on the face of it, there is a certain type of person who finds such strict rules paradoxically freeing. If you tend to feel lost and indecisive when you don’t have rules, but thrive when you have a very defined routine, the food-tracking approach may work well for you.
Additionally, everyone should follow a food-tracking diet for at least one month at some point in order to build awareness of how they’re really eating. Once you’ve tracked food intake for a while, you’ll become much better at estimating your intake even when you’re not tracking.
The ad-libitum approach works better for people who chafe under strict rules, but who still want to have some kind of diet to follow. It works very well for people who are good at controlling how much they eat, but only so long as they’re making healthy food choices — i.e. people who will overeat if they eat burgers, but not if they eat salads.
The ad-libitum approach also requires less tracking, and doesn’t require having an accurate calorie count for the foods you eat. That means it’s often more viable in environments where accurate calorie counts can’t be had.
The mindfulness and habit-building approach often works best for people who have emotional issues around food, such as emotional eating or alternating cycles of strict dieting and uncontrolled binging.
The mindfulness and habit-building approach is also ideal for people who have not yet learned to form healthy habits. And because it requires the least effort, it can be the best approach for people who are either extremely busy or who plan to get a very high volume of exercise while doing just “okay” at dieting.
All three approaches have been proven effective in controlled studies, and all three are worth trying at some point, as each of them teaches you a different dieting skillset.
Ultimately, however, each of us will tend to gravitate towards one over the other two. That’s great, and you should absolutely do what works for you, but remember that they aren’t mutually exclusive. Once you find which of the three dieting styles works best for you, the best approach is to follow your favored style while incorporating small elements of the other two styles into your diet.
As an example, I almost always follow an ad-libitum diet. I don’t count calories, fat or carbs, but I do count grams of protein, I make sure to get at least ten grams of fat per meal, and try to estimate calories. I also practice several mindfulness habits, as well as keeping my kitchen clean.
In other words, find the dieting style that works best for you, put most of your effort into that, and apply the 80/20 rules to the other two styles. By following this method, you can develop a diet that is highly effective, relatively easy for you to follow, and sustainable for you.