Matt Fitzgerald—In the summer of 2004, Jon Smith was as lean and fit as he’d ever been. Then he became a father and stopped training for marathons and triathlons. At the same time the New Orleans resident began dining out and eating mostly fatty foods due largely to his work in the wine business. Over the next two and a half years he gained 100 pounds. On New Year’s Day 2008, Smith got fed up with his condition and decided to make a comeback. He signed up for a triathlon and cleaned up his diet by removing the worst junk food from it, including fried foods and soft drinks. But by the time race day came around, Smith had lost only 15 pounds and he was not much fitter than when he started.
Smith knew he needed to raise his game. So the lifelong meat lover took the radical step of becoming a vegetarian. Within several months he was back down to his old racing weight of 180 pounds and finishing Ironman 70.3 events with ease.
The lesson is clear: To manage weight successfully, every triathlete has to become a vegetarian.
Wait a minute—that’s not the lesson at all. Because for every Jon Smith there’s a Christian Peterson, a runner and duathlete from Maple Grove, Minn., who struggled to lose weight on what he describes as a “typical runner’s diet” that was low in fat, high in carbs, and almost meatless before switching to the popular and meat-heavy Paleo Diet and quickly losing more than 20 pounds. And for every Christian Peterson there’s another endurance athlete who has lost weight on a high-protein diet, a gluten-free diet, a low-fat diet—you name it.
Triathletes are never more focused on losing weight than around the new year. If you’re looking to shed a few pounds ahead of the 2012 racing season, you’re probably looking for the best diet for weight loss. But as the examples of Smith and Peterson suggest, and as science affirms, there is no clear “best” diet for weight loss. There are many effective ways to lose weight.
In fact, real-world and scientific evidence indicate that the specific diet that a person uses to shed fat is not especially important to success in the effort to lose weight. What’s far more important, it seems, is the motivation level and attitude of the person seeking weight loss. Men and women who are truly ready to commit to a particular weight-loss strategy are almost certain to succeed, regardless of the diet they choose (provided it’s healthy and realistic). By the same token, those who are not prepared to fully embrace their diet are bound to fail, no matter which diet they’ve chosen.
Follow The Losers
Ever heard of the National Weight Control Registry? It’s basically a national database of men and women who have succeeded in losing at least 30 pounds and maintaining at least 30 pounds of weight loss for one year or more. Whatever these people do, it works. It’s not theory, but practice. So what do members of the NWCR do?
For starters, their diets are all over the place. Some are on low-fat diets; others are on low-carb diets; still others do Weight Watchers; some are vegetarians, and so forth. Another interesting characteristic of NWCR members is that the vast majority failed with weight-loss diets a few times before finally succeeding. The combination of these two characteristics—variety in successful diet approaches and failures preceding success—suggests that people succeed in losing weight when they are psychologically ready, and fail when they are not ready.
Other studies support this idea directly. For example, researchers at Italy’s University of Florence recently used a standardized scientific questionnaire to evaluate the “motivation and readiness” of 129 obese individuals starting a six-month outpatient weight-loss program. Weight-loss results at the end of six months were significantly greater for those subjects who earned the highest scores for motivation and readiness.
The “You” Diet
The trouble with motivation and readiness is that they are difficult to coach. Merely knowing that being motivated and ready to commit to a diet is more important than the specific nature of the diet itself won’t automatically increase your motivation and readiness. Each of us must find our own way there.
There is, however, a second explanation for the great variety of paths taken to successful weight loss, and for the common pattern of succeeding after many failures, that is more actionable. And that explanation is simply that different ways of losing weight work best for different people.
“There’s a process of trial and error involved in determining which approaches and which strategies fit into a particular person’s lifestyle,” says J. Graham Thomas, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at the Miriam Hospital and Brown Medical School’s Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center. “Most people don’t get it right the first time.”
Your chances of getting it right this time and getting down to your ideal race weight for the 2012 season may improve if you choose the diet plan that’s the best fit for your tastes, needs and preferences instead of trying to find the best weight-loss diet for everyone—which doesn’t exist. Check out these capsule reviews of four of the most popular diets among triathletes, then take your pick.
Racing Weight: My own Racing Weight diet does not peddle any particular “shtick” but simply encourages athletes to improve their overall diet quality, eating more lean proteins, veggies, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy products and eating fewer fatty proteins, sweets, refined grains and full-fat dairy products. I think it’s a good system for triathletes who just want the education they need to take charge of their own weight-loss efforts, but it may not work as well for you if you require more hands-on guidance.
Paleo: The Paleo Diet and other “primitive” diets allow their adherents to eat everything that our ancient ancestors presumably ate—meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts—and little that they did not eat: grains, dairy, sweets and other processed foods. Triathletes who generally like the idea of doing things the “natural” way (i.e., those who, like Christian Peterson, switched to barefoot running after reading Born to Run) tend to get great results from the Paleo Diet. It is fairly restrictive, however, and therefore not a good option for those who need freedom in their food choices.
Low-Fat: Followers of low-fat weight-loss diets typically eat lots of grains, fruits and vegetables, and restrict their intake of dairy products, fried foods and many meats. Low-fat diets typically work well for triathletes who prefer to eat fairly “normally” even while pursuing weight loss, but not as well for those who need a little more restriction to stay on track.
Vegetarian: You might assume that vegetarianism as a path to weight loss is a good fit for those who are indifferent to meat to begin with and is not a good fit for meat lovers, but there are many meat lovers who become vegetarians and thrive. A lot of athletes, like Jon Smith, simply feel great on a vegetarian diet, while others don’t. Psychologically, vegetarianism seems to work best for those who prefer the simplicity of a diet with just one big restriction.
Your Best Behavior
As research of the National Weight Control Registry indicates, men and women who succeed in losing weight and keeping it off do so with all kinds of methods. But while their diets are all over the map, there are certain key behaviors that most members share. These behaviors, which include daily exercise, dietary consistency and self-monitoring, can be seen as evidence of a real commitment to losing weight—and it’s this commitment that matters more than anything else in the pursuit of weight loss.
As a triathlete, you’ve already got the daily exercise thing down cold. But how about self-monitoring and dietary consistency? If you’re serious about shedding excess fat this winter, you’ll want to follow the example set by the most successful dieters with these key behaviors.
Self-monitoring is any behavior that increases a dieter’s awareness of what and how much he or she is eating. These behaviors include food journaling, calorie counting and weighing. Nearly all NWCR members weigh themselves at least once a week and as often as daily. “You don’t know whether or not what you’re doing is working unless you weigh yourself,” says Brown University’s J. Graham Thomas.
As for dietary consistency, most NWCR members maintain the same eating habits on the weekend as they do during the week. This is critical, as it has been shown that most dieters eat more and stop losing weight on weekends. Like it or not, if you’re serious about losing weight, there are no days off!